Bourbon, Bourbon Trail, Buffalo Trace, Bulleit Bourbon, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Kentucky, local food, Maker's Mark, mash, photography, Town Branch, travel, Whiskey, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve
Kentucky is famous for Bourbon, horses, and probably some other stuff. Although throwing a few dollars on the third horse, of the fifth race can sometimes be fun, this trip is focused on Bourbon- Specifically the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We will throw in whatever else we discovered on our journeys, but this post is 95% Bourbon, so if that is not your drink of choice, you may get bored.
We picked up the Trail at Town Branch Bourbon in Lexington.
The tours at Town Branch were $5 each, and included four sample chips. The trick here was protecting these chips throughout the entire tour.
Town Branch Distilling is unique on the Bourbon trail, because it is the only establishment with a Brewery as well.
Town Branch makes a very tasty Bourbon Barrel Stout that is aged in old Bourbon barrels. $15 for 4 prices them out of our beer budget, When you can get 30 Coors for the same price.
The tours all seem so similar, and they force you to take the tour before they offer up the good stuff- the tastings.
Town Branch makes a blended Coffee Liqueur called Bluegrass Sundown, they recommend adding some boiling water and floating heavy cream on top, yes it was delicious.
We left Town Branch, and headed up to Georgetown, KY, home of the largest Toyota Manufacturing plant outside of Japan.
Toyota opened this plant in 1988 and today, it produces about 2,000 Camry and Avalon sedans per day. Two vehicles roll off the assembly line every 54 seconds. They offer tours, but do not allow any photography, possibly to protect any proprietary technology. The tour was amazing, and complimentary, you are loaded into a tram that’s takes you to all parts of the factory- you get to see everything. From Metal Stamping, to assembly, to testing. Camry’s were floating overheard on the assembly line, and would drop down to have equipment bolted on.
The plant has the equivalent of 158 football fields under roof’s, so you get the idea of how big this is.
If you are in Kentucky, Toyota is a must see!
Next up on the Trail was Wild Turkey.
We did not take the tour at Wild Turkey- with nine stops on the Trail touring every facility would be much of the same. They are all making the same product, using the same technique.
Kentuckians have perfected the liquor store: Drive thru service
Up next was Four Roses Bourbon.
The tour was poor, the bourbon was poor, but the roses were nice.
Four Roses used to use 5-6 level barrelhouses, but in the 1970’s had this amazing idea to only use single storey barrelhouses. Bourbon stored on higher floors in the barrelhouse is subjected to more temperature changes which affects the bourbon. Depending on who you talk to, the greater fluctuations in temperature results in a better bourbon. Four Roses decided they did not want to mess around with this and now use one level houses. They sold their old multi level houses to Wild Turkey.
It really makes you wonder, Four Roses is the only Distiller using single level barrelhouses and their product leaves much to be desired.
We checked out Woodford Reserve next:
Woodford Reserve was out of our price range, and really seemed too fancy for us. We had a look around and moved on.
The Next Distillery is not on the official Bourbon Trail, but is better than all of them. We had heard from essentially everyone we talked to, that we should have a look at Buffalo Trace. They offer 5 different tours to choose from and Complimentary tours and tastings.
As we wanted some variety, we chose a tour that was unique from all the other Distillery’s. We registered for the Barrel tour, that follows the life of a Bourbon Barrel. You may want to go pour yourself a glass of Bourbon while you read this, it will only improve your experience.
Bourbon 101: To make bourbon you start by making “White Dog” or Moonshine, which is essentially corn whiskey. Bourbon must be at least 51% Corn. It must be stored in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of 2 years. It must be made in the United States (to be called Bourbon). Buffalo Trace stores their Bourbon in barrels for 4-23 years, so they need lots of space.
The entire grounds are covered in barrel tracks such as this above. Barrels can be rolled just about everywhere, as long as it is not uphill- for that they use trucks.
The top row of this barrelhouse is a different color thanks to a Tornado in 2006 that took the roof off. Thankfully no bourbon was lost, but they did create a limited edition Tornado damaged Barrelhouse Bourbon that year, they have no plans of doing that again.
