American Whiskey: Touring Kentucky's Bourbon Country
ebruary 1998 -- First Taste...

We really weren't looking to discover any bourbon distilleries, dont'cha know... 
This all started out as a simple trip to

Mammoth Cave National Park
Cave City, Kentucky


The first installment of what we now expect to be several tours of the Kentucky bourbon country began as a last-minute side trip. We had originally planned a weekend getaway to visit Mammoth Cave National Park. The cave is only about a 3½ hour drive from our home in West Chester, Ohio, and we thought it would make a nice long-weekend trip despite the fact that we've already seen just about as much cave scenery as we ever want to (see Lost River Caverns in Pennsylvania and Luray Caverns in Virginia for examples). For a look at some of the wonders of Mammoth Cave, check out Vadim Aristov's fine collection of photos.

So, as we were planning this trip (such as it was; not really a whole lot of planning involved) I thought that including a tour of a bourbon distillery might be nice as a sort of sidelight on the way home. Even though she is not a bourbon drinker, Linda was reading some of the brochures we picked up at the Kentucky Tourist Info Center and she also thought it would be a lot of fun.

Note: If you've been in the habit of ignoring the Tourist Information Center ("Ooh, yech! How commercial!), usually located at the first rest stop encountered on an Interstate highway as you enter a new state, break that habit now!! You have been cheating yourself out of lots of great ideas that might never have entered your mind (not to mention discount coupons to just about everything). In our travels, some of our favorite discoveries have been places, lying only a short distance outside our route, that we would never have thought to visit until we noticed their brochure at the Tourist Info Center. Plus, we nearly always save more on the available lodging coupons than our other various discount plans provide (and find better locations, too). That's how we discovered one of the only two motels in the area that offered rooms equipped with a Jacuzzi. Now, most people think of such rooms only as romantic honeymoon or special-occasion suites, but let me tell you, a Jacuzzi is just about the greatest feature you can imagine when you come back from a hike through a cave!The Sahara Steakhouse - Cave City, KY

We arrived at Mammoth Cave only to find that the tours were sold out for the remainder of the day. Entrance to Mammoth CaveWe bought tickets for the earliest tour tomorrow morning and spent the rest of the afternoon hiking around outside the cave and even a little way inside through the old "historic" entrance (no longer used due to environmental concerns). We went back to the motel, stopping for dinner at a local steakhouse, and enjoyed the Jacuzzi. Oh yes, and they can also be very romantic, as well.

We awoke the next morning much earlier than the time for the cave tour, and began to question whether we really wanted to go. The pamphlet from the Maker's Mark distillery especially attracted Linda's interest. We talked about seeing that one and also the larger Jim Beam distillery. The motel offers a nice continental breakfast in the lobby, and as we were enjoying it, we overheard another guest talking to the manager about cave tour reservations. I offered to sell him our tickets and he accepted, and our trip suddenly became a bourbon country tour with a cave as the sidelight! Serendipity strikes again.

Lincoln's boyhood home at Knob Creek FarmSo we headed back north taking, not the faster I-65 freeway, but the more rural and leisurely US-31W route that winds its way up through central Kentucky towards the historic site of Abraham Lincoln's birthplace near Hodgenville and the farm at Knob Creek, where he spent his early childhood (from two until he was seven). There we looked at a small cabin, reconstructed in the 1930s by the son of Austin Gollaher, where Lincoln later said he recalled his earliest childhood memories. Gollaher, who was 90 years old when he died in 1898, had been Abraham Lincoln's closest childhood friend and is credited with having saved seven-year-old Abe's life during a flood. Although the Lincoln family moved from Knob Creek shortly after, and Lincoln changed both his residence and his career path several times, he and Gollaher maintained their friendship into adulthood and Austin's son had known Lincoln (as a friend of his father's). He was quite familiar with the original cabin, which had been used for years as a corn crib before being torn down. When he rebuilt the cabin, with logs that had been part of his own family's home, he had the logs cut to the exact dimensions of the original Lincoln cabin. There is also a reconstructed cabin at Lincoln's actual birthsite, about ten miles south of here, but it is only a simulation of what the cabin probably appeared like, as there are no records of the original cabin. We didn't visit that site.

