New Orleans may have Bourbon Street, but Louisville is Bourbon Town. There are countless opportunities in and around the city to see bourbon being made and, even better, taste its different varieties and uses.
To be called “bourbon,” the liquor must be distilled from a fermented mash of grain, yeast, and water, with the mash being at least 51 percent corn: For most bourbons, the average is closer to 70 percent. Bourbon must be aged at least two years in new barrels made of white oak and charred on the inside (different brands vary the amount of charring to affect the taste). The spirit must be between 80 and 125 proof at bottling, and, by law, nothing can be added in the bottling process except water to lower the proof: That means nothing that might enhance the flavor, add sweetness, or alter the color.
Bourbon whiskey is America’s only native spirit. And while bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, only whiskey produced in the State of Kentucky can be labeled “Kentucky Straight Whiskey.” (Jack Daniel’s is known as “Tennessee Whiskey” because it is made there.) Bonded Bourbon Whiskey is a little different as it is not blended and has been aged and bottled according to the Bottled and Bond Act of 1897.
There are more than 200 working distilleries in Kentucky producing more than 200 brands. About 20 of them—including Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve—offer public tours, and most are within an hour’s drive of Louisville. For a full list of distillery tours, click here.
Louisville also offers a way to visit bourbon country without leaving downtown. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is a multi-million-dollar artisanal distillery that celebrates the legacy of Evan Williams, Kentucky’s first distiller, who began selling his product in the city in 1780. It is located across the street from the riverfront location where Williams’ distillery originally stood. Before Prohibition, there were as many as 50 distilleries in the city; Williams is the only one active today but a “bourbon boom” is under way and at least three new ones are in the works.
Louisville’s “Urban Bourbon Trail” is a self-guided tour of 34 bourbon-rich bars and restaurants throughout the city. After picking up a special “passport” from the Louisville Visitors Center (301 S. Fourth St.)—or after downloading the app—“trailblazers” are invited to get stamps from any six stops along the trail then redeem them for a t-shirt and certificate.
There is much more information on bourbon, bourbon events, tours, itineraries, and the app at the website bourboncountry.com. There’s also a more statewide itinerary of distilleries, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Call it moonshine, mule kick, or ruckus juice, “America’s Official Native Spirit” is pure Kentucky, and Louisville its spiritual home
By: James A. Frank