Now back to the Barrel Tour:
Barrels are made in either Lebanon Missouri or Lebanon Kentucky, and are trucked to the Distillery daily. They enter the Distillery in this room and are inspected for defects. The barrels on the floor have been rejected, the barrels on the racks are waiting to the filled with White Dog.
By Law Bourbon Barrels must be new, charred Oak. That means that these Distilleries generate a huge supply of used barrels which cannot be reused by them. Most of them are sold off to other companies that use them for: Rum, Scotch, Beer, Furniture, planter boxes etc.
Across from all of those empty barrels we saw above, were full ones waiting for a place in the barrelhouse. This is one days production lined up above. This batch of Bourbon will be ready in 4-23 years, depending on what type they are making.
Below is the device they use to empty the barrels, unfortunately it was not in use when we saw it. When in use, this track would be full of barrels, they are drilled open, and rolled down the line, the Bourbon gushing out as it rolls. This room smelt delicious. And talking about smells in general, this entire facility has a sweet smell of Mash in the air- we could smell it from the street.
Bourbon Barrels must be charred before they can be filled, during the 4-23 years they sit in a barrel house some of that char comes off. When the barrels are emptied that char comes out with the bourbon- this green barrel above is full of that char and it smells like Bourbon. They sell this char in the gift shop for BBQ smokers.
Now finally into a Barrelhouse!
The required skills of a barrelhouse worker are to ensure the barrel stops on the storage rack with the Bung at the 12 o’clock position so that it does not leak. When the barrel is rolled down the rack, they need to know what position it will stop at. These barrels are not moved until they are ready for bottling. So some of these barrels sit in the exact same spot for 23 years!
These barrelhouses hold about 20,000 barrels each.
Now into Bottling!
Buffalo Trace Bourbon has about 25 different products they sell. The Bottling line that they show on the tours is the hand line. These are the labour extensive pricey bottles that they make in here- all Single Barrels. The cheaper bottles are filled on an automated system elsewhere.
Now the most important part of any Bourbon experience and that is tasting the Bourbon.
Tyler enjoyed the bourbon. Aya, well pictures are worth a thousand words.
After the comprehensive tour at Buffalo Trace it was really hard to find anything compatible in quality! We visited the rest of the Distilleries on the trail, but did not do anymore tours. Once you have done a few tours- they are all so similar.
On our way to Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, KY we passed Barton Distillery and saw this sign: Complimentary. Even thought Barton is not on the official Bourbon trail free makes it worthy of a stop.
Bung Plug: A piece of Poplar wood that is used to seal the filling hole.
We left Barton’s and headed up the hill to Heaven Hill. This place was a disappointment, we looked around inside and continued on to the next.
Heaven Hill did have lots of Barrelhouses out in the open to see.
From here we were in need of some food, and headed to Old Talbott Tavern. Built in 1779, this place has some history. Apparently Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Boone and Jesse James have stayed here during its history. A few bullets holes in the wall upstairs came from Jesse James’ gun.
And true to any liquor establishment in the Bourbon Capitol of the World- they have a vast Bourbon selection.
And yet further down the Bourbon Trail we found Jim Beam American Stillhouse.
But be sure to leave your handguns in the car:
Evan Williams Bourbon is a Heaven Hill brand, so is actually made at the above mentioned Heaven Hill Distillery. But they want you to visit the Evan Williams Experience in Louisville anyway. As it was only a storefront, there was nothing to see without paying the outrageous $12 admission. They don’t make Bourbon here, so what is there to see?
Nearing the end of the Trail for us was Bulleit Bourbon, also in Louisville.
Finally we made it to the end of the trail! Maker’s Mark in Loretto, KY
Maker’s Mark was not very impressive either, I think by this point we were tired of seeing the same Bourbon making process and the same overpriced gift shops. We actually forgot the camera in the car at Maker’s Mark. Anyway that’s the end of the official Bourbon Trail.
If you can only visit one place…… skip the stops on the Bourbon Trail and check out Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, KY. They are not listed on the official trail, and offer the best tour, hands down. In fact they have 5 Complimentary tours you can choose from, or you can do all 5. And the tastings are complimentary as well.
Once we sober up we are heading North!