Bourbon might just be my new favorite thing.
Before visiting Louisville, I knew next to nothing about bourbon. But I have to say, following the Kentucky Bourbon Trail – even just partway, as we did – was quite the education.
Bourbon is a very American drink. So much so, that an act of Congress defined and protected bourbon as a “distinctive product of the United States.” Per this Congressional recognition, a drink may be considered bourbon if it meets three criteria:
- It must be made in America. I thought bourbon had to be made in Kentucky, but Kentuckians are the first ones to tell you that bourbon can be made anywhere. However, their usual caveat is that the best bourbon is made in Kentucky.
- Bourbon must be at least 51% corn. There are different ways to make whiskey (which is the family of beverages to which bourbon belongs), but in order for it to truly be bourbon, distillers must use that quintessential American grain, corn.
- It must be aged in a new, charred-oak container. The charring gives the oak intensifies its flavor and allows the bourbon to absorb more of it. It has to be a new container, because oak absorbs a bit of what’s contained in it – if it’s been used to store another type of drink, then the flavor of that drink will alter the flavor of the bourbon.
If a particular whiskey meets these criteria, it’s bourbon.
Following the Bourbon Trail
I have to say, I love visiting distilleries and breweries. Make a drink like bourbon is a labor of love, and it’s as much an art as it is a science. Just talk to the people at the distilleries and you’ll see what I mean – a surprising amount of our spirits industry is based on hunches and feelings.
Even if you’re not a bourbon connoisseur, following the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a great way to learn about the trade and try some samples. It’s also a fun way to add a little something to your vacation. After all, when you visit all 16 distilleries on the trail, you get a cool prize!
I recommend that you stop in Louisville first. There, you can visit the Frazier Museum and pick up your own Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport. This is a neat little document that helps you plan and track your Bourbon Trail progress! On each page, a different distillery is listed. There’s designated box for the distillers to stamp your passport, and below that there’s space for you to make notes about your visit. At the very bottom of the page is the distillery’s address, so you’ll never get lost. Once you get every page stamped, you can send it in to receive your awesome prize! All in all, a very important little document.
Another cool thing is that you don’t have to visit all 16 distilleries in one go. You can make a couple weekend trips out if it if you want to!
Rogue Asparagus’s Bourbon Trail Recommendations
We’ve opted for the weekend-trip organization. So far, here are the distilleries we’ve visited on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail:
In the heart of downtown Louisville, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is a unique option for bourbon-tasters. They have several different options for tours, tastings, and events, so there’s sure to be something to suit every taste! We opted for the Speakeasy Tasting Experience.
This is a family-owned and -operated distillery in Bardstown, KY. Their signature is their Pot Still Reserve, which is made in their – wait for it – copper pot still. It’s even bottled in their copper pot still! Well, a miniature, hand-blown glass version of their copper pot still. Even so.
Another family-owned and -operated distillery in Bardstown, Heaven Hill is actually just around the corner from Willett Distillery. Even though you haven’t heard of Heaven Hill, you’ve probably heard of their brands: Larceny, and even Evan Williams, who we met back in Louisville!
So, this one is not really on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but it is on the Craft Bourbon Trail! (You’ll need the Craft Bourbon Trail passport to get credit here, which is different from the Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport.)
Be sure to check out the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail website to plan your trail trip!