Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Posted January 16, 2017 – Narrated by Carmen
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It all began innocently enough.

Due to our tire blowout in the Mojave back in August, our master-plan (to go to Dad’s place in Mississippi for a month to tinker with Beauty and the Beast) was postponed.

Beauty needed extensive metal work which had to be done by a specialist and completed before wet weather set in.

So, we spent several days as guests at the exclusive Airstream resort, TCPC (Tennessee Cumberland Plateau Campground), a WBCCI (Wally Byam Caravan Club International) campground in Crossville, Tennessee, waiting for repairs at Creston RV Service.

Just chilling and enjoying happy hours with some in the hospitable member community who encouraged us take advantage of the unseasonably mild Fall weather and move a bit north to experience the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

The idea gave us pause.

What better way to wrap-up the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign? After all, Kentucky bourbon is the most politically divisive and unifying beverage in America.

Patriotism called.

We hitched up Beauty and pointed The Beast toward Bardstown.

The road trip, alone, was a high.

Kentucky countryside – stock photo

Our scenic drive began on the 127 Corridor (known for the World’s Longest Yard Sale) to Kentucky Route 40.

We spotted a quilt barn or two on Route 84 and continued on to 52, then the 163 to 839 to Old Happy Valley Road (90) and finally to our destination, the second oldest city in Kentucky.

Bardstown, Kentucky

We arrived to Bardstown in the afternoon and checked into the White Acres RV Park, a private, family-owned and operated campground set in the family’s former pasture, now flush with mature shade trees.

Situated beside the county reservoir, the large sites offer a cool and tranquil country atmosphere. This campground is usually closed a few weeks after Halloween, but the idyllic Fall weather of 2016 prompted the owners to extended their season.

Beauty and the Beast in repose and pasturing at White Acres RV Park

Just two miles from downtown Bardstown, White Acres RV Park provided a quiet home-base to prepare for our impromptu distillery adventure.

And, as destiny would have it, late Fall rolled out a carpet of color for our first Kentucky Bourbon Trail Tour.

Perfect weather.

No bugs. No heat. No waiting in line. Not once were we left standing out in a boiling-hot parking lot waiting for a distillery tour to begin, or queuing for a restaurant or tavern.

Everywhere we wanted to go, the door was open and instant gratification set before us.

Let the intoxication begin!

To the best of our memory, here’s how our Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour progressed:

Day 1 – Friday

Arriving at dusk, we barely had time for appetizers and a bourbon flight at the “most haunted restaurant in Kentucky,” the Old Talbott Tavern, built in 1779.

Looking back, this was one of our favorite visits. The bartender customized a flight for us from over 100 spirits in their collection. The Old Talbott Tavern is now a Living In Beauty tradition!

This will be our first stop on each future visit to Bardstown.

Day 2 – Saturday

We woke, flat-out exhausted. We’d been too ambitious and pushed too many miles the day before. But, a late brunch at Mammy’s Kitchen put it all right.

Carmen’s turnips and sausage at Mammy’s Kitchen
Jim’s calorie free “Kentucky Hot Brown” at Mammy’s Kitchen

After Mammy’s we walked across the road to visit the Bardstown Visitors Center just before closing time.

The friendly staff gave us free maps and answered all of our questions. This stop was worthwhile – it yielded valuable information about how to plan our tour.

Weather reports predicted cool weather was on the way – within days – and we wanted to see as much as possible before we had to skedaddle.

Bardstown Visitors Center located in the Old Courthouse, circa 1892, is set in a round-about in the center of the district – surrounded by US 31E and US 150
Bardstown Visitor’s Center. Jim wants one of these in the Airstream …

Still road weary, we decided to walk about a block away, to a local brewery, 3rd Street Tap House, a popular local pub.

Day 3 – Sunday

Woke fully rested and started early with breakfast at Mammy’s Kitchen. While in the Sonoma Valley wine country, we learned the big breakfast strategy on our first day of tasting.

Now, we always begin tasting tours with a full stomach so we don’t spend our afternoons napping in parking lots.

Mammy’s Kitchen breakfast

USA Today and Rand McNally named Bardstown the most beautiful small town in America.

So, after our big meal we took a proper stroll, meandering through the historic and beautifully preserved commercial district which blends seemlessly into the winsome neighborhood surrounding the town where the residents raked leaves and changed light bulbs around their modestly-sized vintage homes.

As we moseyed, researching on our phones how many of these sweet cottages were vacation rentals or for sale, we found ourselves in front The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History…  Shall we?

Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum and a gift from the docent, to Jim
Leaf-strewn walk to the Whiskey Museum

This collection boosted our knowledge well beyond our expectations.

Here, the good, the bad and the ugly about whiskey is housed within the nooks and crannies of this beautiful monastery turned school house and now, museum.

It’s like going through Jim Beam’s attic. In fact according to the docent, Joe Beam personally assisted in curating this collection and often gave tours. Within these hallowed halls, our eyes opened to the legacy of whisky country …

Oscar Wetz Museum of Whiskey History
Vast collection of old bourbon bottles
More old bourbon bottles
Even more old bourbon bottles
A 1917 resolution from the American Medical Association
Models of stills

… the politics, wars, poisons, truths, lies, sins and catastrophic events – the unvarnished truth about bourbon-whiskey.

