Do you know what bourbon is and how it varies from other whiskeys? And do you know where the best place is to base yourself to visit Kentucky bourbon distilleries? And which bourbon distilleries to visit? Come along and enjoy a fabulous day or two in the Bluegrass State, touring some fantastic Kentucky bourbon distilleries.
Many of the Kentucky Bourbon distilleries offer tours, where you not only learn about the process but also the rather volatile history of this world-famous spirit.
What is Bourbon?
“All Bourbon is Whiskey but Not All Whiskey is Bourbon” and other facts:
To qualify as bourbon, the following rules apply:
- it must be made in the United States;
- it must be aged in a new, oak, charred barrel;
- it must be made with at least 51% corn (barley and rye are the other grains generally used);
- it must be distilled at less than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume);
- it must go into the barrel at lower than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume); and
- no artificial colorings or flavorings added.
Water in Kentucky is naturally, limestone-filtered meaning it is low in iron, very good for making bourbon. The distilled liquid is a clear color when it goes into the barrel (moonshine). The charring of the barrels and the aging produces the color, makes the spirit smoother as it matures and adds flavor. Think vanilla, caramel and smoky wood.
Barrels age in wooden rackhouses (warehouses) for at least 2 years (before being allowed to be called “straight bourbon”). Most Kentucky Bourbon distilleries age the spirit much longer than that.
The rackhouses rely on the natural rhythms of the seasons to age the spirit. The barrels naturally expand in summer and contract in winter. This forces the spirit into and out of the oak wood, imparting great flavor and color over the years.
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And a few useful facts that might help in Trivial Pursuit:
- Is it spelled whiskey or whisky? In the US, it is called whiskey, as it is in Ireland. But in other whisky-producing nations like Canada, Scotland, Japan and Australia (Tasmania) it is spelt without the ‘e’.
- There are more barrels of whiskey (6.5-7 million barrels) in Kentucky than there are people (4.5 million people).
- Tennessee Whisky is different from bourbon as it must be made in Tennessee and uses the Lincoln County Process (involving a maple charcoal filtration).
- Rye whisky is different again containing a minimum of 51% rye grain and has a spicy flavor.
- You won’t be able to taste unless you are 21, the legal, drinking age in the US.
- When tasting any whiskey, start neat (straight out of the bottle) and after your first taste add a drop or 2 of water to open up the whiskey. The water mellows out the taste. Some people use a small ice cube.
- Each rackhouse has a “sweet spot” (usually right in the middle) where the maturing process is “perfect”. Barrels in this area of the rackhouse are generally used to produce small batch or single barrel premium bourbons.
Whiskey Row Louisville, Kentucky
Before prohibition in 1920, more than 50 distilleries called Louisville, Kentucky home. Today, in Main Street, Louisville, Whiskey Row celebrates the city’s whiskey heritage including bourbon bars, restaurants offering matched foods and bourbon as well as several distilleries. Whiskey Row includes the site of the very first Kentucky bourbon distillery in 1790.
You can easily design your own tour of some of these establishments on Whiskey Row. With so many distilleries in and around Louisville, it is a great place to base yourself.
If you go, make sure you pick up your Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport, either from the Visitors Center or any of the distilleries participating. Each distillery will stamp your passport upon your visit. Complete a visit to each distillery and the prize for completing your passport is a free t-shirt!
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
Our first Kentucky bourbon distillery visit was to Evan Williams, in Main Street, Louisville. Did you know that Evan Williams opened the very first distillery on Whiskey Row in 1790?
To further stress the historical significance of the brand, the tour consists of several very cool dioramas and films, set in “old Louisville”, to help explain the process employed by Kentucky bourbon distilleries as well as the history from moonshine to bourbon. A guide accompanies you to add further detail and answer questions.
The “experience” also contains a mini-distillery which produces 1 bourbon barrel per day. There are fabulous display windows to view this. And of course, we savored 3 great bourbons in the very attractive tasting rooms.
Evan Williams is a privately held company and in fact is the second biggest Kentucky bourbon distillery. They have 1.3 million barrels aging in Kentucky, not far behind Jim Beam, with 1.5 million barrels.
Our second bourbon distillery visit was to the brand-new facility for Angels Envy, also on Main St. in Louisville. The name is rather clever; evaporation is a natural part of the aging process and the loss of spirit from the barrel is called the Angel’s share! This is a fully operational distillery and the visitor center just opened in late 2016.
Although the building containing the distillery is quite old, Angels Envy portrays a modern feel, as evidenced by the bottle and the logo. The guided tour takes you through the distillery and the copper and brass stills are impressive.
After the bourbon ages in the charred, new, oak barrels, Angels Envy finishes off their bourbon in either a (used) port barrel or rum barrel. This imparts a nose of raisins, maple syrup, toast and nuts. On the palate, you might discover ripe fruit, vanilla or bitter chocolate. The finish is of madeira.
The Angels Envy tasting room is also spectacular. You taste 3 pours of the one whiskey, starting neat (straight), then another with an ice cube added and a third pour, with a hand-made chocolate especially developed to suit this bourbon. Bliss!
To wrap up our tour of Kentucky bourbon distilleries, we visited the big daddy of them all – Jim Beam. You can either visit the stillhouse, located in Louisville or the actual distillery at Clermont, about 30 miles south of Louisville.
We elected to drive out to the distillery at Clermont. It is an iconic site with many 5 and 7 story rackhouses, not to mention the magnificent old barn-like building, now the visitor center at Jim Beam. You can really feel the sense of history here. You also get a sense of the man, when after some 12 years of prohibition, which destroyed the business, he somehow managed to resume full operations within 120 days.
Being a large, rural property, the Jim Beam tour utilizes an old-fashioned trolley car to transport you to various locations to view and explain the process. In addition to viewing the distillation process, you visit the bottling area to bottle your own personalized bottle of Knob Creek: you seal your bottle with your thumb print pressing it into the cooling, black wax seal of the bottle. A nice touch. You can buy it at the end of the tour.
Also impressive, is the visit to the rackhouse, where the 14th million barrel of bourbon is proudly displayed along with who knows how many other barrels.
And do you like cooking with whiskey? You might enjoy making Kentucky bourbon balls. They’re chocolate coated and easy to make.
Thanks to the Louisville Convention and Visitor Bureau for hosting Compass & Fork. All opinions, as always, are our own.