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by Richard C. Ross

On the Bourbon Trail:Link to "It's the Water" article
Link to "go Climb a Rock" article
Link to "Whisky for My Horses" article
Link to "Make of a Marker" article
Link to "An Urban Bourbon Weekend" article
Link to "Bourbon History" article
Link to "Bourbon Recipe" article


September is National Bourbon Month!

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City of New Orleans


Fox River Distilling Company Sign
Fox River Distilling Company


Tasting bourbon straight from the barrel
On the Bourbon Trail



Bourbon barrel at Maker's Mark DistilleryIt was just about six years ago that Yvonne and I had the good fortune to have been invited by the Kentucky Department of Tourism to write what became a series of articles about the Bluegrass State.  During that trip, we also had the good fortune to have visited several rather storied distilleries that specialized in the art of making that purely American commodity: bourbon.  One of those distilleries was located in Loretto, about an hour's drive or so south of Louisville.  Loretto, by the way, is home to Maker's Mark, a distillery with family ties to the fine art of making whisky that dates all the back to 1784.

At the distillery, I was presented with an opportunity to "own a piece of a barrel", so to speak.  I became an official Maker's Mark "ambassador" and had my name placed on a plaque on the face of a newly-filled barrel of bourbon, with the caveat that I would return when the bourbon was ready to taste it and perhaps buy a bottle or two of that batch for myself.  When I received notice last month that my bourbon had properly aged -- now for six, long years -- the first thing I did was to plan a trip back to Loretto!

The Historic Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, KentuckySix years may be a long time in some circles -- especially when waiting for something -- but it was hard to believe that the time had seemingly passed with blinding speed... The trip to Louisville takes about six-and-a-half hours (from the Chicago suburbs), no matter which route is taken, so we used a lot of back roads and enjoyed the relative lack of traffic; the trip was hindered only by dense fog and rain and soon we arrived in the downtown area, where we would stay at the storied Seelbach Hotel and enjoy a cocktail at the Old Seelbach Bar -- supposedly where Al Capone had once also imbibed.  There was also an obligatory stop at the Maker's Mark Lounge in downtown Louisville; their back bar contained more bottles -- mostly bourbon -- than any I had ever seen.

Saturday dawned cold and cloudy but the thought of some distillery tours and tasting helped brighten things a bit. When it comes to traveling the "Bourbon Trail", one is presented with myriad possibilities: simply recall your last visit to the local liquor store and all the different brands of bourbon and you'll have a bit of an idea just how many distilleries there are... in Kentucky alone!

Maker's Mark Distillery decorated for the holidays!Loretto, Kentucky -- home of Maker's Mark and our first stop of the day -- is about 60 miles southeast of Louisville.  Google it and you will see that there is absolutely no easy way to get there; it is way out in the "boonies".  Thinking of the trip as an adventure does make the ride a bit less of a chore to drive the winding roads...  But arriving at the distillery -- even on a cold, cloudy, damp and windy day -- results in an immediate reduction of stress, especially at this time of year.  There are Christmas decorations and lights everywhere and the mood is quite festive.

Special bottle of Maker's Mark - hand-dipped by the author!We stopped first at the visitor center, where we enjoyed some hot bourbon-flavored coffee and marveled at the pictures of the distillery founders on the wall who... in Disney-like fashion, talked to each other!  I also received a special citation and name badge, along with instructions on how to pick up the bourbon that came from "my own special barrel".  I was also entitled to a self-guided tour and bourbon tasting afterward so, why not?  The process is fascinating and the result -- after proper aging -- is worth the wait.

We purchased one bottle for the company's Client Entertainment Center and two others for friends, then headed to the dipping station so that I could dip and seal my treasures (this is a lot of fun to do, especially after having watched the workers at the distillery do the dipping).  It is definitely not as easy as it looks!  After some pictures for posterity, we secured a T-shirt for me and some tasty bourbon ball chocolates (they go really well with bourbon) and decided that it was time to continue the UBW (Urban-Bourbon Weekend).

Display of Evan Williams Eggnog at Heaven Hill DistilleryOur next stop took us back to Bardstown and two different distilleries there; the first was Heaven Hill.  You may have heard of that particular brand, but actually, the distillery produces over one hundred different products!  We watched a short video and were reminded again of the several important criteria that need to be met in order for a distilled product to be called bourbon, including the requirement that at least fifty-one percent of the grain mash must be corn and aging that must be accomplished in charred, new oak barrels.

Bourbon is a uniquely American product; made any other place except here in America, and it cannot be called bourbon.  Kentucky, by the way, had the edge because of its pristine, limestone-filtered water, an abundance of corn and plenty of native white oak for the barrels.  We were treated to a taste of ten-year old Henry McKenna and twelve-year old Elijah Craig, both spicy -- although the Elijah Craig was less so -- with high percentages of rye in them.

Truck docked at Barton Distillery We spotted some bourbon eggnog (a seasonal special) and, after being granted a taste, we purchased a bottle, as well as some bourbon peanut brittle for the holidays before heading to one last stop not far away and also in Bardstown: Barton Distillery.  There is a long and storied history to Barton, but that is for another day.  Suffice it to say, the tour is similar to others, with the exception that it is free, as is the tasting afterwards!  We tasted Very Old Barton (one of the original bourbons from the company), as well as a high end product rolled out in 2002 called 1792 Ridgemont Reserve.  Once again, sweet, dark chocolate bourbon balls accompanied the tasting in ... where else?  The gift shop!

The Seelbach Hotel and downtown Louisville, KYBy now, the sun was getting lower in the December sky and, unfortunately, we were a day late to make a planned stop at Four Roses Distillery on our way back; tours were only given Monday through Friday at this location (they have two).  We also skipped the Jim Beam Distillery; we missed the last tour by minutes.  But the sugar from the bourbon balls was sending a message that it was time to head back for dinner...

Sleep followed quickly after a small dinner, which was OK by me, since we had a long drive back to Illinois in the morning.  The ride home though, was filled with lively conversation that arose from the previous day's outing: questions like "Are there enough oak trees to supply enough barrels for all the bourbon currently being produced?" and "How many total barrels of bourbon are stored in Kentucky if there are about a half million at Barton Distillery alone?" are two of many that came to mind.

Maker's Mark Lounge on 4th St in downtown LouisvilleFour hundred miles may sound like too far to go for a taste of bourbon.  But no matter how many times you make the trip -- even if it's only once -- it is worth a weekend away from the usual "grind".  Hotels are reasonable, the scenery is exquisite (especially in the spring and fall), and history is abundant.  The bourbon trail, by the way, is a lot of fun, too!  There is plenty more to see and do, even if bourbon is not your thing.  Read an earlier article to get some ideas...  I learn more every time I go; I have made the trip twice in the last six years and hope that I can go again in a few more years when my curiosity gets the best of me again.

Thanks to Louisville, Loretto, Maker's Mark, Bardstown, Heaven Hill and Barton Distilling for a great Urban-Bourbon Weekend!  Tonight will cold and damp -- probably be a great night to take the chill out of the air with a roaring fire and a small taste of my newly-acquired bourbon and perhaps... a dark chocolate bourbon ball!


Photography by Yvonne M. Carpenter





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