With summer just around the bend, it’s time to plan a little vacay. If you’re maxed out on Napa, bored by Bordeaux and turned off by another trip to Tuscany, might we suggest a distillery tour?
While crossing the Atlantic to visit Scotland—home of the great single malts—has no small measure of allure, there’s no need to head so far afield. Some of the world’s greatest whiskies are produced right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., and the facilities producing them have become popular destinations.
With the Run for the Roses in May, our thoughts land squarely on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, founded in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. This road well-traveled consists of Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve, whose facilities are located off the Bluegrass Parkway between Lexington and Louisville.
Another scintillating option, The American Whiskey Trail, which is sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, is larger in scope. It includes Barton Brands of Kentucky in Bardstown; two producers in Tennessee (George Dickel and Jack Daniel’s); historical sites such as Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan and Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia; and the ultimate bit of Americana, George Washington’s restored distillery in Mount Vernon.
Bourbon is the only alcoholic beverage to be recognized by an act of Congress as a “distinctive product of the United States.” According to legend, and ironically enough, the amber liquor was invented by a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig. The good reverend may not actually have created bourbon, but he supposedly developed the technique of aging the spirit in charred American oak barrels.
Although Jack Daniel’s receives more than 200,000 visitors annually, Kentucky is still the center of the universe for American whiskey. The bourbon distilleries are located no more than an hour’s drive from each other, and the entire trail can be covered in three days; plan on spending several hours at each producer. Some tours are free, while others cost between $5 and $8—a modest fee compared to some winery tours in Napa. Not surprisingly, the tour usually ends in the gift shop, and samples are generally provided.
Louisville makes an excellent base for exploring the Bourbon Trail. The famous Brown Hotel and the Seelbach (now operated by Hilton) are both restored to their nineteenth-century glory. Devotees of the hip and trendy might consider the 21C Museum Hotel, which houses a gallery featuring installation art. The 21C is also home to Proof On Main, one of the city’s finest restaurants and bars. If you’re seeking accommodations in the countryside, the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg and the Woodford Inn in Versailles make for excellent and charming stays.
The historic center of the trail is the self-proclaimed “Bourbon Capital of the World”—Bardstown. Home to the headquarters of Heaven Hill and Barton Brands, Bardstown is also the site of the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival held each September. Tourists steep themselves in the past, touring the town on the restored trolley and visiting the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey, one of the recognized historic sites on the American Whiskey Trail. Another benefit of staying in Bardstown: Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam are nearby.
Next to bourbon, nothing stirs the passions of a native Kentuckian more than Thoroughbred racing, of course. No trip to the state is complete without basking in the excitement of a live race. The main attraction is Churchill Downs in South Louisville, where the Kentucky Derby is held the first Saturday of May. On Derby weekend, the state’s two main industries come together, with more than 100,000 mint juleps served on race day alone.
Not everyone can make it to the first racing jewel of the Triple Crown, but Churchill Downs hosts live races from April through June and again in September and October. Another elegant and upscale track can be found in Keeneland, just outside Lexington. Although the Keeneland race schedule is restricted to live events in April and October, the facility sponsors Thoroughbred sales at various times during the year for would-be owners of racehorses.
We’ll stick with purchasing some true-blue American whiskey.