As we were leaving, Linda remarked how fitting it was for us to be visiting here today, as this just happens to be Presidents' Day.

Maker's Mark Distilling Company
Loretto, Kentucky

Maker's Mark: Kentucky's most well-know specialty bourbonTurning east on KY-52 at New Haven, we drove along a twisty hill-and-dale road through the beautiful rural Kentucky countryside toward Loretto and the Maker's Mark distillery. Maker's Mark Distillery - The Toll HouseIt was easy to let our imaginations take us back to the days of the hotrod moonshiners racing to escape the law and deliver their contraband to a thirsty market.

Once we reached Loretto, signs guided us easily to the site of the Samuels' farm, home of Maker's Mark, unanimously recognized as one of Kentucky's finest bourbon whiskies. The Maker's Mark (actually Star Hill Farm) grounds are absolutely beautiful - every building is freshly painted in the company's brown, red, and cream colors, and the landscaping is meticulously groomed. The overall impression is that if this company puts this much care into its working environment, they must certainly put a lot into their product.

Guest House Visitor CenterWe arrived with several minutes to wait for the next tour, and we spent that time looking at some of the exhibits and the items in the gift shop. We also enjoyed a complimentary cup of bourbon-flavored coffee. When the tour began, we were the only ones in attendance, but another couple joined us only a few minutes after we started. Our guide was a pleasant, but not particularly enthusiastic, lady who basically recited the tour as she led us from building to building. Maker's Mark Distillery - the Mill Run CreekThe Maker's Mark operation is very small, producing only about 38 - 40 barrels a day (as opposed to the 200-barrel per day industry average). Everything is very down-home and family-like. We saw several people who were working in the distillery and on the small bottling line, and they all seemed very close-knit. There was a (well-fed) young cat "touring" the fermentation area with us. I got the distinct impression that this cat was accustomed to being petted by the two men we saw working there.

The tour lasted about an hour and was very informative and interesting. It reminded me of tours of small Napa Valley wineries. Dipping the bottles in sealing waxWhen it ended, we decided to purchase one of the small (375ml) bottles available for sale at the gift shop. These bottles have a special label that identifies them as being from the distillery store, and they also have a place for the purchaser to sign and date the label. The bottles come without the trademark bright red sealing wax, and the customer can hand-dip their own bottle. I chose to do this, and donned the required apron, safety goggles, and gloves. Of course, the women who dip the production bottles, 24 per minute, on the bottling line wear none of those. My bottle came out just fine, with the wax running perfectly down the side of the neck. Linda took a photograph of me dipping my own bottle. We really enjoyed our time at Maker's Mark (despite the fact that the experience would have benefitted from a warmer and more friendly tour presentation), and we were anxious to move on to the Jim Beam plant, an industry giant, where we expect a great contrast in the type of tour offered.

We drove on to Bardstown, the Old Kentucky Home of Stephen Foster and center of Kentucky's Bourbon country (not to be confused with Bourbon County, where there are actually no bourbon distilleries at all - see the sidebar on the right). Stephen Foster's Old Kentucky HomeHere we stopped for lunch at the Hurst Steaks & Chops Restaurant, located in the heart of town. This locally popular place is just your basic small-town store-front restaurant, with booths along one side and a few tables. The booth-lined wall contains a huge, hand-painted mural of Stephen Foster's life; the other wall contains newspaper clippings and photos of local Little League teams. Very homey. We had roast beef and steak sandwiches, but were disappointed that we didn't see Kentucky Hot Brown, a regional specialty,  on the menu. We had thought this dish, which is a kind of open-faced roast turkey sandwich with bacon, béarnaise-type sauce, and lots of cheese melted over the top, would be easy to find here, but it wasn't available at Hurst's.

