A perk of the to-and-fro of army life is that with every new post location, there’s a chance to explore a new corner of the country. And a chance to explore just how much stuff you have as you pack your third suitcase filled completely with shoes.
Since all my shoes are officially unpacked (our closet space is limited, so I get to stare at a rack filled with rain boots and flip flops in my living room, and I’m actually growing pretty fond of it), some time freed up for us to take in a huge positive of life on the Kentucky-Tennessee line: our proximity to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Perks of being an army-flower: though the tours are relatively inexpensive (average was $7 each), every distillery offers their tour tickets free of charge to active-duty military. You put your life on the line for your country and there’s a few free samples of bourbon in it for you. You’re probably considering enlisting now.
Just to catch you up to speed, here’s some key facts to get out of the way before I’m too sloppy from my gift-shop purchases to get them out here. To be legally considered bourbon, the whiskey must be:
- Made in the United States of America. Bourbon is a true patriot.
- At least 51% corn. Much like nachos.
- Aged in a new, unused, charred white oak barrel for at least two years. Sweetly, drunkenly wasteful. (But don’t get upset about injured resources; most of the distilleries we visited explained that their barrels are resold, often to Scotland and Ireland, or they’re up for grabs for $94 each at the factory if you want to make a table out of them.)
- Without flavor or color alterations. Jack Daniels, for instance, is run through maple chips during the distilling process; thus it is considered a whiskey, but cannot be considered a bourbon.
And just so you don’t get the wrong idea that your bourbon is poisoning you with anything but its high proof, the creepy black stains you see on the warehouses in the picture above actually aren’t stains; they’re fungus! The fungus (Baudoinia compniacensis) is attracted to airborne alcohol; our tour guide at the Heaven Hill distillery explained that, during prohibition, this fungus was a total narc, because authorities would search suspected illegal distilling areas for tree trunks turned black by the fungus and know they were on the right track. The guide also explained that the fungus is harmless, and would likely be found in an analyzed air sample of your living room. However, when I Googled the fungus to get that spelling, the immediate result was a deep history of lawsuits in distillery towns, so I’ll let you do the research.
Onto the good stuff.
Our first bourbon stop was Jim Beam. We took a self-guided tour of their museum-like display rooms to familiarize ourselves with the distilling process. Luckily for me, my trip came with two of my own personal tour guides:
I was also lucky that many of the distilleries anticipate the faint-of-bourbon heart like me by offering some milder, flavored whiskeys that might be easier for vodka-drinkers to get down. At Jim Beam, I tried honey-tea and cinnamon flavors that helped prepare my palate for some of the straight Kentucky bourbon I later stomached a sip of before passing off the rest to Jonathan.
Jim Beam wins my superlative for coolest tasting room, because we procured our samples from what’s basically an automated whiskey fountain.
Off to a good start.
Our chests a little warmer, we got our official Jim Beam stamps in our bourbon passports, and headed to our next stop.
Maker’s Mark wins my superlative for raddest tour; first off because I’m a printing press nerd, and we stopped in the label-printing room to get the history of their printing and a souvenir label. Second, because the tour guide instructed us to taste the “mash” (the combined bourbon recipe before it’s completely distilled) in each of its three stages of fermentation, straight out of huge wooden tubs in the factory. Also I’m using the word “rad” now, because apparently I’m trying to bring the 80’s back.
Maker’s Mark was my personal favorite of all the bourbons, likely because it uses the highest percentage of wheat, and has a resulting sweeter taste. This sweetness is not apparent in the leftmost, clear sample glass you see in the above image; the clear liquid is known as “white dog,” and it’s what you get after the product is distilled but before its aged (and consequently colored) in the charred oak barrels. It tastes a bit like tequila that’s been vomited up by Satan. I took it like a shot you give to a college student on Cinco de Mayo. No regrets.
I’m going to go ahead and give Maker’s Mark a second superlative for sweetest gift shop, because it boasted a station where you could personally dip your own bourbon bottle in the signature Maker’s Mark red wax. Caveat: you have to purchase the bottle first. Smart thinking, Maker’s Mark; you know my wallet can’t resist booze mixed with arts and crafts.
Our wallets a bit lighter, we took a short drive to our next distillery: Wild Turkey. This is when we learned that most of the bourbon tours end before 5:00 because they want us to be daytime drunks.
To be continued. Spoiler alert: there’s more bourbon.