2019 Kentucky Adventure – Bourbon Trail Tour

My second full day in Kentucky was consumed with an 8 hour bus tour of distilleries and lunch at a country club. It was a small group – just me, three young guys who didn’t know each other (two from Australia and one from Chicago), and our tour guide! It was fun and since there were only four of us, we got a lot of extra information, attention, and were able to make some unscheduled stops. I learned a LOT!!! Our tour guide was fabulous!!!

I learned that Kentucky sits on lime stone tables and springs, so the water there is some of the best in the world – they consistently rank in the top 5 best tasting waters! Because of the lime stone filtered water, Kentucky is the best place to make Bourbon – it doesn’t have to be made by lime stone filtered water, but it does improve on the taste significantly. The lime stone filtered spring water so prevalent there is also the reason so many horse farms are located in Kentucky – it gives the grass all the best nutrients for horses to feed on! It is also why Kentucky’s grass is so green and lush!

I also learned that 95% of the world’s bourbon is made in a triangle section of Kentucky – it is actually made in 49 of the 50 states (Hawaii is the only state that does not produce any bourbon), but 95% of all the bourbon supplied to the world is made right there! Bourbon MUST be made in the US – no bourbon is produced outside the United States! It also MUST contain at least 60% corn and aged at least two years (typically 6-8 years – two minimum – then aged “to taste” depending on the brand and quality desired) in a NEW, charred, oak barrel. The only other ingredient permitted is water and only to lessen the proof, when necessary. Bourbon cannot enter the barrel at higher than 125 proof. It cannot enter the bottle at a proof less than 80. No additional colorings or flavorings are permitted – the charred barrels give the bourbon it’s color and flavor! All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon!!! Other whiskey’s can be aged in used barrels and add coloring and flavoring, but if it is to be labeled as BOURBON, it has to adhere to these strict rules set by the government!

I also learned that there is a specific way to drink bourbon in order to get the most enjoyment out of it. I never liked it…..I always took the shot and threw it back, swallowed it as fast as I could, and stopped at the first shot……and, I doubt I ever tasted the “good” stuff! We were told at the first stop – Maker’s Mark – to never “throw it back” – it is a sipping whiskey – the first sip should be a small one and swish it around your mouth to condition your pallet…..then, always take a second sip to get the true flavor…….and, the higher the quality, the smoother the taste. My first thought when they told me that is “yeah, if you swish the first sip around, it burns your taste buds, so you don’t feel anything after that” – hahaha – wrong! I was surprised to find that, yes, that first sip burns, but then after that, you can actually taste the flavors and it is much smoother! I got a new appreciation for this “sipping” whiskey! Not that I’m going to be a big drinker of it, but I won’t turn my nose up at it, anymore!

Our first stop was Maker’s Mark:

Chihuly Glass had an exhibit there – this piece and a few others remain. At the time we were touring, another glass artist had pieces displayed throughout the distillery – you’ll see them in some of my photos!

Maker’s Mark trade make is the red wax seal — every bottle is hand dipped with the goal of 5-7 drips. They have the process copy righted – if any other company uses a wax seal, it can not be RED and can not be DRIPPED – it has to have a smooth edge.

The farm that the distillery is located on has been in the original family for generations and is a beautiful piece of property!

This was the world’s first “drive thru” liquor store – men could ride up on horse back and purchase their drinks!

The labeling making process

The bottling process

Every bottle is hand dipped — they can dip 20-25 bottles a minute!!!

Our tastings – the lower left is the lowest quality – Maker’s White – essentially moonshine! The lower right is the highest quality – Private Select – buyers can come in and select the combination of woods that the barrels are made from to create a unique flavor that can’t be duplicated and they have to purchase the whole lot – usually high end restaurateurs and collectors. The center one was a surprise…….I’ll talk about that later!

These are the bottles our tastings came from

The amount we had in each taste……doesn’t look like much, but there were 6 of them……

No surprise, the Private Select they chose to offer us was the smoothest…..they didn’t tell us how much a bottle cost!

The center (and last) taste we had was this Mint Julep flavored whiskey — I mistakenly thought it was bourbon, but because of the mint flavoring, it could not be labeled as bourbon, so it is actually whiskey……but it started out as their bourbon with the addition of the mint flavoring — I actually liked it a lot!

One of my fellow tour mates – one of the Australian guys – was a Maker’s Mark Ambassador – he registered online and picked a barrel that he was able to follow the progress of the distilling, aging, bottling, etc process. When his barrel was bottled and ready, he was able to go and get his own labels applied (with his name on them) and do his own hand dipping……it was this visit that he did that and we got to watch him do it!!! That was cool! He even got a “perfect 7 drip” on a couple of his bottles!!! I asked him how he was going to get his case of bottles back to Australia – he said he put all his clothes in his carry on and brought a large, empty suitcase, which he plans to fill with bourbon – this case and any others he bought at the other stops we made! The ones here that his name is on the label, he gets to take through customs duty free cause the labels prove he’s not taking them into the country for resale! Interesting!

Our next stop was an un-planned stop at Willett Distillery – our guide added it so we could see a smaller family owned operation — we couldn’t take the tour, but got to see a bit of the place and the gift shop.

This is one of many Rickhouses at Willett — a rickhouse is the building where the aging process occurs at all the distilleries

We stopped at a nice Country Club for lunch and then another unscheduled stop at Heaven Hill Distillery – again, just to get a glimpse of a smaller operation – no tour or tastings.

All distilleries have a retention pond with natural springs — mainly due to historic distillery fires that spread out of control in the past – the ponds are designed to provide quicker access to large quantities of water for fire fighters

This one is at Heaven Hill

While we were at Heaven Hill, we got to watch some guys practicing for upcoming “Bourbon Games” where all the distilleries send teams to compete with barrel rolling, stacking, and other contests

Then, we stopped at Barton Distillery — this was our second planned stop – no tour, just tastings and information.

We got to taste their two main brands – 1792 Small Batch and Very Old Barton — both were quite good!

We got a barrel cork stamped with the code being stamped on all bottles marking that day’s production to take home with us!

Barton is also the home of the world’s largest bourbon barrel

And carved bottle

Our last stop of the day was Jim Beam……

This church is the only church in the world surrounded by booze – it is in the middle of the Jim Beam property! LOL

I took this photo cause I thought it was cool, but later discovered it is actually a photo booth! LOL

The elevator to the second floor of the gift shop!

By the time we got here, my knee was shot, again……it didn’t cooperate very well this trip! So, since I had already seen the distillery process, I decided to sit here and enjoy the gorgeous weather for the hour that my team mates took the tour — I rejoined them inside this building for the tasting!

No – we didn’t taste ALL these……our server chose the two most popular and then described each of them and let us pick a third one to taste!

Jim Beam is the largest producer of Bourbon…….all these brands are produced under the Jim Beam umbrella – including the Knob Creek, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden you’ll see in a second shot of the bar in a little bit!

We got to keep our glasses!

For my third taste, I chose the Basil Hayden’s – he told us it was the smoothest of the selections and it was — I really liked it! If I were to ever purchase any bourbon, this would be it – it was my favorite taste of the day!!!

So – that was my Bourbon Adventure……it was a fun day — me and my three guys! The weather was amazing and I learned a lot and enjoyed all the tastings…….I got back to the hotel about 6:30-ish and ordered my delivery of Papa John’s pizza – pigged out – and crashed!!! I had another amazing night’s sleep! The next day would be my last full day…….I had to rest up to enjoy it!

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