Even the casual drinker of bourbon knows there are marked differences among the different brands. The taste is derived from the grain mixture, fermentation, and distilling and maturation methods.
Like the two that we feature here, each had a unique story to tell, interlaced with a rich history and distinctive style.
Tours range from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on distillery, and are followed by the breathlessly awaited tastings. Guides typically pour two or three single shots, often topped off with a lip-smacking chocolate bourbon ball, before sending samplers to the gift shop.
We did a day trip to The Woodford Reserve Distillery. Set amid horse farms, Woodford Reserve was a scenic drive from Georgetown via Historic Midway. All Kentucky distilleries are steeped in tradition; The Woodford Reserve Distillery, a restored historic distillery in Woodford County, is a showplace of the distiller’s art and Kentucky bourbon heritage.
This small, picturesque distillery is nestled along Glenn’s Creek at the site where Elijah Pepper, one of the famous early Bluegrass distillers, set up his distillery in 1812. The Labrot & Graham name goes back to 1878 when James Graham and Leopold Labrot bought the property. Re-opened in 1996 by the Brown-Foreman Corporation, The Woodford Reserve Distillery gives visitors a sense of what bourbon making was like in the 1800s. With its small-scale production, old-fashioned copper pot stills, longer fermenting and distilling time, and hand-bottling, Labrot & Graham’s Woodford Reserve bourbon is made much as Pepper’s bourbon was in the 1800s.
The tour, sprinkled with fascinating distilling history and terms, covers the process from sour mash starter to “farewell” (the residue of aroma left in an empty barrel). A small bus transports you from the Visitors Center to the distillery buildings, minimizing walking. The tour begins and ends at the Visitors Center, where exhibits explain bourbon making and bourbon history and a long porch offers a scenic overlook of the whole operation. The large gift shop includes a wide variety of Kentucky crafts. The tour cost $14 a person with tasting of two bourbons and a Ruth Hunt Woodford Reserve bourbon ball included.
Barton 1792, Bardstown
In a sleepy valley in Bardstown lies the sprawling Barton 1792, an old school distillery with an old school charm. The tour is informal, the buildings unadorned. Listening to our guide extol the process of “cookin’ whiskey,” it was as if we had stepped back in time.
Walking past the unique outside fermenters, she pointed to a five-story warehouse. “Now why do you suppose those windows are so narrow?” she asked in her best Dolly Parton drawl. “Well, the owners wanted to keep the thieves at bay. You can’t squeeze a 53-gallon whiskey barrel out those narrow windows.” Plain folklore, perhaps, but it made a good story.
There was nothing fabricated about the tasting room. With a crowd standing three-deep at the bar, she poured from a bottle labeled simply 1792, the year Kentucky gained statehood. And, like a sommelier describing the properties of a Napa cabernet, she told us precisely why we we’re going to love the caramel-colored contents in our glasses.
“This is an 8-year small batch. It is very high in rye, so it’s going to give you a lot of spicy flavor upfront. Buttery on your tongue and so smooth as it goes down the back of your throat. It has a long finish, so you’re gonna get a chest hug from Kentucky, right here. Then you’re gonna be, like, where’d it go? It’s gone!”
She was right. Our glasses seemed to empty themselves.
Our investigation complete, we packed our 1792 and started home to our motor coach. We left Kentucky a sworn convert to bourbon. Somewhere on our tour, someone mentioned that two new distilleries were being built in Bardstown.
We’ll be back. Our well-practiced taste buds will demand it.
A respectable amount of bourbon to pour in a glass is about two fingers worth. Lucky for me I have big fingers.
—Frederick Booker Noe II