Build your own bourbon trail
Kentucky’s bourbon is calling and we’d never refuse that southern hospitality. Grab your banjo and tumbler glass and let’s carve a bourbon trail.
March 27, 2021
The whole world loves bourbon, our great American spirit. It’s certainly a point of pride for bourbon’s Kentucky heartland. So many distilleries dot the rolling hills of the Bluegrass state they’ve come to form a “bourbon trail”. Perhaps you’ll get there IRL one day, but you and your friends can start your journey tonight with just Drizly and a good attitude. Let’s meander down the bourbon trail from Louisville to Frankfort and taste the signature flavors of Kentucky - whether we’re actually there or not.
What is bourbon whiskey?
Bourbon is distinctly American whiskey made from grains. It has a few main legal requirements:
- - Like France and their “Champagne” denomination, you’ve got to make your bourbon in the USA or you can’t call it “bourbon”. Sorry, Canada.
- - Bourbon has to be at least 51% corn. If you’re at 50%, you’re out of luck.
- - Bourbon ages in new, charred oak casks for a minimum of two years. Cask aging adds color and critical flavors of wood, toast, smoke, caramel and vanilla among many others. This is the biggest contributor to bourbon’s flavor.
- - Bourbon has to go into the bottle at 40% ABV minimum.
Does all bourbon have to come from Kentucky?
No, actually. Bourbon is inextricably linked to Kentucky (they have 37 distilleries), but they don’t have a monopoly on the name. As long as the distillery follows the rules above and makes their whiskey in the U.S.A., they can call it “bourbon”.
How is bourbon made?
Let’s do a quick mash course. Bourbon’s primary ingredient is, appropriately, corn, which is America’s biggest crop by a country mile. Distillers use at least 51% of this wildly fermentable cereal grain, but they can use more. Corn gives bourbon a pleasant sweetness. Other grains are a mish-mash of hall-of-famers like nutty barley, spicy rye and smooth, soft wheat. Some distillers, like Elijah Craig, occasionally tell you the percentage of each grain in the mash.
1. The mash
Distillers “mash” these goopy grains together in hot water to unlock their fermentable sugars.
Yeast ferments the grain sugars and creates alcohol, carbon dioxide, and deliciousness.
After fermentation, this “distiller’s beer” needs distillation to take the next leap. Stills heat the beer and vaporize/condense the alcohol to produce a strong spirit.
Aging is key. All bourbon ages in new, charred oak, but everyone does it their own way. Barrels age differently based on humidity, temperature, altitude and their placement in the warehouse (“rickhouse”). Master distillers must decide where to age their barrels - and for how long. Then they have to taste, taste and taste again to come up with a winning blend.
What is straight bourbon?
Straight bourbon has to be barrel aged for at least 2 years, but anything under 4 years old needs an age statement so you aren’t in the dark about your youthful whiskey.
The bourbon trail
That’s the grain-to-glass overview. Now cue the Bluegrass music, pull out your map and let’s get moving
When you think of bourbon, you don’t usually think of a big city, but Louisville (no matter how you pronounce it), on the banks of the Ohio River, has bourbon casks hiding in every nook and cranny. Louisville isn’t just home to the Kentucky Derby; they’ve got some legendary bourbon distilleries, too.
What are some great Louisville distilleries?
Louisville downtown is its own mini bourbon trail, with several world-class distilleries practically on the same street.
Angel’s Envy, across from the Louisville Slugger field, has some richly-flavored offerings. Their straight bourbon has notes of caramel, raisins and cocoa; a real home run (sorry). They’re also known for “finishing” their whiskey in rum and port barrels. After the initial aging period, the bourbon goes into used rum/port barrels for added complexity.
A 10 minute walk from Angel’s Envy takes you to Old Forester. They’ve been around for over 150 years, so they’re pretty dialed in. Old Forester straight bourbon is great for cocktails or sipping neat, and their Statesman features in one of our favorite cocktails.
