Bourbon's Birthplace Forget Napa winery tours. "America's native spirit" is made in Kentucky
(MONEY Magazine) – Years ago, you'd see lots of bourbon drinkers showing up in the obituaries, but not many in the wedding announcements." That's Bill Samuels talking. He's the CEO of Maker's Mark, the brand that's helped give bourbon a more sophisticated profile, especially with younger drinkers--a far cry from its former image as a stodgy, lowbrow whiskey favored by backwoods geezers. That's good news not only for distillers like Samuels but also for bourbon's home state of Kentucky, where the drink's heritage can be explored through a variety of attractions.
Although by law bourbon must be made in America (indeed, Congress declared bourbon "America's native spirit" in 1964), for practical purposes this essentially means central Kentucky. "It's ideal for making whiskey because it sits on a limestone shelf," explains Samuels. "It's the only geology like that in the United States." The limestone naturally filters the region's springs, creating perfect water for distilling. In addition, Kentucky's four-season climate helps the bourbon interact with the barrel in which it ages: The liquid expands into the wood during the summer and contracts in winter, creating an in/out cycle that shapes the liquor's character.
Bourbon history begins in the late 1700s, when Scotch-Irish homesteaders began raising corn in what's now Kentucky. They usually distilled part of their crop into clear whiskey, which they sent to markets in New Orleans. According to folklore, one such entrepreneur, located in Bourbon County, stored his whiskey in an oak barrel that had been scorched in a fire. When the barrel was opened in New Orleans, the liquor's flavor, aroma and color had all been improved by the charred wood, and the drink became known by the name of its home county. Two centuries later this story's rudiments are embodied in federal regulations requiring bourbon to be made from at least 51% corn (70% is typical, plus varying amounts of malted barley and, usually, rye) and to be aged in new, fire-charred white oak barrels.
A distillery tour (for a complete listing, go to kybourbon.com and click on Bourbon Trail) provides a fascinating look at an industry that's still surprisingly craft-driven and low-tech. In most cases, you'll see big cypress fermentation tanks of cooked grain mash bubbling with yeast, pleasantly bourbon-scented warehouses of aging barrels, and bottling lines where workers often apply labels and corks by hand. Most tours conclude with a bourbon tasting.
Still, there are some standouts. At Maker's Mark (3350 Burks Springs Rd., Loretto; 270-865-2099; makersmark.com), you can watch workers hand-dipping bottles in the brand's signature red sealing wax and even dip your own bottle to take home. Woodford Reserve (7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles; 800-542-1812; woodfordreserve.com) is the most picturesque distillery, featuring gorgeous old stone buildings. Buffalo Trace (1001 Wilkinson Blvd., Frankfort; 800-654-8471; www.buffalotrace.com) is one of the nation's oldest continuously operating distilleries--it had a special dispensation to make "medicinal whiskey" during Prohibition--and the tour lets you get close enough to chat with the bottling-line workers. And although no fermentation or distilling takes place at the Four Roses aging and bottling site (624 Lotus Rd., Cox's Creek; 502-543-2264), plant manager Mike Bullock was my favorite tour guide. He'll let you hammer the bung into a freshly filled barrel of bourbon and taste an aged batch straight from the barrel, bits of charred wood and all.
Serious aficionados will also want to visit the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History (114 N. Fifth St., Bardstown; 502-348-2999). Housed in a lovely 1820s dormitory, it features exhibits on bourbon's background, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, moonshining and Prohibition (which was spearheaded by Kentucky native Carrie Nation), along with a seemingly endless collection of vintage bourbon bottles.
By now you should be ready for, shall we say, a more interactive form of research, so head to the Galt House Hotel in Louisville (140 N. Fourth St.; 502-589-5200; galthouse.com), whose 25th-floor bar claims to have America's largest bourbon selection--a whopping 125 brands. Discount-priced tasting samplers let you educate your palate one sip at a time, and handy pamphlets explain which brands fit which flavor profiles and decode cryptic descriptors like "small batch" and "barrel proof." The Galt House also makes a good home base for your bourbon expedition, since Louisville is within an hour's drive of most of the distilleries. Plus you can spend the evening sampling as much bourbon as you want at the bar without having to worry about operating any vehicle other than the hotel elevator.
As is so often the case with American stories, this one has a puritanical footnote: A majority of Kentucky counties are dry. The state's major population centers, and hence most of its citizens, are in wet areas--but still, how could any part of bourbon's homeland reject alcohol?
"After Prohibition, rural Baptists and other responsible people were concerned about our industry," explains Samuels of Maker's Mark. "And frankly, we were bootleggers, moonshiners and criminals, so the concern was well deserved. But the re-emergence of bourbon as an internationally respected product is changing things. In the past year, three of our most traditional rural counties voted to go wet."
He pauses, then adds, "Look, it's rare that something fashionable, something of style, comes from Kentucky--the state's always been maligned with talk about hillbillies and all that. But bourbon is something all Kentuckians can be proud of." I'll drink to that.