Here are a few things we learned:

  • Kentucky is the birthplace of Bourbon, crafting 95 percent of the world’s supply. Only the Bluegrass State has the perfect natural mix of climate, conditions and pure limestone water necessary for producing the world’s greatest Bourbon.
  • Bourbon is America’s only native spirit, as declared by Congress in 1964. It must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn, aged in charred new oak barrels, stored at no more than 125 proof and bottled no less than 80 proof.
  • Bourbon is a $3 billion signature industry in Kentucky, generating 15,400 jobs with an annual payroll of $707 million. Spirits production and consumption pours more than $166 million in state and local tax coffers every year.
  • More than $1.3 billion in capital projects has been completed or is planned and underway in the next five years, including new distilleries and aging warehouses to bottling facilities and tourism centers.
  • Bourbon production has increased more than 170 percent since 1999 (485,020 barrels compared to 1,306,375 in 2014), with premium small batch and single barrel brands driving the Bourbon renaissance.
  • At 1.3 million barrels, Bourbon production in 2014 reached its highest mark since 1970, and a third straight year with a million barrels born.
  • Total Bourbon inventory topped 5.6 million barrels in 2014, the highest it’s been since 1975. That means there are one million more barrels of Bourbon aging in Kentucky than there are people (4.4 million).
  • The 2014 tax-assessed value of all barrels aging in Kentucky is $1.9 billion – an increase of $81 million from 2013 and nearly double the value since 2006 ($1 billion).
  • Nearly 60 percent of every bottle of spirits in Kentucky goes to taxes or fees, with seven different taxes on Bourbon – including an ad valorem tax on barrels each and every year it ages. Distilleries paid $15.2 million in barrel taxes in 2013, up 52 percent since 2006.
  • U.S. distilled spirits exports topped $1.5 billion in 2013. Kentucky Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey made up more than $1 billion of that amount, making it the largest export category among all U.S. distilled spirits.

So, feeling prepared for our first private tour, we drove about five miles to Heaven Hill Distillery at the Bourbon Heritage Center. Our guide, Herb, seemed thrilled to show two California distillery-virgins how it’s done.

Our first distillery, Heaven Hill
Some of Heaven Hill’s Barrel Towers
Herb, our guide, explains the barrel storage process in a Heaven Hill’s barrel storage tower
Herb, with the “whiskey thief” gave us a taste of a soon to be released bourbon
Herb’s tasting room at Heaven Hill. Very swanky!
Our favorite Rye whiskey!
Tour completed, Herb sends us on our way with bourbon laced chocolates. First class guy

Willett Distillery – Our second stop that day was Willett Distillery. This tour took us deep in the guts of the operation – where we tasted mash and saw hams curing in the Angel’s Share.

Willett Distillery
Carmen & the Willett Bourbon copper still
Willett designed their bottle to match the unique shape of their still
Guests are invited to dip and taste mash at different stages of fermentation
Hams curing in the “Angel’s Share” at Willett
Willett Distillery’s bourbon laced confections

Day 4 – Tuesday

Jim felt our whisky tour wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the cooperage. He was right. The Kentucky Cooperage tour was more than worth the drive – it blew my mind. I can’t imagine this product will ever be fully automated.

Barrel production is a brutal and dazzling, sweaty-man display of power over wood, steel, fire and water. It requires a staggering skill set that could never be taught in school. Coopers don’t make barrells for money.

It’s a calling – pure art form. We’ll go see this tour again, and again and not just because it was free (still can’t believe it was FREE!)  Go. Just go.

The photos below don’t do this tour justice. Once we were inside the facility, the guide didn’t allow cameras or cell phones in our hands.

Independent Stave Company – Kentucky Cooperage

Kentucky Cooperage – Lebannon, KY
Kentucky Cooperage, where most American bourbon barrels are made
Oak barrels are made by hand with little or no automation
Insides are burned to create the charcoal that infuses bourbon with flavor and color
A cooper assembles a barrel

Makers Mark Distillery

Since this is Jim’s favorite anytime bourbon, we made a video of the tour!

Our last tour was Limestone Branch Distillery – a small but distinguished distillery with a big story.

Home to Yellowstone Bourbon, this top-notch boutique-distillery has an eye-opening tour that will enlarge your bourbon history and experience with a wink and smile.

Limestone Ranch Distillery
Yellowstone Bourbon – rich history, great flavor
Steve, our tour guide

Our tour guide, Steve – a masterful storyteller – didn’t hold back though there were only the two of us for the first thirty-minutes of the tour.

Steve hosted our best tasting, too. We couldn’t make a decision! We wanted them all!

A vintage recipe which Limestone has plans to revive … under a different name
Compared to Willett and Marker’s Mark, the Limestone still was a fraction of the size
The larger distilleries have tens of thousands of barrels at any given time, this one has about 60

We took a very special bottle of Yellowstone with us which we had intended for another time, but came in handy on election night …

Right place, right time … This Living In Beauty stuff worked it’s magic on us again.

We’d have stayed longer in Bardstown, but a chill set in and our camp host informed us they were set to close for winter. So, next morning, we took our leave of Kentucky.

As we drove out of Bardstown we looked back through our rearview mirrors and smiled. We’ll be back.

As travelers and patriots, we will accept the warm, welcoming nature of this rustic and beautiful American township that knows what struggle is all about – to toast their heritage of holding fast to their way of life when the entire country stood against them.

We will return another day to pay our respects to authenticity, to craftsmanship, to art and music – and, yes, to America’s native spirit, bourbon whisky …