Literally down the street from Old Forester is Michter’s. We’re fans of most of their bourbons, with a particular soft spot for their spicy, fruity rye.
How is wheated whiskey different from regular whiskey? What are some good wheated whiskeys?
Corn and wheat are old friends, and they make sippable, silky bourbon that is generally smoother than other bourbons. A famous Louisville wheated bourbon is Weller. Weller’s beautifully burnt orange bourbon has notes of cinnamon and vanilla. Beyond Louisville (in Bardstown, our next stop) is Larceny, a smooth, sweet and surprisingly affordable bourbon.
Maker’s Mark, defending champion of wheated bourbon
Maker’s Mark is off the beaten path in tiny Loretto, KY, but its flavors of honey, citrus and spice are world famous. Maker’s has notes of honey, citrus and spice. You can try it neat or in a cocktail, but it should definitely feature in your bourbon trail lineup.
The 45-minute journey south from Louisville to Bardstown is pure Kentucky. It’s a land of rolling hills, steeples and horse farms. You’ll likely see more horses than people, and it’s possible that the horses run the place. Bardstown fancies itself “the bourbon capital of the world”. Let’s see why.
Heaven Hill Brands
Bardstown’s Heaven Hill Brands makes bourbons for all price ranges, but it’s all generally excellent. Their gorgeous Elijah Craig bourbon is full of sweet, smokey and minty flavors that compliment the vanilla and oak nose.
What’s a good cheap bourbon whiskey?
Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams has you covered. This unfussy bourbon has notes of caramel, vanilla, oak and even mint. It’s smooth and won’t burn you or your wallet. Jim Beam bourbon, produced just west of Bardstown, also fits the bill. It’s grainier and fruitier than Evan Willams, so you’ll be the judge of which one best suits your cocktails.
What does rye bourbon whiskey taste like? What’s a good rye whiskey?
Ever eaten rye bread? Way more intense than wheat, right? It’s the same deal with bourbon. Rye has more assertive spiciness and will hold its own in cocktails with bolder flavors. Kentucky has a range of great ryes, but we often return to Bardstown’s Pikesville Rye. You’ll get cherry, licorice and certainly rye spice from this copper beauty.
Willett distillery is a small family operation tucked into a Bardstown hillside. Their pot still reserve ages for 8-10 long years and has lovely notes of honey, citrus and cherry.
The road to Frankfort
Heading east into Kentucky proper and towards the capital of Frankfort, the distilleries come hard and fast. None of them are really missable, either. Behold!
Not to name drop, but the first distiller on the route is Four Roses, housed in a beautiful Spanish mission-style building. Their yellow label rivals Evan Williams as a top-notch cheaper bourbon that still has splendid character. It’s light-bodied, but also floral and fruity with a hint of spice. Don’t stop at the yellow label; the sky’s the limit with this brand.
30 minutes from Frankfort, the massive rickhouses on the horizon tell you you’re crossing into Wild Turkey country. Employing more rye and heavier barrel char than their competitors, Wild Turkey features a bolder, more aggressive bourbon designed to stand out in both cocktails and on its own. Dig into their 101 or Rare Breed for a particularly memorable experience.
The last distillery before Frankfort looks like a horse farm, but it’s actually Woodford Reserve. Woodford’s bourbon is robust and memorably complex. It’s full-bodied with creamy notes of tobacco, cocoa and espresso. For added complexity, try their Double-oaked: a fresh secondary barrel-aging intensifies sweet vanilla and toast flavors that are hard to come by with single aging.
Finally arriving in Frankfort, Kentucky’s cozy capital, you’ll find a monolithic brick distillery full of peacefully aging barrels. The reward inside is the gorgeously complex Buffalo Trace. This is about as “bourbony” as it gets, with flavors of toffee, mint, spice, dark fruit (figs?), all balanced by a full body, sweetness and gentle boozy heat.
We built this bourbon trail, but there’s infinitely more to explore. Get started on your personalized path tonight with Drizly!