The heady aromas of yeast and grain; the glimmer of copper and steel tanks; the cool and almost eerie quiet of warehouses where row upon row of wooden barrels stretch into the distance.
These are some of the sights, smells, and sensations of touring a bourbon distillery.
Bourbon Country’s historic distilleries have regular tour programs. And just like the different brands of bourbon they produce, the distilleries themselves have distinct personalities. Admission, how the tours are handled, what the tour includes, and the approaches to production vary from distillery to distillery.
Unless you’re bringing a large group, reservations are not necessary. Bring your camera―you can take all the photos you like. Children are welcome. The tours do involve a fair amount of walking and stair-climbing, so wear comfortable shoes. Since some of the walking is outdoors, if rain is predicted, bring along an umbrella or raincoat.
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.
Wild Turkey Distillery, Lawrenceburg
Although the Wild Turkey brand of bourbon wasn’t introduced until 1952 (supposedly named because the hunting partners of then-company president Thomas McCarthy loved the bourbon he always brought along on their annual turkey shoot), the lineage of bourbon and bourbon making at this site at the Kentucky River near Lawrenceburg goes back to the mid 19th-century.
The Wild Turkey Distillery tour reveals an intriguing combination of tradition and modern mass production. In the fermentation room, for example, 70-year-old cypress tanks stand next to modern stainless steel ones.
Our visit began and ended in the new visitor center with a gift shop and tasting room. Inspired by the silhouette of Kentucky tobacco barns , the two-year-old visitor center has an unbeatable view of the Kentucky River and its bridge and unique railroad trestle (the turnaround point for the Bluegrass Scenic Railroad).
The tasting room houses the original copper still from the old Wild Turkey distillery. We walked down the gallery hall and read about the distillery’s history and looked through memorabilia that dates back to before prohibition. Each rickhouse is seven stories tall, and the elevation of where each barrel is aged greatly influences its flavor.
The Barrel to Bottle tour cost $10 a person with tasting of four bourbons included. A delightful tour, led by a well-informed and articulate tour guide.
We took home a T-shirt featuring the Wild Turkey and a bottle of Wild Turkey American Honey Sting, a “tempting combination of liqueur blended with pure honey bourbon whiskey and ghost pepper”.
At the time of our visit, Master Distiller Jimmy Russell was in the visitor center talking about the time and personal effort that went into developing just the right mix of aging for the “Rare Breed” barrel proof bourbon—”Jimmy’s pride and joy,” our guide explained—we’re reminded that many aspects of fine bourbon making will always be low tech.
Wild Turkey is the world’s largest bourbon distillery.
Willett Distillery, Bardstown
In stark contrast is the Willett Distillery, an industry upstart near Bardstown.
With a long history of mixing whiskey, the Willett family halted production during Prohibition, resumed in 1937, then halted again in the 1980s. Following the unlikely marriage of a family heiress to a Norwegian businessman, who bought the distillery, the company rebuilt from the bottom up. It contracted with an unnamed distillery to cook its whiskeys, using Willett recipes, and fill its barrels off-site. The barrels then were aged in Willett warehouses. Only in 2012 did Willett begin its own distilling.
The strategy seems to have paid off. Willett is fast outgrowing its classification as a craft distillery. With two cats greeting guests in the lobby of the still house, and a new visitors center now complete, the distillery has joined the past with the future.
Bellying up to the tasting room bar, we selected a 101 proof called Johnny Drum and the Family Estate label. As we sipped, dozens of paying customers stocked up on Willett brands.
Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.