Exploring Kentucky’s Best Bourbon

If the local Trappist monks can consider bourbon the secret to their chocolate fudge’s success, then I figure it can’t be too scandalous to be having some whisky at 9:00 a.m. After all, I am on a mission to experience America’s best bourbon and the booze is in the pecan waffle syrup, so it’s not like I’m drinking it straight.

Bourbon has been an integral part of southern life for over 200 years. Although best known as a sipping beverage, it’s not just for whiskey connoisseurs anymore. Innovative chefs are reinventing centuries of tradition and pairing bourbon with food in distinctive new ways. For visitors, this new cuisine provides a taste of  American’s best bourbon as well as a rugged history that enhances the dining experience and inspires culinary imaginations.

Birthplace of America’s Best Bourbon

Loading barrels in Kentucky Credit Buffalo Trace Distillery

Loading barrels in Kentucky Credit Buffalo Trace Distillery

Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon. In the 1700’s if you had the apparatus for a pot still, you had a distillery. By 1811, nearly two thousand distillers were producing whisky in Kentucky. Most were small operators but out of this number came whisky families whose descendants continue to work in the industry.

Today, the backwater, rough and tumble image is long gone. Premium bourbon has transformed the image of bourbon from “crass to class.” Kentucky now distills, ages and bottles 70% of North America’s most legendary spirit.

Master Distiller Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey Distillery

It was an honour to meet Master Distiller Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey Distillery

In order to appreciate the evolution of bourbon, it’s important to understand the art of production. There’s no better place to learn than Buffalo Trace Distillery. Located in Frankfort at the site of an ancient buffalo migration trail, it has been a working distillery since 1787. Today, Buffalo Trace continues to make bourbon according to its early time-honored traditions.

“The process begins with Kentucky corn, selected rye and barley malt, fresh limestone spring water and heritage yeast,” explains Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley. “The mash undergoes several phases of cooking, fermenting and distilling. Then, it’s stored in hand-selected, charred white oak barrels and aged to maturity.”

One key to success is the proportion of rye or wheat and barely malt. By law, bourbon must be distilled from no less than 51% corn, but the actual crafting of taste is in the hands of the Master Distiller.

Visitors can explore (and even cycle) Kentucky’s official Bourbon Trail, a collection of seven distilleries, the best bourbon in America with each unique in its own way including a few of my favourites such as Four Roses and Wild Turkey. Visit their website to download a copy of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Map.

The Art of Pairing

Buffalo Trace Distillery Bourbon tasting room Photo Credit Buffalo Trace Distillery

Learn about what makes the best bourbon at Buffalo Trace Distillery Bourbon tasting room Credit Buffalo Trace

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Centre is the perfect place to learn more about taste. Located in Bardstown, even non-drinkers will enjoy a visit – a sniffer phone shoots out a spray of bourbon-laced vapor so everyone can get the complete bourbon experience.

“There’s a taste for every palate,” says bourbon expert Lynne Grant, swirling her glass to demonstrate the proper tasting technique. “Everyone has their own ability to detect flavour profiles such as oak, cedar and almond.”

Distinctive flavours include vanilla, caramel and honey as well as fruit profiles such as apple, pear, fig and cherry. Spice notes include peppery tobacco leaf, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.

“Bourbon’s innate sweetness means it pairs very easily with food,” says Master Distiller Dave Pickerell of Maker’s Mark Distillery. He credits their bourbon’s soft, smooth flavour to the use of winter wheat.

“Bourbons containing more wheat than rye will be big, flavourful and all front palate with no bitterness,” says Pickerell. “Rye adds spiciness that pairs well with something bitter like dark chocolate.”

To assist in food pairing, the team at Woodford Reserve has even developed a flavour wheel that helps define the subtleties – and the possibilities – of bourbon.

The Evolution of Bourbon

Lexington Kentucky is within easy driving distance of nine working distilleries including Four Roses, Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace.

Lexington Kentucky is within easy driving distance of nine working distilleries including Four Roses, Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace.

Lexington Kentucky is within easy driving distance of nine working distilleries including Four Roses, Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace. The city of Louisville is also a growing centre for culinary innovation featuring bourbon. Chefs such as Jim Gerhardt of Limestone restaurant are exploring new directions with bourbon. Twists on southern charm appear in Bourbon-barrel Smoked Trout in Bibb Lettuce and Free-range Chicken stuffed with Herb Pesto and Bourbon Sauce.

Three Chimneys Farm Lexington

Thoroughbred horses and bourbon are a part of Kentucky culture

Even bastions of tradition, such as the venerable racetrack Churchill Downs, are exploring new culinary ground. Established in 1874, America’s most famous thoroughbred track has been offering a Kentucky Derby breakfast that’s as much a tradition as the ladies’ Derby hats. Now, the Derby breakfast has gone contemporary and includes country grits topped with bourbon-laced shrimp and waffles with pecan maple-bourbon syrup. Visitors experience these innovations in a dining room offering a panoramic view of the racetrack.

Even bourbon beer is proving popular. At Browning’s Restaurant & Brewery, the house specialty is Bourbon Stout, a small batch beer aged in oak barrels for at least 30 days. Its subtle espresso flavours make it a perfect after-dinner drink.

Evening is also time for a nightcap at Proof on Main, on Louisville’s historic street once known as Whisky Row. While the Kentucky forefathers might be shocked by pairing bourbon cocktails with bison tartare, today’s patrons enjoy cuisine as daring as the décor.

From distilleries to restaurants, a visit along Kentucky’s bourbon trail proves that today’s innovative cuisine and tutored tastings are a far cry from the past, when prohibition-era doctors prescribed a shot of bourbon for medicinal purposes.

As my own tour comes to an end, I decide that some Trappist bourbon fudge might be just what today’s doctor might order.

Travel Planner

Kentucky Tourism: The official website offers trip advice and a listing of distilleries offering tours. Visit www.kentuckytourism.com

 City of Louisville: Visit: gotolouisville.com

Heaven Hill Distillery: www.bourbonheritagecenter.com

Buffalo Trace Distillery: www.buffalotrace.com

Gethsemani Monastery: These Trappist monks produce fine cheeses, bourbon fudge and fruitcake. Visit www.gethsemanifarms.org

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Learn about America's best bourbon and Kentucky culture on Kentucky Bourbon Trail

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Showing 6 comments
  • Maria

    I would love to visit Kentucky, as it is one of the few states I haven’t been too and of course the Bourbon is a good excuse too 😉

  • LaTessa

    Great article! I’ve been thinking of taking the KY Bourbon Trail tour, your article may have just given me the nudge I need to do it this spring.

  • Rebecca

    I feel I should have known Bourbon was from Kentucky, and feel a little silly I didn’t. Great article!
    As my friend is from Lexington, I hope one day to visit during Derby season.

  • Joe

    Kentucky Bourbon eh? There’s a drink with a global reputation, and it’s great to read more about it – who knew it could be used so creatively in so many different things! And how great it must have been to meet the Master Distiller of Wild Turkey Distillery 🙂

  • John

    I’m headed to Louisville next month. Cant wait to taste some of the offerings there 🙂

  • Sue Reddel

    Looks like a wonderful tour. We’ve never been to Kentucky. Never heard of a bourbon pairing that certainly would be interesting.

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