Kentucky is central to bourbon distillation for three main reasons. The first is corn, which is abundant in Kentucky and its surrounding states. The second is the limestone on which Kentucky is built; water that arises through limestone is iron free. Iron is bad for whiskey; it discolors the product (like a nail left in water) and introduces off flavors. Finally, the climate: Kentucky’s hot summers and cold winters are ideal for efficient aging of bourbon.
Stretching from Louisville to Lexington, then southwest along the Bluegrass Parkway, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a trademarked destination made up of nine member distilleries. Over several days, we toured four of the chosen nine and then veered off to a new craft distillery. 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 the 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.
Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort
Chicken isn’t the only Kentucky product that has resulted from a Colonel’s secret recipe. At Buffalo Trace Distillery, just north of Frankfort, you’ll see a statue of Albert Bacon Blanton.
The son of Benjamin Blanton, who began making whiskey at this location along the Kentucky River in the late 1860s, Albert started working at the distillery in 1897 at age 16. Over the next 55 years, “Colonel Blanton,” as he was called (reflecting his membership in the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels), guided Buffalo Trace through growth and modernization that made it one of America’s leading distilleries.
And he was one of few in the bourbon industry to bring 19th-century training and knowledge into modern times.
As you enter Buffalo Trace you’ll notice the stone Rock Hill Mansion where Albert Blanton lived. A scenic courtyard surrounds a picturesque log “Clubhouse” used for special events.
The standard tour of Buffalo Trace begins at the gift shop and includes a warehouse and a small bottling house where the distillery’s popular “single-barrel” bourbons―Blanton’s, Rock Hill Farms, Hancock’s Reserve, and Elmer T. Lee―are bottled and sealed by hand. Buffalo Trace introduced the single-barrel bourbon concept in 1984. As the name implies, this is a bottling of whiskey drawn from one carefully selected barrel, instead of being mingled with whiskey from other barrels.
Buffalo Trace gives “Trace Tours” Monday through Saturday on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours on Sundays noon to 3 p.m. Ask about the “Hard Hat Tour.” Offered seasonally, and for adults only, this tour includes an exciting insider’s look at the entire distilling process. The “Post Prohibition Tour” is offered by advance reservation and focuses on the architecture and the building expansion that occurred from 1930 to 1950. All tours are complimentary. The distillery is located north of Frankfort on U.S. 421.
Woodford Reserve, Versailles
Down a gated driveway, in an entirely different realm, is Kentucky’s oldest and smallest distillery, Woodford Reserve, near Versailles. While far from France, the name of the town befits the distillery’s character. Woodford Reserve’s manicured gardens and stone warehouses, known also as “rickhouses,” exude the essence of Southern refinement.
Rather than walking a short distance down a gentle incline, guests were delivered to the distillery house in a tour bus in three Kentucky minutes, slow and easy.
As we learned from our guide— well-informed storyteller— 95 percent of all U.S. bourbons are made in the Bluegrass State. One reason is the water, says our Woodford Reserve guide.
Kentucky’s hills are formed by limestone, which is composed largely of calcium. Spring water filtering through the limestone is high in calcium, which assists in fermentation. The grains and grasses of Kentucky also are calcium-rich, which promotes strong bone development in mammals— including horses.
Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.