Touring Bourbon Country

{by alexis}–As you may remember, my anniversary was last weekend. I love anniversaries (and birthdays, major and minor holidays, obscure holidays, and so on…) because I love any reason to celebrate. This year, we celebrated our second year of wedded bliss with a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, and a couple of stops along the bourbon trail.

My parents were headed down to Florida for an extended vacation (can I retire yet?), so they met us in Louisville to join in the fun. Because they are ridiculous and excessive, they decided that the only way to see the Bourbon Trail was from the backseat of a limo, capably handled by a professional driver. It’s not like I was going to argue. R&R Limos actually offers bourbon trail packages, so it’s clear they knew what they were doing.

r&r limousine lousivilleWe had a big breakfast at the Brown Hotel (more on that in an upcoming post), and the limo promptly arrived at 9:30 am. We cozied up in the backseat, and watched the countryside go by.

Riding around in the back of a limo is pretty okay. The company provided ice and water bottles, and we brought our own snacks. A handful of pretzels and a couple of Cheryl’s cookies will certainly cure any car sickness.

It turns out, the bourbon trail is pretty massive. There are more than a few distilleries in the area, and you’ll wind up doing quite a bit of driving. You can use either Lexington or Louisville as your home base. Lexington is a bit closer to the action, but Louisville won me over with their hotel and restaurant selection, and with what seems like a livelier urban setting.

After just over an hour, we arrived at our first stop: Heaven Hill. They are known for their Elijah Craig and Evan Williams brands, as well as their Bourbon Heritage Center. We got busy looking.

heaven hill

See all those big buildings behind the sign? They look like prison dormers, I know. Nope! They’re called rickhouses, and that’s where the bourbon lives while it’s going through the aging process. I’ll say I know quite a bit more about bourbon than I did last week at this time, but I am by no means an expert, so I’ll save the chemistry and history of bourbon for you to discover yourself when you head down to Kentucky.

Inside the Heritage Center are all kinds of exhibits, but what you see below was our favorite. You press a button, and stick your face in the end of that trumpet-looking device. A scented puff shoots up your nose to help you discern the differences between New Whiskey, 7- and 12-year-old bourbon. Such fun!

heaven hill bourbon heritage centerOnce the tour began, we got walking around with our fabulous guide Holly. She talked to us about the history of both bourbon and Heaven Hill, and then we wandered outside into the rickhouses. Apart from the house that allows tours, these buildings are entirely without electricity. The heating and cooling of the Kentucky weather is what makes the flavor what it is — so they let the elements have at the barrels. The buildings are MASSIVE.

heaven hill heaven hillHolly walked us through and told us all about how they handle these devilishly heavy barrels, answering questions all the while. This woman knew her bourbon.

Once we got back inside, it was time for the tasting! At Heaven Hill, you get to do this  inside their barrel tasting room, which — you guessed it! — looks like a giant whiskey barrel.

heaven hill tasting roomWe had a lovely set up with several samples as soon as we got there. I was SCARED. Whiskey is not exactly my drink, but I am an enthusiastic sampler.

heaven hillAs we got sipping, I was relieved to hear that drinking bourbon straight was not how it was intended, and that adding ice was the preferred drinking method. First, we tried a rye, which, like the bread, was totally and completely foul. Next, we moved onto the Larceny, and then the Elijah Craig fancy bourbon.

heaven hillPredictably, I liked the most expensive bottle the best. But I wouldn’t say I was converted yet. Actually, I’m embarrassed to admit that all we bought was some terrible bottle of egg nog (we are so close to the holiday season, I could pass out with anticipation), and let my parents take home a bottle of the Larceny.

Once back in the limo, we took a few winding country roads to the Maker’s Mark distillery.

This place was a thousand times busier (though that could have been due to our afternoon arrival), and unexpectedly gorgeous. They have a sort of compound with several small buildings scattered about the grounds, each one housing a different part of the process.

maker's markI mean, is this real life? I was pretty tempted to go run around the field looking for horses, but I had a tour to keep up with. We started with the distillery.

