Want to grow your whiskey passion? Travel, I say, travel! In the history of distilling, there’s never been a better time to get out to distilleries and experience how whiskeys are made and meet the people who make them. I like drinking and sharing my bottles as much as anyone, but nothing beats going to the source, especially with good friends who share your enthusiasm.
As a boy of the Bluegrass State, I’m a shameless promoter of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. But the more I get out and around the U.S., the more excited I am about whiskey made well away from home.
Travel to where whiskey isn’t huge: I’ve written here about Hard Truth Distillery in tiny Nashville, Ind., and how it’s a microcosm of what American whiskey tourism will become. But even further away in Colorado, I got to see this summer what’s happening at amazing places like Laws Whiskey House in Denver, and Breckenridge Distillery in Breckenridge. Not only are these places making amazingly good whiskey, their visitor experiences are much better than a guy like me would expect.
That was especially true at the onsite restaurant at Breckenridge. The food and service I enjoyed there in August was as good any distillery restaurant I’ve been to, and it rivalled most common restaurants elsewhere. Who’d have thought great food would become such an important part of a great whiskey tour?
What’s cool about these younger distilleries is how fast they’re learning that visitors want much more than simple tastings and tours.
Travel outside the U.S.: No, going to Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico, didn’t broaden my whiskey knowledge, but my recent visit there to Tequila Fortaleza and Casa Noble distilleries sharpened my awareness of how differently whiskey and tequila are made.
I’ve known and taught those differences for years in presentations. But to fly to Mexico, dive into that historic culture and learn about how agave is cultivated, harvested, cooked, crushed, fermented and distilled—and how a country’s distilling heritage can grow when there’s no 13-year prohibition—should be a bucket list item for serious spirits fans.
What’s striking is understanding how the long-term investment for tequila makers comes on the front end. Agave takes 5-10 years to cultivate and harvest, but then it can go straight to the bottle after distilling. Whiskey, of course, is the opposite. Also, you can grow and import grain for whiskey from anywhere, but the Blue Weber agave is the only agave used in tequila making, and it must come from five states in Mexico.
Here’s what really struck me: Whereas whiskey makers cut the heads and tails from the hearts with precision, some tequila distillers use practically everything in the run since agave doesn’t yield all the truly dangerous byproducts created in grain distillation. The result is a complexity that, right off the still—as low as 92 proof at Tequila Fortaleza—will blow your mind. That teaches you subtleties, my friends, ones you’ll never find in 138-proof still-strength whiskey.
Travel to whiskey festivals: There are tons of these all over the U.S. and the globe, but there’s none like the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Created and hosted in Bardstown, Ky., the self-dubbed Bourbon Capital of the World, this is one of a handful of festivals at which you can meet, shake hands and get autographs from many of your distiller heroes—plus taste their whiskeys. And as of this year, Kentucky law changed to allow bottle sales from distillery booths, in addition to sales the 20 single-barrel picks done by the festival’s team. That doesn’t happen anywhere else.
Speaking of distillery heroes, one of mine, Fred Noe, master distiller at James B. Beam Distilling Co., is back to his former, wisecracking self. When his whip smart sense of humor started to soften a couple of years ago, I assumed the decades of hard work and traveling were wearing him out as he headed toward his mid-60s, but I was wrong.
Noe openly discussed his struggle with Type 2 diabetes for years, but as his kidney function began declining and the toll of dialysis zapped his energy, his demeanor became unusually subdued.
Eventually, he needed a kidney transplant, and the search for a donor began with Beam employees. A 25-year veteran Jim Beam co-worker, DeeAnn Hogan, learned that Noe needed a kidney and asked him for his blood type. She was a match and eventually donated a kidney to Noe in 2021. (Click here for a good video interview and story with Noe, his doctor and Hogan.)
Back to mid-September, when I interviewed Noe (alongside Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris) on the main stage at the Bourbon Festival. Noe was back and funnier than ever, fully in his element of storytelling to a large crowd. If you know him, you know that means loads of laughs.
Welcome back, Fred, we’re glad you’re well again!
Speaking of Chris Morris, he knows whiskey history: During the same interview with Noe, I asked both of them to paint a picture of what the bourbon industry looked like when they started (late ‘70s for Morris, early ‘80s for Noe). A noted American whiskey history buff, Morris pegged American whiskey’s popularity peak at 1976, saying production and sales (adjusted for that period) were higher then than even now! Its slump, though, came alarmingly fast in the years immediately afterward, and the industry panicked.
“Talk about things going from good to bad to worse in a hurry!” Morris said. “And no one knew that we had such a long road to recovery ahead of us.”
When Noe considered joining his father, Booker Noe, at Jim Beam, four decades ago, he told the crowd that Booker painted a grim view of his job possibilities in American whiskey.
“He said, ‘Boy, you’d better concentrate on getting a college degree, because I don’t know if this whiskey business will be here down the road.’ He was serious because it was that bad,” Noe said. “At that time, the Booker Noe Plant was shut down, and our Clermont distillery was only running six months out of the year.
“Now, we make whiskey around the clock in Clermont, and we’re spending $400 million dollars to expand production at Booker Noe. It’s crazy!”
Get ready for luxury hotels along the Bourbon Trail: I also interviewed Will Hardy, one of three partners set to create The Trail Hotel in Bardstown. A veteran of the Atlanta commercial and residential real estate scene, Hardy (a native Kentuckian from Bullitt County, which is home to both Beam distilleries) felt the pull to create a hotel in in his home state, and he led his partners to an abandoned Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Bardstown.
“I’ve always loved Kentucky, and I wanted to do something there,” he said. “What The Trail Hotel will be is a high-end, concierge hotel, where we handle everything for guests coming to the Bourbon Trail.”
That means if you want to visit Kentucky’s distilleries, you can call the hotel, give the staff your arrival and departure dates, and they’ll handle every other detail in the experience. Now that’s service!
Some highlights from Hardy’s interview:
- Expect a complete overhaul of the historic hotel site to create luxury experiences
- Brand-specific suites named after legendary Kentucky distilleries (think The Old Forester Suite or The Heaven Hill Suite)
- A high-end restaurant and bar
- Private meeting/event spaces
- A new pool and recreation spaces
The takeaway: It’s great to see business outsiders noticing the opportunity to build upscale spaces in Bardstown. Credit Bardstown Bourbon Co. for its groundbreaking distillery, restaurant and bar and Lux Row for its thoroughly modern and gorgeous site. Weyland Ventures is already overhauling and glamming-up the historic Bardstown Parkview Motel and Kurtz Restaurant and renaming it the Bardstown Motor Lodge. It’ll be amazing as well.
So, you see, it’s time to get out and beyond your home bar or favorite liquor store and start experiencing the national and global spirits industry. There’s so much to learn beyond your favorite bottles!
Steve Coomes is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine....