Beginning with Señor Ramon Llull, the 13th century Spanish libertine-turned-monk who, in his spare time, applied ancient scientific principles of distillation to the liberation of alcohol from alcoholic beverages resulting in some intense homemade hooch down to Motley Crue, the story of Kentucky Bourbon (and its cousin, Tennessee whiskey) is a long one, full of curiosities, misnomers, and yes, illegal activity. In my personal tale of Kentucky Bourbon and its increasingly famous Trail I shall focus on the curiosities, draw minimal attention to the misnomers, and feel glad to affirm that the only illegal things observed last weekend were some minor traffic violations (including but perhaps not limited to some low-velocity interstate shoulder driving around stopped traffic that was nearly but not quite disastrous).
The Kentucky Distiller’s Association developed and implemented the idea of the Bourbon Trail in 1999 in an effort to draw attention to and celebrate the rich heritage and distinctly American beverage called Bourbon. There are currently eight distilleries on the official trail, though there are several more distilleries than that in the state. The distilleries on the trail tend to be located in rural settings with the greatest distance between any two being a mere 79 miles. This makes for some scenic, non-laborious cruising from site to site and some very delicious, jovial experiences within each distillery’s tasting sessions. At each distillery a unique stamp is placed in one’s Bourbon Passport and upon receiving the eighth stamp one becomes eligible to stop by the nearest Kentucky Tourist and Convention Commission office and pick up a commemorative T-shirt. Let me say, we had so much fun!
Prior to the trip I read Dane Huckelbridge’s Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit and a most informative book it turned out to be. Based on Dane’s work I put together a little graphic I like to think of as The Bourbon Family Tree, see link below. Having that context as I began the Bourbon Trail made the experience that much more rich and
nerdy enjoyable. As promised above here are some observations.
A Curiosity: There are many stories about how Bourbon barrels first came to be fire-charred on the inside before being filled with spirit, and most of them stretch credulity. Were the inside of the barrel staves burned to weaken them so coopers could more easily bind them together? Was it a barn fire on the property of Elijah Craig? Was it initially a method of sanitation? We may never know.
A Misnomer: Does Kentucky’s limestone filter out the iron in the water or does it simply not add it back in once rain has fallen to the ground? There seems to be an argument here among experts, but I don’t really care. I just know that Bourbonized spring water heavy in lime is pretty fantastic.
An Illegal Activity: So, Al Capone and Prohibition aside, there was evidently a gentleman who was so convinced he could improve a local distillery’s beloved product through a little after-hours work, he would break into the distillery at night to run experiments. When he was ultimately successful, at least in his own mind, he was faced with the difficulty of sharing his findings without going to jail. Visit Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY for more on this story.
We had a great trip to Bourbon Country, U.S.A. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in scenery, history, and, of course, Bourbon. Some advice: One, if you want to take home a bottle of the good stuff, seek out a local liquor store. You will most likely find a wide selection and a better price than at the distillery gift shops. Two, unless you really like the steamy inner workings of a modern distillery, keep long tours to the minimum and seek out the shorter presentations often offered that include a genial host and a Bourbon tasting. Three, avoid minor traffic violations. They often take you farther than you want to go.