“The only thing that makes bourbon smooth is age,” says Colonel Michael Edward Masters, The Host of Kentucky, at a bourbon tasting evening at the Chapeze House in Bardstown, Kentucky.
Colonel Masters hands Chris and Janette a shot of Booker Bourbon and tells them, “It’s a mule…it will put you down,” then adds with a grin, “the whole idea is to have fun with bourbon.”
Chris and Janette are visitors from north Virginia celebrating 20 years of marriage with a drive in their ’68 Mustang–and what could be more fun or a better celebration than following Kentucky’s bourbon trail?
And me? As a novice bourbon taster I was on the bourbon trail to learn all I could, since I’d grown up with Canadian whiskeys.
FAQ about bourbon:
- The U.S. Congress declared bourbon as America’s only native spirit in 1964.
- Kentucky is bourbon’s birthplace.
- Kentucky produces 95% of the bourbon sold in the world.
- Bourbon production doubled between 1999 and 2007 – 455,078 barrels compared to 937,865 barrels.
- Bourbon whiskey in the United States is made from fermented mash containing at least 51% corn. It’s produced at 160 proof and stored in charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof. When bottled, it must be no less than 80 proof.
- Bonded bourbon whiskey must be aged and bottled according to the Bond Act of 1897. Rules indicate it must be made at one time in a single location, then aged in government-supervised warehouses for a least four years. It’s straight whiskey that’s 80 proof when bottled.
- Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey is whiskey from a single barrel, so quality may vary based on age and where it was placed in the rackhouse, since placement affects aging.
- Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey is bourbon from mixing a number of selected barrels. Mixing small batches guarantees consistent flavor and character.
Chapeze House was just my kind of destination–a restaurant and tasting house in a building with a story. The building is a Federal style brick mansion built in 1787, which makes it a great fit with the rest of historic downtown Bardstown. It was built by a lawyer, Ben Chapeze, whose father, Dr. Henry Chapeze had come to America in 1777 with Lafayette and served in the Continental Army during the revolution. Ben was a member of the Pleiades Club, the debating society of some of Kentucky’s most famous lawyers, plus served two terms in the State legislature. Ben’s sons, Adam and Benjamin, founded the Chapeze Distillery in 1856, earning Chapeze Manor the name, “Kentucky’s Home for Bourbon.”
But on with the tasting!
The colonel prepared my first ladies drink himself, according to his personal recipe. It was, he advised, the traditional drink of the Kentucky derby, the Kentucky Mint Julep.
A mint julep consists of bourbon–of course–and a simple syrup that’s four parts water and one part sugar, that’s been minted. The colonel used his own fresh mint for a delicious fresh flavor.
Part of the tradition is in the mixing, though, or lack of it. First the glass is filled with ice, bourbon is added, then the minted water, with the sprig of fresh mint dusted with icing sugar its crown. The colonel’s instructions tell you to let the drink sit for a bit and allow “the Kentucky bourbon and mint to get acquainted.”
Of course, the taste will vary according to the type of bourbon selected, with the mint julep having a strong, but not overpowering bourbon flavor. My second drink, a Chapeze-tini, had a much subtler bourbon taste as it featured maraschino cherry juice, ginger ale, pieces of both maraschino cherries and oranges. If whiskeys aren’t really your favorite thing, the Chapeze-tini is definitely the way to go at a tasting!
What’s the Bourbon Trail All About Anyway?
The bourbon trail is a way to explore historic Kentucky and learn a little about the craft of making bourbon. In fact, bourbon gets its name from the Kentucky county acknowledged for its production of the best blend way back in 1785, even before Kentucky had been separated from the state of Virginia.
In 1999 the Kentucky Distiller’s Association created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® as a way to keep their proud traditions growing strong. Numbers released by the Kentucky Bourbon Trail organization indicated nearly half-a-million people visited the six distilleries on the tour in 2011, and 11,757 people completely filled their Bourbon Trail passports by visiting all six. Once full, passports can be submitted for a commemorative t-shirt from the association.
What distilleries are on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?
- Four Roses — 1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
- Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc. — 1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown Kentucky
- Jim Beam — 526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont, Kentucky
- Maker’s Mark — 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto, Kentucky
- Wild Turkey — 1525 Tyrone Road, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
- Woodford Reserve — 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, Kentucky
The Urban Bourbon Trail
As well as the Bourbon Trail of Kentucky’s rural areas and distilleries, there’s also an Urban Bourbon Trail in Louisville, Kentucky. To qualify to be on the trail a bar or restaurant must feature at least 50 different bourbons and be committed to the culture of bourbon. Urban Bourbon stops range from historic buildings in the old Whiskey Row district, to new, trendy spots for locals and visitors alike.
My stop on Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail was at Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar, which is located in Louisville’s historic Whiskey Row. My impressions? A stylish interior. Excellent food. Great service. Good bourbon.
Doc Crow’s was also significant to me since it’s on the historic Whiskey Row. This single block of buildings, with their cast iron facades, was mostly built in the late 1800s and was once the center of Louisville’s bourbon industry.
Louisville, a riverboat shipping center, was a key distribution point since boats had to load and unload at the docks until the Ohio River locks system was built. Many of the Whiskey Row buildings originally had ramps built to roll the barrels right down to the docks and onto the the paddlewheelers!
From paddlewheelers to secret guarded bourbon recipes, this amazing history of bourbon is what put the Kentucky Bourbon Trail as stop #22 on my staycation tour revisiting destinations of previous years. I’m big on tradition (even the stronger ones, like bourbon!), and have great admiration for the strength of purpose and innovative ideas that are required to keep an area’s traditions growing over the centuries and through the changing times.
For a glance into the growth of this tradition, see this YouTube video from the Kentucky Bourbon Trail:
If you go:
- Kentucky Bourbon Trail passports – http://kybourbontrail.com/index.php/guide/bourbon-trail-passport/
- Louisville Urban Bourbon Trail App – http://www.bourboncountry.com/things-to-do/urban-bourbon-trail/the-app/index.aspx
- List of Louisville’s Urban Bourbon bars – http://www.bourboncountry.com/things-to-do/urban-bourbon-trail/the-bars/index.aspx
- Historic Bardstown – Kentucky’s Bourbon Capital – http://www.visitbardstown.com/tourism/
- Chapeze House Bourbon Tasting House in Bardstown – http://www.chapezehouse.com/
- Kentucky Bourbon Festival – http://www.kybourbonfestival.com/
- Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar – http://doccrows.com/
Links updated September 7, 2015.