“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough,” Mark Twain once noted.
As you drive down the bluegrass byways meandering out of Louisville, the scent of wild mint growing carelessly by the side of the road catches your nose. Bourbon country is 40 miles away. At the confluence of Knob Creek and the Rolling Fork River lies one of the oldest distilleries in the land. Tracing its roots back to Daniel Boone himself, the Knob Creek small batch bourbon distillery crafts a rich, sweet, 100 proof, full bodied whiskey. Just walk into the Jim Beam American Still House for a 4 hour sensory experience, soaking in the aromas emanating from the ageing casks that line the cellar floor. This is just the head of the Kentucky bourbon trail.
At the Bourbon Capital
Travelling down the road, you are likely to discover a landscape dotted with several boutique bourbon producers who have come into the limelight for their unique blends. So what’s the best place to sample them? At the Bourbon Capital of the World of course. September in Bardstown plays host to the Kentucky Bourbon festival – a weeklong event which will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Drawing over 50,000 visitors every year, the event is dedicated to celebrating the city’s distilling heritage. Besides the very curious bourbon barrel rolling race, the festival has attracted some of the legends of southern rock like the Kentucky Headhunters.
A short walk to Spalding Hall will lead you to the gates of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. If you are trivia geek with a penchant for good whiskey, the facilities house many interesting artifacts of appeal – from Abraham Lincoln’s liquor license and moonshine stills to prescriptions for the medicinal use of alcohol dating back to the Prohibition Era. Stare into the portal back in time long enough, and you’ll definitely start craving for another swig of bourbon.
Chasing a Bourbon Legend
Knighted by Congress as America’s Official Native Spirit, bourbon’s long history snakes east towards Frankfort. Located about an hour’s drive away from Louisville on the banks of the Kentucky River, the Buffalo Trace Distillery is the home of the bourbon trail’s Holy Grail – the Pappy Van Winkle. With a cult-like following surrounding this almost mythical whiskey, it is favored by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and John Currence. The intensely fruity 20-year-old bottle uses a base of corn, wheat, and malted barley instead of the usual rye, lending it a unique tasting profile.
However, a trip through the Bluegrass State will never be complete till you get a taste of its very distinct style of barbecue. Mutton is the meat of choice, and is pit roasted with a heavy dose of vinegar-based sauces. Dating back to the Colonial days, the tradition of barbecuing goat does not feature much throughout the rest of the country. The rustic origins of bourbon is reflected by the cuisine. Burgoo, the local fare that makes an appearance at every meal – a thick spicy, stew of hickory-smoked meats, beans and vegetables served with cornbread. The locals have even started adding a twist to it in the true bluegrass spirit – a shot of bourbon.
The Kentucky summer may be long and hot; but tis the season of Derby. You might not be a fan of race horses; however, you can always attend this event just for the mint juleps. With a summer drink in your hand, you may want to take a stroll to Churchill Downs—Kentucky’s most noted Thoroughbred racetrack.
Looking back, you might begin to wonder if you inadvertently missed some hidden gem on the Bourbon trail. But you can always visit again, and take the scenic route on a bicycle—along little-known country roads, holding Kentucky’s best kept secrets.