America. / Coping mechanisms

Happy (bourbon) trails

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.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Kentucky is home to a wild number of bourbon distilleries. Seven of them are part of the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail, all 50 or so miles from each other, offering tours and tastings and more information about bourbon than I ever expected to have in my brain. I’m waiting for a Jeopardy category about American liquor now, because I heard all this bourbon information six times and have successfully had the expertise beaten into me.

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.

Jim Beam Distillery

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:

Jonathan at Jim Beam

Jonathan. Soon-to-be husband. Celebrated whiskey enthusiast. Still looks classy drinking his liquor out of a plastic cup.

Wylie at Jim Beam

Wylie. Triple deployment survivor. Celebrated Wild Turkey expert (as I later found out). Looks classy doing pretty much anything.

Tasting Jim Beam

Just kidding; this is me. I’m not really that into whiskey. But I’m great to have around for bourbon tastings because everybody needs a designated driver.

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.

Jim Beam Tasting Room

Believe it or not, this was not my first experience with a booze-fountain vending machine. I’ve been around.

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.

Makers Mark

Black buildings: great for looking at, better for hiding black fungus.

Makers Mark Distillery

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.

Makers Mark Bottle Wax Dipping

Wiley at Makers Mark

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.

11 thoughts on “Happy (bourbon) trails

  1. So jealous, that looks like a very fun time! I had never seen or heard of a booze-fountain machine and now my mind is blown.

    Re: Bourbon / Whiskey – I had fun learning that it can’t be called Scotch (Whisky, generally without the ‘e’) unless it’s made in Scotland and that it must also be aged (I believe it is) 8 years minimum. However, due to the variable climate in the Kentucky/Tennessee part of the U.S. we can make “similar quality” Whiskey in only 1 year vs. what takes 8-12 years in Scotland. Similar quality is in in air quotes because I’m sure there are Scotch snobs that think nothing can compare, but I just present things as I’ve found through my research and learning over the years.

    Excellent pictures, thanks for sharing!!!

    • I really hope I’m not competing against you if that bourbon Jeopardy category happens.

      I recently learned that about Scotch as well. And I think it was our Maker’s Mark tour guide who pointed out that whiskEy is the preferred American spelling, but it differs by country. I’m still not 100% on which countries prefer which spelling, but I’m sure it’s given enough copy editors big headaches.

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