1011141347f_edited-1 1011141353a_edited-1This place was very loud and had a strong odor — not entirely disagreeable but it was certainly unique.

We moved into another room with giant vats of yeast-y whiskey. This room had an even stronger smell, and the yeast was…unsettling. You could literally see it foaming and bubbling. Joe kindly informed me that this movement was due to the teensy organisms eating and moving and multiplying. Charming.

maker's mark maker's markDon’t worry, we’re not breaking the rules! We were encouraged to sample the yeasty beasties, and I let Joe go ahead and take the plunge.

We gathered outside the loud building to ask questions.

1011141419_edited-1 1011141402_edited-1 1011141400a_edited-1I want to know why this place is so adorable and quaint! Apparently, the scarlet and grey paint job helps hide a natural staining that comes with the distilling process. Joe felt very much at home.

Next we went into the rickhouses. Very similar to Heaven Hill’s, though each distillery uses a different strategy to get their signature flavor. We stopped for a picture. I guarantee you’ll see this on my parents’ Christmas card this year.

IMG_2257_edited-1From there we headed to the bottling building. A surprisingly small operation for a name like Maker’s Mark. We saw the wax vats where they hand-dip the bottles every day. I was particularly taken with the building’s art: old Maker’s Mark advertisements!

maker's markOur next stop was, yes, the tasting room. Heaven Hill’s samplings had struck fear into my heart. You guys, bourbon is kind of brutal. I imagine it’s not too different than trying to eat coal. This time, I had four samples looming in front of me.

maker's markThanks to this handy little tasting mat, I didn’t have to do much note-taking here. On the far left is their Maker’s White, which is the distilled “new whiskey.” TOUGH. To the right is the traditional Maker’s Mark you can buy at any decent liquor store. This one was a pleasant surprise: I didn’t want to kill myself. The next is the Maker’s 46, which is supposed to be a smoother, sweeter version of traditional Maker’s. Lies. The last is the most tremendously terrible: The Cask Strength. You can’t even buy this bad boy outside of their gift shop. It is bourbon straight from the barrel: No dilution here. It’s supposed to be the smoothest, but that was another lie, and I generously shared my portion with Joe. And I’m not much for sharing.

We took this last glass of firewater into another surprise room. We know a little bit about this here in Columbus, actually.

maker's markYes, those are Chihuly glass pieces! They had a ceiling installation made for yet another rickhouse, and I admit it did cast a magical, warm glow over the room. Or perhaps that was 130 proof booze attacking my stomach. Either or.

Of course, this happy-making place dumps you out into the gift shop. But here is the best part: YOU CAN DIP YOUR OWN BOTTLE. It’s true! I was so inappropriately excited. I’m supposed to be an adult, and here I am clapping my hands with glee because I get to play with a vat of molten wax. I’m an infant. But check these out and TRY not to get excited.

maker's markmaker's markOf course, I told Joe we’d just have to buy some more if he planned on drinking bourbon, because that bottle could never be opened.

Even though I didn’t walk away a total bourbon convert, I had a wonderful time. The people we met along the way were all bourbon aficionados AND fabulously kind. They had an answer for every obscure question we asked! And I can get behind any group of people that takes booze so seriously. Thanks, Kentucky!


6 thoughts on “Touring Bourbon Country

  1. This was a very interesting post for me because I spent many a childhood vacation touring whisky distilleries across Scotland because my dad is a whisky nerd. One day, while leaning over the mash tun to smell the aroma / fumes, he forget he was holding my baby sister and she almost passed out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so jealous! THIS IS MY DREAM. Bourbon is in my blood, and it’s all I want to drink (not in an alcoholic sort of way). I will ignore the blasphemous part of this post where you say that rye is “foul,” as long as you take me with you the next time you trek into Kentucky.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful photography in this post!

    I’m totally going to steal this trip idea, someday (Didn’t you know? I don’t go on vacations or read books without Caitlin’s and/or your recommendation first). Glad you guys had a blast!


  4. Pingback: Looking Back on 2014 | Wander & Whine

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