HEAVEN HILL DISTILLERYBardstown is also the home of Heaven Hill, a massive distillery producing several brands of bourbon and other whiskey. Heaven Hill's brands include (in addition to the namesake) Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Henry McKenna, along with many generic and bulk brands. As we approach Bardstown from the south, we can see several of the huge, multi-story storage sheds on the hillsides. We had entertained the idea of visiting Heaven Hill, but had decided we needed to visit only one major industrial distillery on this particular trip (we're going to come back for more at another time later in the year) and that Jim Beam would be it. That turned out to be a good decision, for a large portion of the Heaven Hill operation no longer exists except as ruins. The distillery and several storage warehouses were destroyed back in November of 1996 in the largest fire of its kind ever recorded. We drove past burnt-out buildings that looked as if the fire were much more recent than it was.

  • When American pioneers pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains following the Revolution, the first counties they founded covered vast regions. One of these original, huge counties was Bourbon, established in 1785 and named after the French royal family. While this vast county was being carved into many smaller ones, early in the 19th century, many people continued to call the region "Old Bourbon" . Located within "Old Bourbon" was the principal Ohio River port from which whiskey and other products were shipped to market. "Old Bourbon" was stenciled on the barrels to indicate their port of origin. "Old Bourbon" whiskey was different because it was the first corn whiskey most people had ever tasted, and they liked it. In time, "bourbon" became the name for any corn-based whiskey.

Copyright © 1996, Charles Kendrick Cowdery,
ll Rights Reserved.

James B. Beam Distilling Co.
Clermont, Kentucky


Jim Beam - Kentucky's best known bourbon

The Jim Beam Distilling Company is located in Clermont, only a couple miles from Bardstown, but a mistake in interpreting the map on their brochure caused us to get there by way of a long, circuitous route that led us nearly all the way back to Louisville. When we did finally arrive, about forty-five minutes before closing, we were afraid we had missed the last tour. And indeed we did... by about sixteen years. It seems the Jim Beam Distillery hasn't offered actual tours since 1982, but the two uncharacteristically pleasant ladies in the visitors' center made sure that we were able to see everything, even the film, before they closed up. The film was  carefully crafted to present a down-home feeling, as we listened to Booker Noe (sixth-generation master distiller and James B. Beam's grandson) explain to his grandson (representing the eighth generation) the heritage and traditions that he will inherit when the torch is handed down to him. Of course, the film does fail to mention that the grandson will inherit only corporate stock, since the family sold the the distillery to American Brands, an international conglomerate who also produce DeKuyper cordials, as well as Moen bathroom fixtures, Swingline staplers, and Titleist golf balls.

Some of Beam Brands' finestAnother disappointment was that the famous collection of specialty decanters, which Jim Beam has maintained for years, adding one or more new ones annually, no longer exists. Even the collection itself, over 600 of which were once on display here, was removed some time ago. The ladies remember the collection, but do not recall just when it was taken away. The disappointments, however, were not enough to offset the enjoyment we had. Just smelling the air was a pleasure. And the guest relations staff here was far more cordial and friendly than those at the smaller Maker's Mark distillery, even though we kept them late.

From Clermont, we drove straight home. Well, except for a stop on the way at our favorite liquor store in Covington where we bought a couple bottles of... guess!

There are many great bourbon-oriented sites on the internet.
These are only a few of our favorites that mention the places we visited on this trip...
The Baffling World of Bourbon Gary & Mardee Haidin Regan's wonderful story of American Whiskey
Click here to sign up for their free e-mail newsletter
and maybe even win a durn-nearly-all-expenses-paid vacation in lovely upstate New York,
learning to mix cocktails without spilling 'em all over the counter like John always does.
Maker's Mark: Mark of a New Era   Filled with the sort of anti-pompous humor they show in their ads.
Be sure to click on the ever-changing graphics in the left margin.
The Spirits of Kentucky Mark Vaughn's entertaining story of some of America's best bourbon whiskies.
How Bourbon Whiskey Really Got Its Name Chuck Cowdery's definitive essay on where the Bourbon in bourbon came from.
Abe Lincoln in Bourbon Country Another fine Chuck Cowdery article showing Lincoln's personal connection to the whiskey industry.

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Story and original photography copyright ©1998 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.