In the heart of central Kentucky – not far from it’s famed bluegrass country – is an area known as the Bourbon Trail, a confluence of seven distilleries that produce the bulk of the world’s Bourbon. Formally designated by Congress as “America’s Official Native Spirit.” The distilleries offer tours and tastings and offer a perfect RV getaway.
Kentucky Bourbon has a rich history and proud tradition that dates back to the late 1700’s. For more than two centuries, no family has influenced bourbon-making more deeply than the Beam family, maker of the world’s best selling bourbon. The tour of the Jim Beam distillery near Clermont, KY offers an up-close look at how they make the world’s best-selling bourbon–from grain to barrel to bottle and beyond.
Here, you learn that bourbon is unique among whiskeys because, by law, it must be at least 51% corn. Why is it called Bourbon? Well, one of Kentucky’s original counties was Bourbon County, established in 1785 when Kentucky was still part of Virginia. Farmers shipped their whiskey in oak barrels — stamped from Bourbon County — down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. The long trip aged the whiskey, with the oak wood giving it the distinct mellow flavor and amber color. Pretty soon, whiskey from Bourbon County grew in popularity and became known as Bourbon whiskey.
Allow at least three hours for the Beam tour, which always ends in the tasting room, Where visitors can sample some of the 12 different brands the company makes. But remember, the Beam operation is just one of seven distilleries on the Bourbon Trail.
A great place to use as your RVing base while touring the Bourbon Trail is Bardstown, KY, recently designated by USA Today as America's most beautiful small town. It's a delightful town, steeped in history. Abraham Lincoln walked its streets. So did Daniel Boone. Upstairs at the Old Talbott Inn, built in 1779, are bullet holes reportedly fired by Jesse James. Bardstown has museums and quaint shops.
What the Napa Valley is to California wine, Bardstown is to the Bourbon Trail. Just outside of town, we used the My Old Kentucky Home State Park as our camping base, named after the famous Steven Foster song celebrating the mansion the state park is home to.
Just down the road from the state Park is the Heaven Hill distillery. It, too, offers great tours and lots of history. Oh yeah, they have tastings, too.
It was founded by the Heavenhill family. One word. Heavenhill. But rumor has it that when a teetotaler daughter saw a typo referring to the place as Heaven Hill – two words – she let the mistake stay so as to distance the family name from the whiskey business.
About a half hour drive from Bardstown is the Makers Mark distillery. Situated on gorgeous grounds with Whiskey Creek running right through it and providing the pure water used in making of its bourbon, I was offered a tin cup sip straight out of a distilling tank, before the product had aged. My tongue burned. Jennifer got no further than a sniff. At Maker’s Mark, visitors have the opportunity to hand dip a bottle themselves… sealing it with the brands distinctive melted red wax.
Each distillery is unique. Each distillery has a story.
Take Red Roses bourbon, for example. Seems its founder was smitten by a beautiful young lady. He asked her to marry him. She refused to answer immediately but said, if the next time he saw her she was wearing a corsage, the answer was yes. The next time he saw her she was wearing a corsage of four red roses. Thus a bourbon brand was born.
Even if you don't drink alcohol, or bourbon is not your thing, the bourbon trail is a fascinating look at history in some of the most beautiful country you can find.
If you decide to visit Kentucky's Bourbon Trail, allow at least three days to take it all in. There are lots of campgrounds servicing the area.