Kentucky bourbon trails big on distillery diversity

food-productsDuring a much younger life, I was introduced to horse race wagering, earthy bluegrass music and long-simmering stews called burgoo while living in western Kentucky.

So when Wisconsin met Kentucky in the NCAA Final Four this spring, I could not resist the urge to place a bet on the outcome with former work colleagues Chuck and Donna Stinnett of The Gleaner in Henderson, Ky. “Name your poison, cheese breath,” he taunted. “Uh oh,” his wife observed. “The trash talk has begun.”

Truth be told, I silently had decided which brats to order and how to ship them. Then our Badgers won, we Wisconsinites were euphoric and I gained a pint of Jim Beam, a Kentucky bourbon since 1795. Almost all of the world’s bourbon is distilled in Kentucky, and now the liquor is a major source of tourism for the Bluegrass State. It’s not just for mint juleps, although almost 120,000 of the sugary mint bourbon cocktails are served at Churchill Downs during Oaks and Kentucky Derby races on the first weekend of May.

I think Kentuckians like their bourbon as much as we like our brandy, only they aren’t as likely to dilute or mask the taste with sweet mixers. A bourbon old fashioned would never cut it as the state cocktail there (although the private Pendennis Club in Louisville calls itself the birthplace of the old fashioned, creating it around 1889). “We take our bourbon on the rocks, allowing it to melt a small amount of water,” Chuck explains. “It’s sippin’ stuff, with an excellent nose.”

He notes the liquor also is used in candy to steak seasonings and “in an emergency, it can be used for snake bites.” During a visit to Louisville, I noticed that “eat your bourbon” was a motto at Bourbon Barrel Foods, whose gourmet product line includes bourbon-spiked salt, pepper, paprika, salt and vanilla extract. Kentuckyaki resembles teriyaki sauce but contains state-made sorghum and bourbon. bourbonbarrelfoods.com, 502-333-6103

Donna is features editor at The Gleaner, and Chuck is business editor, so knowledge about their home state is more than casual. When Chuck says “Kentucky bourbon happens to be enjoying a resurgence not seen since the end of Prohibition,” I know the conclusion is based on fact vs. pride.

He says distilleries can barely keep up with demand for premium and super-premium bourbons, so longtime distilleries are expanding and new craft distilleries are opening. “Every distillery has been compelled to add a visitors center in the past few years,” and the eight distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail draw more than one-half million tourists per year.

In 2013, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour was introduced, and almost 62,000 visited the nine stops. The state’s distilleries are a mix of urban and rural settings, making each stop distinct. As Chuck wrote after his and Donna’s touring in 2014:

“While the Jim Beam American Stillhouse is located just a couple of minutes from Interstate 65, visiting Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve involves driving for miles along country lanes. The tour at the expanded Wild Turkey distillery has an industrial feel; the Four Roses distillery features century-old Spanish Mission-style architecture rarely seen in Kentucky.

“Each location offers one-ounce bourbon tastings. But Town Branch is actually a combination brewery and distillery — a ‘brewstillery’ — so visitors can choose among a combination of both bourbons and ales or beers (including a popular beer aged in used bourbon barrels). Maker’s Mark offers a taste of clear, unaged whiskey known as ‘white dog’ (or “white lightning”); you can also personally hand-dip a bottle of Maker’s in the brand’s signature red wax.”

Visitors who don’t want to designate a driver can book a ride through Mint Julep Tours or R&R Limousine. Not a bad idea, especially for doing the entire trail, since stops are up to 70 miles apart. mintjuleptours.com, 502-583-1433; rrlimo.com, 502-458-1862

In Louisville, at least two dozen businesses – historic restaurants to edgy bistros – are Urban Bourbon Trail stops because they each carry at least 50 types of bourbon. gotolouisville.com, 888-568-4784

Buffalo Trace Distillery, 55 miles east of town, in 2013 became a National Historic Landmark because the campus remained intact and in operation before, during and after Prohibition. Complimentary tours last one hour, and the theme (such as architecture, history, ghosts) depends on when you visit. buffalotracedistillery.com, 800-654-8471

For more about bourbon in Kentucky: kybourbontrail.com, 502-875-9351.

At kentuckyderby.com is this recipe for the mint julep cocktail:

Mint Juleps
(Makes 16)

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Sprigs of fresh mint
Crushed ice
1 quart bourbon

Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with three or four sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight.

Make one julep at a time by filling a tall bar glass with crushed ice. Add one tablespoon of mint syrup and two ounces of bourbon. Stir rapidly with a spoon. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.