Kentucky Is An Unrivaled Place To Experience Bourbon - The Whiskey Wash

Kentucky Is An Unrivaled Place To Experience Bourbon

Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, but Kentuckians tend to believe the best of it comes from the Bluegrass. Adding to that reputation—and virtually ensuring it’s never eclipsed elsewhere—is the ever-evolving Kentucky bourbon experience. Atop well-marketed mainstays like the state’s Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail, so much more is now on offer to lead people down the road of whiskey heritage, experience hospitality and enjoy flat-out fun things to do. Locals—and hundreds of thousands of visitors—saw a lot of that in September, a near-fulsome offering of bourbon-centric events.

Could, for example, one of the three massive music festivals hosted here last month be duplicated elsewhere? In terms of music and liquid, sure. But then you’d not have the setting or hospitality of Kentucky. You’d also not have nearly unlimited access to the nation’s greatest whiskey makers, their stories or their knowledge—sometimes even their homes. (Yeah, that really happens here.)

If you haven’t been to Kentucky for a serious bourbon culture immersion, here’s what you’re missing.

Heaven Hill barrel relay team takes title at Kentucky Bourbon Festival. (image via Kentucky Bourbon Festival)

Distillery Experiences: Living history. Commonly loud, regularly hot, sometimes dusty; always a head-scratching web of plumbing—one of a kind stuff. I love craft distilleries (their distillers and spirits, too), but seeing whiskey made on an industrial scale is, and always will be, more exciting in my opinion. Would you rather visit Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory or a chocolate shop? Nuff said.

Access to masters of the craft: Whiskey fans still have access to master distillers, men and women who’ve figured out how to hold high-pressure, high-profile jobs without letting either go to their heads. People idolize them for good reason: they’re nice and they great work. Given other industries I’ve covered as reporter, it still surprises me how many of them give me private numbers and emails—access that sometimes angers publicists hired to shield them. They attend endless festivals and bottle signings and pose for photos with anyone who’ll ask. Sometimes you look up from your breakfast at a humble hotel an see one of these industry legends regretting the same lame bacon and sausage morning freebie. You have to come to the Bluegrass State to see that.

The Napa-fication of Bourbon: In January, New York Times reporter Clay Risen wrote a story about what he termed, “the Napafication of Bourbon.” Risen interviewed sources who believe what happened to the wine industry in Napa Valley, Calif., is happening similarly in Kentucky due to the renaissance of American whiskey. Surging domestic demand and global respect for the state’s spirits are driving and creating tourism experiences. Just as Napa Valley once was a simple agricultural region, Kentucky’s ag-centric whiskey industry is effecting great and unexpected changes.

In the works at a few distilleries are boutique hotels, elevated tasting and dining experiences and more opportunities to engage actual whiskey makers. The epicenter of that change is Bardstown and nearby Loretto (home to Maker’s Mark). Two modest hotels are under construction in Bardstown, and no distillery, new or old, is staying the same.

Tourist distilleries in Louisville are upping their offerings as well with private functions, distillery-only releases and more. In other words, you could come year after year and experience something completely unique with each visit.

Kentucky has the best whiskey festivals: September saw Louisville host three straight weekends of bourbon-centric music festivals that drew close to 300,000 attendees. (For a point of reference, Louisville proper is home to 750,000 residents.) The city claims these three events—Hometown Rising (country), Bourbon & Beyond (mainstream rock), and Louder than Life (heavy metal)—injected $100 million into the community. That’s huge, and all of it can be credited to the American whiskey boom.

But that’s just in Louisville. While Bourbon & Beyond was underway, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival celebrated its 27th year 50 minutes away in Bardstown. That five-day event draws an estimated 50,000 people to a town of 13,000. It started humbly and has grown ever since. According to Wild Turkey co-master distillery Jimmy Russell, “When the festival started way back, it was outside, maybe a half dozen distilleries were there with little booths and samples of our whiskeys on card tables. Crowds were so small that the master distillers spent most of that event drinking each other’s whiskeys.”

Smaller, but more curated and intimate events like Kentucky Bourbon Affair and Bourbon Classic are also excellent and give attendees other opportunities throughout the year to enjoy a thoroughly Kentucky whiskey experience. Both are Bourbon Country bucket list items.

Amazing Kentucky hospitality: I’ve lived in Kentucky my whole life, yet I’m still amazed by the kindness of its people. During three busy days doing food and whiskey pairings and leading discussions at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, I was blown away by the kind and humble people of Bardstown. It was extraordinary and sincere. Kentucky is a friendly state, but this was amazing.

The Private Picks: Single barrel private picks are the modern unicorns of American whiskey. Old whiskey is too hard to find and priced beyond the budgets of the average drinker. But these incredible barrel picks, chosen often with master distillers present, are everywhere in Kentucky. The actual dusties are all gone or astronomically priced, and sometimes those old coveted whiskeys aren’t always worth waiting in line to buy at exorbitant prices. But you can find these private picks in abundance and at affordable prices ($40-$60) everywhere in Kentucky.

Stalwart companies, feisty legislators: Were it not for Kentucky distilleries, you’d not see the rebound in American spirits we’re enjoying now. Until the past few years, distilleries have gotten no help from state and federal government for expansion efforts. Yet once distilleries saw that whiskey tourism was something people wanted, they spent their own money creating incredible visitor experiences. They were well down that road before Kentucky legislators caught on to the fact that the bourbon tide was raising many ships and that the whole state would benefit.

Just like whiskey making is a slow and patient process, these companies were incredibly patient with slow-moving officials. Now that our representatives in Frankfort agree that the whiskey business is a great one, there’s a ton of momentum for change. In the past two years distillers have been freed to have cocktail bars at their plants and ship customers’ bottles to the few states that will accept it. (Why it’s OK to ship wine hither and yon, but not spirits, makes no sense, but that’s changing.)

“Finally, they’re listening,” said Chad McCoy, a Kentucky state representative for Nelson County, home to Heaven Hill Distillery, Lux Row Distillery, Barton’s 1792 Distillery, Willett Distillery and others. “We have the momentum and support to start making significant changes at the state level, which will allow changes elsewhere. … Most everyone is on board when it comes to changes—even those in dry counties—because they see how bourbon is good for the whole state. It is definitely an exciting time here.”