To really enjoy the bourbon experience of Kentucky you must immerse yourself in the character and culture of the state itself. Our man does exactly that
The moment that the madness of Kentucky started to make total sense – and the rebelliousness, unpredictability, friendliness, and contrariness formed in to a coherent whole – came on one hot summer’s lunchtime at the Maker’s Mark distillery.
We had eaten well and were relaxing. The jet-lag was still kicking in, the lunchtime bourbons were warming their way through the veins and the burning Kentucky sun was washing over us in waves when the distillery’s founder Bill Samuels suddenly appeared on the verandah we were relaxing on brandishing a gun.
For anyone acquainted with Bill Samuels such a turn of events wouldn’t be that far out of the ordinary. And if you have experienced Kentucky in the summer, when ‘crazy’ is part of the décor, then such an incident wouldn’t seem strange.
Perhaps it was the bourbon, perhaps just the bizarreness of it all, but the gun didn’t trouble any of us, even though it’s quite possible that Mr Samuels had taken umbrage at our decidedly Democratic leanings.
Indeed he had just told us that ‘Rosie’s boy’ wasn’t that welcome on his homestead – Rosie being the acclaimed-singer Rosemary Clooney and her ‘boy’ being a nephew going by the name of George – and far too far to the left of Bill Samuels for comfort.
The gun, it transpires, belonged to Jesse James, who is a direct relative of the Samuels family, having ended his career as a criminal alongside his brother Frank first in the Quantrell Gang, then in the Kentucky Headhunters and finally at the head of the James Gang, on the land of a Samuels.
In return for giving up their weapons the boys were permitted to settle down, keep their heads down, and get on with marrying the Samuels sisters.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
That’s Kentucky summed up right there – a weird mix of past and present, of good and bad, of positives and negatives. A place where bad things have happened but good people live; a state that is most definitely in the South but regarded as North by every state below it. Astate that votes for George Bush but has a rebel heart.
Neither one thing or another maybe. It even sat on the fence during the Civil War.
Yet it’s a state which flows with personality and has more character than most of the Mid West states put together.
Just think how many songs refer to Kentucky, and the influence it has had on the nation as a whole, particularly when it comes to the pursuit of hedonistic delights such as horse racing, tobacco, wild women, and of course, whiskey.
All this from a place with its heart and soul firmly embedded in the Southern Bible belt. Phew.
If you dismiss bourbon as an inferior fire water of a whiskey style, then a week in Kentucky will change your mind forever.
Whether you’re sipping a Maker’s among the distillery’s white picket fences and red buildings, sitting by one of the little stone walls at Woodford Reserve watching the thoroughbreds in the nearby fields, or marveling at the pure scale of the maturation warehouses at Buffalo Trace or Heaven Hill, it’s impossible not to be smitten by the whiskey-drinking occasion.
And if you’re fortunate enough to be allowed to climb the five storeys in the heat, with the temperature rising by two degrees each floor until you’re soaked in 40 degree sweat and staring out across the rolling plains of Kentucky, then it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Here, then, is my guide to the best visitor attractions in Kentucky.
Wilkinson Boulevars, Frankfort Buffalo Trace lies just to the north of Frankfort and is a sprawling and old distillery in rolling hills with a history stretching back to the earliest of times for bourbon. The name today is relatively new. A tour here will take you in to the old ageing warehouses and show you the single barrel production methods. There is a gift shop on site.
www.buffalotrace.com email@example.com (502) 696-5926
1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg Four Roses is a stylish and grandiose smaller distillery that only opened his visitor centre a couple of years back. A tour here will give you an insight in to how one plant can produce 10 different styles of bourbon. Tastings and a gift shop are available.
www.fourroses.us firstname.lastname@example.org (502) 8393436
Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Centre
1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown Close to the historic whiskey town of Bardstown, Heaven Hill can be spotted some way off by the huge warehouses that break the skyline. On the site is a recently-opened Bourbon Heritage centre that is a guide to the process of making whiskey.
Modern and interactive and with its own dedicated tasting room, this brings the bourbon story into the 21st century with a bang. A must.
Jim Beam American Outpost
149 Happy Hollow Road, Clemont Jim Beam is the world’s biggest bourbon and it is made on two primary sites. But that doesn’t stop it being able to offer the visitor a personal experience. Set in stylish grounds, the visitor distillery is about 25 miles south of Louisville on the route to Bardstown. The tour here starts with a film in the Outpost Theatre and includes a contribution about the legendary Booker Noe. The tour shows how even a big distillery can turn its hand to Beam’s impressive small batch range, which includes Booker’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek.
www.jimbeam.com email@example.com (502) 543-9877
Maker’s Mark Distillery
3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto Sited close to Loretto in the heart of Kentucky horse breeding territory, Maker’s Mark is all pretty red buildings and cottage industry atmosphere set in its own gardens with rare plants and trees in abundance. This is whiskey production in miniature and the tour here is thorough and impressive. There’s a gift shop and should you want to, you can even dip your own bottle to give it its distinctive red seal.
1525 Tyrone Road, Lawrenceburg Wild Turkey’s production is overseen by the legendary Jimmy Russell, and tours here take you through the production process and show off the impressive column still before showing whiskey being filled to barrels. There’s a gift shop at the end.
7855 McCraken Pike, Versailles Another dinky but highly impressive distillery surrounded by horse-breeding land. The stills, similar to those you’ll see in Scotland, give the Labrot & Graham Distillery an unusual spin on whiskey production and with such a fine and premium bourbon on offer at the end, this is another unmissable experience.
www.woodfordreserve.com firstname.lastname@example.org (859) 879-1812
Must see attractions
Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History
114 North 5th Street, Bardstown Olde world museum set in the heart of Bardstown with a remarkable collection of artefacts and photographs tracing bourbon back to its earliest times. Captures the regions past admirably.
www.visitbardstown.com (502) 348-2999
Civil War Museum
310 East Broadway Street, Bardstown www.civil-war-musuem.org (502) 349-0291
International Bluegrass Music Museum
117 Davies Street, Owensboro www.bluegrass-museum.org (270) 926 7891
Kentucky Derby Museum
704 Central Avenue, Louisville www.derbymuseum.org (502) 637-1111
My Old Kentucky Home State Park
501 East Stephen Foster Avenue, Bardstown www.parks.ky.gov/stateparks (502) 348-3502
Travel and accommodation
Most major American airlines have connecting flights in to Louisville and you can fly from Europe in to a range of American destinations and connect through. It’s a relatively easy drive from Cleveland or Nashville if you want to stop off somewhere else first.
Louisville Is a sizeable city and offers the whole range oh hotel accommodation opportunities, from $25 motels to stylish outlets such as the world-famous Seelbach Hilton. But you’d be advised to travel south to Bardstown where you’re properly in whiskey territory and you’re more likely to get a localised Kentucky welcome. Here there are hotels and motels aplenty.
Personal choice would be the Old Bardstown Inn or the Best Western General Nelson – both imbued with history.