America's Favorite Native Spirit Comes from Kentucky

July 30, 2019

“This is our country’s native spirit. Everyone in the states can lay claim to that,” says Chea Beckley, when asked about bourbon’s recent surge in popularity, not just in Louisville on Derby weekend, but nationwide. Beckley’s the restaurant manager at Louisville’s Proof on Main, the restaurant tucked into the chic boutique 21c Museum Hotel, where a room Derby weekend is almost as hard to score as a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate. Craft cocktails, farm-to-table cuisine and contemporary art installations like deer heads in leather masks attract both travelers and hip locals to Proof. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have up to 80 bourbons behind the bar. The number depends on the time of year: Bourbons typically get released in the fall with a smaller release in the spring, and small batches often sell out in between. “Bourbons have also gotten a lot better over the years,” Beckley says.

The craze for a $130 bottle of top-rated Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year, distilled by the third and fourth generation of Van Winkles at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, has encouraged mass distillers to develop small batch, higher-quality bourbons. Typically, local guests at Proof know the bourbon they want, Beckley says. Maker’s Mark with its sweet notes, the smooth balanced Woodford Reserve and the sweet and spicy Johnny Drum are Proof’s best sellers, with Basil Hayden’s (spicy, but not overpowering) also a popular request. If you’re new to the spirit, Beckley suggests sampling a few types by ordering a flight of 10-year-olds. Another way to discover your bourbon of choice, of course, is to hit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. While there are formally eight distilleries on the official Trail that highlight Kentucky’s liquor heritage, let’s be honest, it’s the craft distillers that create some of the best. With that in mind, we cherry picked the ones to see on the Trail.

Heading South

Heading south from Louisville on I-65, you’ll experience all the charm of an interstate for most of your drive to the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. But almost as soon as you’ve begun to take in the Kentucky countryside after turning off onto KY-245 South, a big white barn with the Jim Beam logo blazoned across is your signal to turn left into the compound. Yes, it’s a massive facility, producing the world’s most popular bourbon, but you’re here to check out Beam’s small-batch Knob Creek, where if you’re lucky, they’ll enlist your help to dump out a barrel or sterilize a bottle in a bourbon wash (cleaning it with water would alter its taste), place it back on the bottling line and then buy that same bottle later after they etch your name on it in appreciation for your help.  

Then you’re back on KY-245 South for another 16 miles of Kentucky countryside before coming into Bardstown. Taking the right onto North Third Street will bring you smack into the brick-laden downtown of Kentucky’s second-oldest town, and a mainstay on many “best small towns in America” lists. Every September, Bardstown hosts the six day Kentucky Bourbon Festival; regardless of what time of year you’re visiting, its restaurants and shops are worth a detour. The casual New American Circa is in the city’s oldest stone house, while Hadorn’s Bakery is the place to go for a quick morning pastry (try their doughnuts).

A 2-mile drive from downtown Bardstown, the Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center showcases the country’s largest independent family-owned bourbon producer. The distiller of Evan Williams and Elijah Craig offers a three-hour appointment-only Behind the Scenes Tour that includes barrel filling, dumping, warehousing and bottling operations and bourbon tastings for a full-sensory experience. Head due south on the windy KY-49, passing cows, horses and tobacco barns on the way to the scenic home of Maker’s Mark Distillery. Get out of your car and you’ll notice the smell resembles a bakery. That’s for good reason: Maker’s Mark uses a red winter wheat, which gives it a sweet flavor. “The world’s oldest operating bourbon whiskey distillery” (according to the Guinness Book of Records) is home to America’s only handmade bourbon whiskey, so says Maker’s. And while the fermentation room contains some of the only wooden vats still in use at a bourbon distillery, it’s the gift shop that’s the major attraction: You can dip the top of your own bottle of Maker’s into its iconic red wax sealer. 

Going East

The drive on I-64 from Louisville to the eastern distilleries takes you into the heart of Kentucky’s Bluegrass region. Turn south onto KY-151 for the winding drive to Four Roses, which has one of the more interesting histories of the bourbons. Among America’s top sellers in the 1930s through 1950s, it disappeared from the U.S. market in the 1960s, until a new owner fired up the distillery in 2002. Housed in a historic Spanish Mission-style spread, the bourbon has gone on to become a four-time winner of Whisky Magazine’s Whisky Distiller of the Year—America award.  

