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From Lexington to Louisville – the Bourbon Trail:
Kentucky, perhaps best known for horse racing and breeding, is also the heart of American bourbon. As much an influence on food in the region as wine in France, with a heritage that goes back to early immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, I was keen to find out more.
Way back when the early settlers in America were encouraged to plant corn. Setting down roots, literally. The Blue Grass region of Kentucky was largely free from Indians, yet fertile and relatively easy to cultivate. To ‘earn’ the right to their land, settlers had to reside in Kentucky for at least a year or have grown a crop of corn prior to 1778.
What to do with all that corn? The settlers were from England, Ireland and Scotland. Whilst the English were gin drinkers, both Scottish and Irish settlers would have known whisk(e)y. And, distilling whiskey was a popular way for the early settlers to monetize their crops, something with a long shelf life that still left a mash suitable for feeding livestock.
Kentucky really came into its own as the centre of bourbon when George Washington imposed the first tax on whiskey in 1791. Many of the distillers moved west to the area that was to become Kentucky, settling as far away as possible from the tax collectors in Washington. But, as I found out on a visit to Louisville, it wasn’t a new thing…
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is one of the first stops of the Bourbon Trail and right in the heart of Louisville on Whiskey Row, Main Street. In 1783 Evan Williams, a settler from Wales, set up his distillery on the banks of the river Ohio. An entrepreneurial character he had moved to Kentucky from Virginia, where he’d already realised that by converting corn and other grain to whiskey the resulting product was tastier, more valuable and easier to transport than the unadulterated grain.
Probably more by chance than design, he found that Kentucky was particularly well suited to whiskey production, with limestone water that was iron-free and fertile soil resulting in bumper crops of corn. And, an area rich in white oak meant there was no shortage of wood for barrel production.
I learnt how the fortunes of the state of Kentucky blossomed as the whiskey industry grew. And, how prohibition brought ruin to the region, with just a handful of producers surviving by producing ‘medicinal’ whiskey.
It was a fascinating tour; an hour or so at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience provides a great insight into the historical perspective of Bourbon production. More than that though, the venue has it’s own artisan whiskey production, in downtown Louisville. So, any visitor can see the process and, best of all, taste the end product without having to leave the city centre.
In fact, there’s something of a bourbon revival going on in Louisville right now. I was told that the aim is to create an urban bourbon trail based on over 25 bars and restaurants each with at least 50 Whiskey labels. And, to restore some of the landmarks of Whiskey Row, which decades ago, before prohibition, would have been full of whiskey merchants, wholesalers and blenders.
For now, much of the Bourbon Trail (with nine distilleries in total) involves visiting rural distilleries, including the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, the parent company of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. There are currently nine distilleries on the trail and driving from Lexington to Louisville I noticed plenty of signs for those who want to self-drive. Or, Mint Julep Tours offer daily trips to two out-of-town distilleries, so that over a two day stop in Louisville you can cover four distilleries. Add to that the two distilleries on the trail in Louisville and the Town Branch Distillery in Lexington which is just a $5 cab ride from the city centre and you’ll have made great headway to getting your passport stamped.
I did manage to visit the Town Branch Distillery in Lexington while I was there. It’s more accurately described as a Brewstillery because in addition to whiskey, they brew craft beers. And, they have a fine, vintage pair of whiskey stills imported from Scotland, which take pride of place against a large picture window (the first image of this piece). Our tour took us through the brewing process for beer and then on to what makes a good Bourbon or Rye Whiskey. Bourbon is a regulated spirit and in America, any bottle labelled as Bourbon has to meet quite strict production controls.
Apart from a grain mix that is at least 51% corn, the Bourbon has to be aged in new charred oak barrels and distilled to no more than 160 proof. It is bottled at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume). Unusually, there’s no minimum aging period other than for straight bourbon which is aged for a minimum of two years. But, if the bourbon is aged for less than four years it has to carry an age statement.
Bourbon is double distilled. Once the initial mash is fermented, the mixture is distilled by heating the mash so that the alcohol evaporates out. The resulting liquid is then distilled a second time before being barrelled. It’s the charred oak of the barrel which gives Bourbon that unique smokey taste and also turns the clear liquid gold. I started my trip to the US rather hesitant about Bourbon, drinking punch or cocktails. By the time I reached Lexington, I abandoned my usual G&T and started dinner with a ‘Wild Turkey Rare Breed’ – a fabulously deep Bourbon aged for 12 years. And, I’ve come back to the UK with a bottle of Evan Williams, some Bourbon Apple Butter and Bourbon Barbecue Sauce.
I was surprised. Not just because I ended up loving Bourbon but because I found a lot more in Lexington and Louisville to enjoy. My next feature will cover more about the heritage and great food of the region – from smokehouse brisket and hot browns to gourmet dining at the English Grill and Proof on the Main. And, just like Charleston, these places are full of Southern charm.
I abandoned my car at the airport two days early, slightly concerned that I’d struggle to travel around Louisville. I shouldn’t have worried. The hotels I stayed in both had a concierge service that would take me pretty much anywhere within the city and out to the airport. All for a tip (American style) and a smile. I wish I could have stayed longer for both the food and the bourbon.
If I’ve managed to pique your interest and you’d like to find out more, I’ve got a whole load of information to help you find out more.
With many thanks to Discover America, the Historic Hotels of America and to Kentucky Tourism for hosting this part of the trip. I loved my introduction to Bourbon, discovering more about the fascinating heritage of Kentucky.