In 2014, Buffalo Trace Distillery sent out a warning: We’re running low on bourbon, everyone. A marketing ploy to create demand? Maybe. But even so, it’s a plausible feint: The nation’s love affair with bourbon, that most American of whiskeys*, shows no sign of slowing.
For that, we can thank Don Draper. From the first episode, Mad Men’s midcentury protagonist shook up whiskey old-fashioneds as a matter of course. Viewers already keen on reviving vintage skills (see: knitting, canning, raising chickens) grabbed the cocktail shaker and followed suit, exploring the worlds of rye, whiskey and locavore-friendly bourbon. They (re)discovered a liquor that’s sweet and unapologetically present. Unlike vodka, distilled to be as unobtrusive as possible, bourbon brings “a pantryful of flavors,” says Susan Reigler, president of Bourbon Women Association. “Vanilla and caramel are the base, and then you might find cinnamon, nutmeg or fruit like apple and pear.” Is it any wonder that bourbon sales continue to grow every year?
But keeping up with demand isn’t easy. Bourbon requires several months (or, in some cases, years) of rest in charred oak barrels to achieve its signature flavor and color. So if the local liquor store runs low, what’s a bourbon drinker to do?
Go straight to the source. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail connects nine bourbon distilleries on a meandering 200-mile route between Louisville and Lexington. Stop in for a tour and history lesson, a sample in the tasting room and a shopping spree in the well-stocked gift shops. Places like Bardstown, Kentucky’s second-oldest town, act as whistle-stops, where bourbon-glazed ribs and stone inns help tourists dry out between distillery visits.
Thanks to a bill passed by Congress in 1964, bourbon is only bourbon if it’s made in the United States. By law, it’s more American than apple pie.
What is bourbon?
Damien Garcia from Kansas’ Dark Horse Distillery explains: “All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbon. Bourbon is an American style of whiskey. It has to be 51 percent corn or higher, and it has to be aged in new American oak barrels.” Bourbon joins other nation-specific whiskeys, like Scotch whisky (from Scotland), Canadian whisky and Irish whiskey.
Sip Local: Midwest Bourbons
Your drink doesn’t have to hail from Kentucky to be a bourbon. Here are three more from around the region.
Cedar Ridge Bourbon Whiskey (crwine.com)
- Distillery: Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery, Swisher, Iowa
- Tasting notes: Lightest amber, nearly gold; flavors of butterscotch and toasted oak
- Buy it: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Wisconsin
Dark Horse Whiskey (dhdistillery.com)
- Distillery: Dark Horse Distillery, Lenexa, Kansas
- Tasting notes: Pure amber color; flavors of cherry, almond and smoke
- Buy it: Missouri, Kansas and a few East Coast states
OYO Bourbon Whiskey, Michelone Reserve (middlewestspirits.com)
- Distillery: Middle West Spirits, Columbus, Ohio
- Tasting notes: Dark amber, almost auburn; flavors of oak, smoke and maple
- Buy it: Ohio, Michigan and several East Coast states
Distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
- Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Louisville: In the heart of downtown, this makes a logical first stop on the bourbon trail. The tour includes a tasting in an 1890s-style saloon (evanwilliamsbourbonexperience.com).
- Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller, Louisville: Southwest of downtown, the abandoned 1935 Stitzel-Weller Distillery building reopened in 2014 with a new tenant. Bulleit Frontier Whiskey isn’t made on-site, but tours explore the building and include sample shots. bulleitexperience.com
- Jim Beam American Stillhouse, Clermont: Dip your fingers intoa vat of fermenting mash, turn a barrel of aging bourbon, and fill a bottle or two on this tour. jimbeam.com
- Heaven Hill Distilleries, Bardstown: Choose from three tours here. Some are longer, some are shorter, but all explore bourbon’s history, its production and the art of tastings. bourbonheritagecenter.com
- Maker's Mark Distillery, Loretto: In the gift shop of this pastoral distillery, pick out a bottle of bourbon and apply the signature red wax seal yourself (makersmark.com).
- Woodford Reserve, Versailles: Get guided practice in detecting a bourbon’s flavor profile. Vanilla? Maple? Spice? There are no wrong answers here. (Except for how you pronounce the town’s name; locals say “Ver-sayles.”) (woodfordreserve.com)
- Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg: A “turkey” made of old bourbon barrels perches on the patio; climb aboard for an absurd photo op after the tour (wildturkeybourbon.com).
- Four Roses Distillery, Lawrenceburg: This distillery, on the National Register of Historic Places, showcases 1910 Spanish Mission architecture; its bourbon earns gold medals (fourrosesbourbon.com).
- Town Branch Distillery, Lexington: Two for one! The same production facility brews both Town Branch Bourbon and Kentucky-brand beer (kentuckyale.com).
Even if you don't stay at Louisville's 21C Museum Hotel, stop by to hunt for the 4-foot-tall red penguins that have charmed visitors since the hotel opened in 2006. They're a little silly, but the 21C's public-art mission is not: The lobby is a legit contemporary art museum (21cmuseumhotels.com).
For more information: Kentucky Bourbon Trail (502) 875-9351; kybourbontrail.com