Tales from the Bourbon Trail

Kentucky Distilleries

Jun 14, 2018

There is just something about bourbon; it warms you through in the winter and makes steamy summer days more bearable.

And around here, everyone tells bourbon stories—especially the whiskey makers. But bourbon isn’t a totally Southern thing. Not only can bourbon be made anywhere in the U.S., it’s often called “America’s Native Spirit.”

That patriotic designation dates back to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s era. In 1964, Congress passed a measure that designated it as “a distinctive product of the United States.” Though the measure was intended to protect domestic industry by keeping foreign competitors from labeling their whiskey as “bourbon,” it created and captured the heart of the industry.

With 95 percent of all bourbon produced in Kentucky, that heartbeat is totally Southern. To capture those stories, about two-thirds of the bourbon distilleries in the state partnered with the Kentucky Department of Tourism to create the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Once you’ve visited every distillery on the trail, and gotten your passport stamped along the way, visitors receive a julep cup to mark the experience.

You will certainly want to take some time to enjoy the process. Drive slowly between distilleries, enjoying the Kentucky bluegrass and rolling hills. Ask questions on the tours, feel the grains, marvel at the size of the fermentation tanks and the still. Watch the process that turns the grains into whiskey. Breathe the musty, woody, vanilla-soaked air of the barrels in the rick houses. You may begin to think you’ve stepped back in time.

After a few tours, you may start to find common patterns. The distilleries use similar equipment, but what will keep you coming back are the stories. Like other parts of drinking history, it’s written by people who enjoyed a drink or three. Facts and myths have become closely intertwined, leaving it up to you to separate it for yourself.

Even bourbon’s name is the subject of one of the biggest legends in Kentucky. Many distilleries will tell you it’s named for Kentucky’s Bourbon County—or the county’s namesake family—but that story wasn’t written down until the 1870s.

Examples of bottles of whiskey labeled as bourbon date back as far as the 1850s. According to bourbon historian Micheal Veach, the more likely story is that its name was slang. In New Orleans, the corn-based whiskey was hugely popular on Bourbon Street. It’s likely that people started asking for “the whiskey you can buy on Bourbon Street,” and over time, shortened to “that bourbon whiskey.”

As deep as storytelling roots in the South run, you’ll find that every distillery ties its origins as deeply and firmly as possible to the history of bourbon itself.

On the Bourbon Trail, and in Louisville on the Urban Bourbon Trail, you may hear the tale of Reverend Elijah Craig inventing the spirit and being the first to use charred barrels. They’ll tell you that whiskey was brought to the area by settlers fleeing the Whiskey Rebellion up in Pennsylvania.

Once you’ve mastered the art and form of the tours, they may not be enough. Luckily, there are quite a few books on the history of the spirit. When that no longer quenches your curiosity, events like the Bourbon Classic offer the chance to watch—and rub elbows with—distillers and makers in the industry.

No matter how much you know about bourbon, the fun is always in the journey. So, happy trails. We can all drink to that.

Words by Clair Mclafferty
Photos provided by the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism