Bourbon Country: Rolling hills & flaming barrels

This is bourbon country

Image source: Cindy Perman | CNBC

Kentucky is horse country, home of the Kentucky Derby, but it's also bourbon country. This is where 95 percent of the world's bourbon is made.

Louisville is a uniquely cosmopolitan city, peppered with old world luxury, a hip urban vibe and a healthy dose of kitsch. Here, you can get some of the finest bourbon cocktails you'll ever drink and any bourbon-related product you could imagine, from bourbon coffee to bourbon shower gel! Churchill Downs is in Louisville. In the rolling hills of horse country outside of the city is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

This is where the bourbon distilleries are and many open their doors for tours. You can also tour the Brown-Forman cooperage, where they make the barrels for their bourbons.

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You can do a public tour, where you hop on a bus and they'll pick the stops for you. Or, you can do a custom tour, where you get to choose the distilleries. Two things to know before planning a trip to the bourbon trail: 1) The distilleries can be anywhere from 8 to 74 miles apart and 2) bourbon isn't that kind of drink. So, you're not going to be able to hit five in a day. The best way to do the distilleries is one by one, but if you're from out of town and don't have that luxury, you'll get a max of three in a day—two distilleries where you'll do the full tour and tasting and one just for the tasting. No matter which ones you go to, leave time for the gift shop! Each has some unique bourbon offerings, from copper shot glasses at Woodford Reserve to turkey callers at Wild Turkey.

Prices vary depending on how many distilleries you want to do and how many people are in your group. The two main tour companies are Mint Julep Tours and R&R Limousine. Or, you can drive there yourself. Just be sure to drink responsibly.

They'll issue you a Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport upon your arrival, as well as an Urban Bourbon Trail passport, which will help jump-start your tour of all the fine bourbon offerings the city and countryside have to offer—some you may have been dying to try and some you didn't even know existed! Collect enough stamps in your passport, and they'll name you an official citizen of Bourbon Country!

There are only eight distilleries on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail—Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve and Evan Williams—but there are other distilleries that do tours.

Here on the bourbon trail, you'll see everything from giant mash vats the size of swimming pools, to big copper stills, secret passageways of bourbon and the system used to transport the barrels around the distilleries—train-track like barrel runs. Oh, and did we mention the flaming barrels?

Click ahead for photos from the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

—By CNBC's Cindy Perman. Follow her on Twitter @ponyblog
Posted 24 Sept. 2013.


A tale of two bourbon trails

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Since the distilleries can be far apart, bourbon country is divided into two main regions: east and south. Meaning east and south of Louisville.

Woodford Reserve (pictured left) is part of the east group, which also includes Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Town Branch and Barrel House.

Driving up to Woodford Reserve, you find yourself winding through rolling hills of horse farms with a white fence. You are most definitely in horse country.

The lobby includes a mini museum of how bourbon is made, an interesting prelude for your tour. And the gift shop has some unique wares, from copper bar accessories such as shakers, shot glasses and mint julep glasses to bourbon-flavored coffee.

You'll see 500 feet of barrel run that goes from inside the warehouses to the outside. They look like small train tracks but these tracks are the gravity-powered system used to transport the bourbon.

Oh, and on this tour, you'll also get to meet Elijah Pepper, the resident cat, named after Woodford Reserve's founder and first distiller. He's a cat, so of course, by meet, we mean watch Elijah sleep.

Time to make the mash

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Bourbon is made with a mix of corn, rye and barley malt. To be considered bourbon, by law, it has to be at least 51 percent corn. At most distillers, it's more like 60 to 70 percent.

On the tours, you'll see bubbling mash fermenters that are the size of above-ground pools, like these wooden ones pictured here at Woodford Reserve. These big vats are where the grains are fermented.

Basically, that's the mash mixed with yeast, where the yeast feeds on the sugars and creates carbon dioxide and alcohol.

At this point, it's "beer without the hops," Lew Bryson wrote in "Bourbon for Dummies." They'll let you taste it but it tastes like flat funky beer so you may want to pass.

And just in case you get any funny ideas, they've got a sign by their fermenters at Buffalo Trace that says, "No swimming!"

I guess that's how deep some people's bourbon love goes!

'Sweet corn lightning'

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After the mash is made, the bourbon gets moved into giant metal stills (Pictured here are copper stills at Woodford Reserve), where it is heated to turn the alcohol into a vapor. As the vapor cools, it turns into liquid.

Nothing can be added to flavor the bourbon, so the liquid is crystal clear. That rich brown color you see in the bottle comes from the charring on the barrel. That's probably why you get a smoky flavor from some, though the flavor wheel is vast—everything from caramel, toffee and honey to apricot, clove, tobacco and oak.

At some, they'll let you taste the clear bourbon before it hits the barrel, which "tastes like sweet corn lightning," Bryson writes.

You can't hurry love—or bourbon

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To be called bourbon, it must stay in the barrel at least two years, though most bourbons are older than that.

"Bourbon isn't something you can rush. You make it, you sit back and you wait," said Gary Lewis, a guide with Mint Julep Tours.

One of the reasons most bourbons aren't labeled with how many years they've been aged is because they come from several barrels, which can have varying ages.

The great barrel run

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A lot of industries have gone high-tech but when it comes to moving barrels around these here parts, they use a technology as old as time: gravity.

These barrel runs look like mini train tracks and they snake throughout the distillery grounds, from inside the warehouses, through the roads and hills to the front gate.

The Woodford Reserve barrel run (pictured left) is 500 feet long and was built in 1934.

A bourbon lover's Holy Grail

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The bourbon lover's Holy Grail: rows and rows of bourbon as far as the eye can see!

Because of varying temperatures around the bourbon warehouses, the barrels are moved to round out the flavor and make sure they don't get too hot or too cold.

At Woodford Reserve, the tour guide explains that the shelving system is freestanding, so even if there was an earthquake, the bourbon would still stand.

Buffalo Trace has a cool secret bookcase that leads to one of their storage facilities. Tour guide Freddie Johnson, a third-generation employee, explained that there's enough bourbon on hand to last 20 years if they stopped production now!

Some of the storage buildings at Buffalo Trace have bars on the windows. Were they once used as prisons? Nope. That's to, um, keep the bourbon from … escaping, Johnson explained.

Great bourbon balls of fire!

Image source: Brown-Forman

To be considered bourbon, it has to be made in a brand new, charred white oak barrel. That means one-time use only. (But don't worry, environmentalists—those barrels go on to long and healthy lives housing other items such as whiskey, tequila, coffee and hot sauce.)

And, given that nothing can be added to the bourbon to give it flavor, 50 to 60 percent of the flavor comes from the charring on those barrels.

Brown-Forman, maker of such brands as Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve and Old Forester, has a barrel-making plant, known as a cooperage, right in Louisville and they offer tours.

But why would I want to go on a tour that doesn't involve tasting bourbon?, you might ask.

Two words: Flaming barrels.

Bottling the bourbon

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You'll get to see the bottling facilities at each distillery where the bourbon is bottled.

Buffalo Trace's Blanton's bourbon has a particularly cool bottle: It's like a glass soccer ball with a brass horse and jockey on top. On the tour, you'll get to see everything from where the bottles get filled, to where the stoppers get wax sealed—by hand.

One interesting note about the Blanton's stopper: They're not all the same. There are eight designs, each with a horse and jockey in a different position. Beneath the back leg is a letter, a "B," an "L," and "A"—put them all together and they spell Blanton's and form a zoetrope, where if you flip the pictures fast, it looks like a motion picture. In this case, it's the start of a horse race, the middle, coming around a turn, to raised hand signaling he won!

You can drink your way through the collection (at varying times your liquor store will have different letters, depending on the latest batch) or purchase the stoppers in the gift shop. To properly display your trophies, Buffalo Trace also sells a charred barrel stave, that's one thin strip of bourbon barrel wood with holes drilled into it to display all eight. For more information, check out BlantonsBourbon.com/stopper.

Sipping bourbon and riding the turkey

Turkey barrels outside of bourbon maker Wild Turkey, which is owned by Italy's Campari.
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Bourbon country is full of great photo ops—including these bourbon barrel turkeys outside of Wild Turkey.

From the minute you get there and see these saddled up turkeys, pictured left, you get the vibe at Wild Turkey—"C'mon in, sit down and try the bourbon."

Today's Wild Turkey isn't the firewater from your Daddy's liquor cabinet: The Wild Turkey 101 is a smooth blend with notes of caramel, vanilla, honey and orange. And, they've been experimenting with adding some flavors to their bourbon, including honey and spice. But remember what you've learned: If you add stuff to it, you can't call it bourbon. So, they call these varieties American Honey and Wild Turkey Spiced. Bourbon is notably absent from the name. But, they're still tasty and fun to try.

Each distillery does a tasting, which generally involves about one to three samples. By law, they're not allowed to distribute that much liquor, so the tastings tend to be shorter than you may like and not involve as much nuanced discussion of this bourbon versus that bourbon. Plus, it's hard to cram into a tasting at the end of a tour—you don't want to drink it that fast. It's just not that kind of drink.

At Wild Turkey, you get to try two, but with all the offerings, you're bound to want to try more and then find yourself marveling at that thought passing through your head! They also have a gift shop that's not to be missed, everything from Wild Turkey turkey callers and all kinds of camouflage bourbon gear but also some blinged out things like the American Honey T-shirt.

The Bourbon Bucket List

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They offer two passports in Bourbon Country: one for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and one for the Urban Bourbon Trail, where they encourage you to try a variety of all the bourbon-related drinks and items Louisville has to offer.

The Urban Bourbon Trail passport is chock full of information, from the history of bourbon in Kentucky, to what the rules are for bourbon, how to drink bourbon like a pro and perhaps the best part—The Bourbon Bucket List.

Before you even realize you needed a Bourbon Bucket List, you'll find yourself checking maps and making plans to check things off your Bourbon Bucket List!

The list includes everything from bourbon-flavored beer at Bluegrass Brewing Company and bourbon-flavored ice cream at Graeter's or Comfy Cow, to some of the old distilleries and bottling plants in downtown Louisville with their impressive architecture to Cave Hill Cemetery. You can pay your respects to some of the bourbon greats who made their final resting place here, including George Garvin Brown of Brown-Forman and Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle.

Oh, also, for your chicken bucket list — KFC's Colonel Sanders is here! (One interesting note: There is more than one life-size sculpture of the Colonel around Louisville, including at the Louisville Visitors' Center and at the novelty store Why Louisville.)

Kentucky champagne

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There are more bourbon offerings in this city than you could ever imagine, including some of the finest bourbon cocktails you'll ever drink.

Yes, of course, perfectly crafted mint juleps but also some cocktails you might never have heard of like Kentucky champagne at Harvest restaurant in the hip NuLu section of the city. It's made of bourbon, Tuaca, the local soda Ale 8 One (a ginger and citrus flavored soft drink) with a lemon peel, and pairs nicely with the brioche French toast with bourbon-vanilla custard.

Or, there's the "Bisontini" at the historic Brown Hotel, which is Buffalo Trace cream liqueur, bourbon and a hint of nutmeg and pairs nicely with a Saturday night.

And, to take a little bit of that Kentucky bourbon cocktail magic home with you, there's the Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book by Joy Perrine (named Best Bartender in Louisville by Louisville magazine) and Susan Reigler (an award-winning former restaurant critic), which offers more bourbon cocktail recipes than you even knew existed, including some from the distilleries. You'll learn how to make everything from a New Fashioned (like an Old Fashioned, except new) to a proper hot toddy and drinks you've never heard of, like a Harvest Moon or a Kentucky Bourbon Key Lime Sour.

Bathing in bourbon

Image source: Bourbon Barrel Food, Maker's Mark, Moss Hill

Sure, there's a lot of bourbon here in Kentucky—more than a million barrels are produced every year—but there are also more things made of bourbon than you can possibly imagine!

Down here in these parts, they make everything with bourbon, from bourbon coffee and bourbon smoked sea salt to Kentuckyaki (yep, teriyaki with bourbon), which they sell by the gallon, and even chopped up bourbon barrel wood to throw on your grill or smoker.

Some of it you can buy at the distilleries themselves—both Woodford Reserve and Maker's Mark, for example, sell bourbon coffee. Another good place to get your bourbon on is the Butchertown Market. Built in the early 1880s, the market was originally a leather-tanning operation and later a soap factory. Today, it's a loft-like marketplace where you can buy clothing and jewelry as well as every imaginable bourbon item, from bourbon sea salt, bourbon sugar and Kentuckyaki, to bourbon-scented soaps, lotions, shower gels and candles.

Now, you can stop threatening to bathe in bourbon—and actually do it!

For more bourbon offerings than you can handle, check out BourbonBarrelFoods.com and Moss Hill Bath & Body.

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