Of all the distilleries on this tour, Woodford Reserve best represents Kentucky’s twin passions. It’s the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby and the facility itself, the self-proclaimed oldest and smallest working distillery, used to stable racehorses. Woodford is also the bourbon used in the $1,000-a-glass mint julep prepared and only sold at the Derby (the ingredients change each year but have included gold-filtered mineral water, Turkish mint grown near the Euphrates and ice from the Arctic Circle). The distillery’s tour features the longest barrel run in the United States, where the barrels travel from the distillery to the warehouse, and the only copper pot stills used in a bourbon distillery, the traditional means for distilling small-batch bourbon. Beyond bourbon, Woodford serves up delicious farm-to-table dishes from April through October when chef-in-residence Ouita Michel, a four-time James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Southeast nominee, prepares her legendary Picnics on the Porch.

Kentucky’s Favorite

When asked where in town to find a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year, a near-mythical bourbon that’s aged at least 20 years before bottling and can fetch more than $1,000 a bottle at auction, Louisville’s Chea Beckley answers with, “Chicago.” A fair amount of Louisville restaurants carry it though. Call first; just because it’s on a drink menu doesn’t mean they’ll have a bottle of it on hand, and even if it is in stock, it doesn’t mean the restaurant will sell it to you: The New York Times reported that a Louisville steakhouse refused to dip into its Pappy stash even for the CEO of Buffalo Trace, the distillery where Pappy’s is made.

Its history doesn’t go back quite as far as bourbon, but for 140 years, Louisville has been home to the Kentucky Derby. Other than the horses, locals associate the first Saturday in May with mint juleps, the cocktail made from bourbon, crushed mint leaves, sugar and water. Churchill Downs estimates it sells 120,000 of the cool drinks over Derby weekend.

Louisville Sluggers

If your Derby itinerary is short on time, Louisville offers plenty of bourbontasting distractions that don’t involve travel. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience located on Whiskey Row honors the man who opened the first commercial distillery in the state. Or spend an evening sampling one of the 50 to 150 bourbons available on the Urban Bourbon Trail. Another option: set up at Proof on Main, located inside 21c Museum Hotel, which doubles as a contemporary art gallery, Proof on Main’s 80-bottle collection of rare and premium hooch from around the country offers drinkers the chance to compare notes and finishes with our selection of Kentucky’s finest bourbon whiskeys (see below).

The Best Pours from the Bluegrass State

Pappy Van Winkle Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery (in collaboration with Buffalo Trace): One sip and you’ll understand the craze for this balanced, wheat bourbon with hints of caramel, vanilla and fruit— and why someone stole 195 bottles of it last fall from the warehouse.

Blanton’s; Buffalo Trace Distillery: The bourbon from Blanton’s Original Single Barrel carries a deep nose of nutmeg, vanilla, honey and caramel. Even better, track down a bottle of Blanton’s Gold Edition for its sharp taste and long finish with hints of toffee and apple, but only sold internationally or in U.S. dutyfree shops. 

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength; Louisville Distilling Co.: Created by Lincoln Henderson, who previously developed Woodford Reserve, among others, Angel’s Envy’s limited Cask Strength release was ranked “best spirit in the world” by Spirit Journal.

Jefferson’s Chef’s Collaboration; Jefferson’s Reserve: While not technically bourbon, this balanced blend of two bourbons with a 14-year-old rye came from a collaboration between Jefferson’s master blender, Trey Zoeller, and Louisville’s 610 Magnolia chef/owner Edward Lee.

Jim Beam Devil’s Cut Straight Bourbon; Jim Beam Distillery: A proprietary process pulls out the rich whiskey trapped inside the barrels’ wood aer they’re emptied, ages it and then blends it with a 6-year-old bourbon to make this new elixir. The result has a full-bodied oak flavor unlike anything else.

Eagle Rare 17 Year old; Buffalo Trace Distillery: Wine Enthusiast rated Eagle Rare 17’s delicate, dry taste and “very long” finish a 96 out of 100. ‘Nuff said.