Kentucky Traditions and Bourbon Distilleries
It takes more than a dream to become “The Greatest.” When Cassius Clay was just starting out on his road to glory, the unknown boxer looked for patrons. He didn’t have to look far. The Brown family of Brown-Forman Distilleries Co. fame and tradition was among one of Clay’s (now Muhammad Ali) earliest financial supporters.
That backing is indicative of the distillery’s support of African-Americans in its hometown of Louisville. The distillery maintains its headquarters in Louisville’s West End, an area predominantly made up of African-Americans. African-Americans have been part of the work crews for the company since at least 1883, and Brown-Forman has made a significant pledge to the African-American Heritage Center that is in its formative stages in the West End.
Brown-Forman is a diversified producer of fine quality consumer products. It was founded in 1870 by George Garvin Brown in Louisville. His original brand, Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, was America’s first bottled bourbon and remains one of Brown-Forman’s finest brands today. The company’s current chairman, Owsley Brown II, is a great-grandson of the founder.
Brown-Forman employs 3,750 people worldwide with about 1,300 located in Louisville. The company, one of the largest American-owned spirits and wine companies and among the top 10 largest global spirits companies, sells its brands in more than 135 countries and has offices in cities across the globe. In all, Brown-Forman has more than 35 brands in its portfolio of wines and spirits.
Rich in history and enriched with only the very best ingredients, Kentucky’s bourbon distillers put the welcome mat out for tourists on a quest for a taste of the products so unique to Kentucky. All of this is available on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, whose featured distilleries are independently owned – many by families with generations of expertise in the fine art (and science) of bourbon-making.
You can easily make a whole day (or more) of it by lifting a glass in tribute to the men and women of every race and background that have made bourbon an institution associated worldwide with Kentucky.
The Bourbon Trail, which covers 255 miles, is made up of two regions: I-65 due south and I-64 east of the city. From I-65, you can visit Jim Beam’s American Outpost, Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center and Maker’s Mark Distillery. From I-64, you’ll find Woodford Reserve Distillery, Buffalo Trace Distillery, Wild Turkey Distillery, Four Roses and Town Branch. In Louisville, you'll experience Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and Bulleit.
Judged the 2007 Whisky Distiller of the Year, Buffalo Trace Distillery of Frankfort has many firsts to its credit. It was the first distillery to ship whiskey down the Mississippi River and the first to commercially market single barrel bourbon.
Buffalo Trace’s tradition of fine bourbon making has been a part of this site’s heritage for more than two centuries. In fact, there has been a working distillery on the grounds since 1787.
The first modern distillery was built on this site in 1857 and was the first to incorporate the use of steam power – a major advance in producing high quality bourbon. The Buffalo Trace Distillery was later purchased by E.H. Taylor, Jr., one of Kentucky’s original bourbon aristocrats. Taylor brought advancements to the facility as well as to the entire whiskey industry. By 1886, the distillery had introduced the nation’s first climate-controlled warehousing for aging whiskey and had earned a worldwide reputation.
If you want to stay within the city limits of Louisville, you can have the opportunity to visit either Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville or head 5 miles from downtown to Bulleit Bourbon at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown is another must-stop along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The center is located within an hour’s drive of Louisville. A bonus is its proximity to My Old Kentucky Home, worth a visit any time of the year to those who crave hospitality Southern style and have an appreciation for a bygone era.
Jim Beam’s American Outpost in Clermont near Bardstown keeps hitting those milestones. In 2006, the distillery filled its ten millionth barrel of Jim Beam Bourbon. At 213 years and counting, Jim Beam Brands Co. has spanned seven generations of family members and master distillers.
To put the company’s heritage in perspective, George Washington was alive when this world-famous bourbon was still in its infancy! That kind of longevity is what the distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail can rightfully and proudly claim.
Take Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto as an example. This renowned bourbon distiller traces its lineage to 1779 when the Samuels family began putting their magic touch on their own distinctive bourbon recipe.
Fast forward to 1980 when the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article on Maker’s Mark. This little-known distiller became an overnight hit, exponentially increasing production and eventually moving into the global marketplace.
Three more stops along the trail:
Four Roses Distillery of Lawrenceburg is situated about 15 miles from the state capital of Frankfort. The distillery was constructed in 1911 and features distinctive Spanish Mission-style architecture rarely seen in Kentucky. When you visit, ask about the legend of the Four Roses. It has to do with how a distiller was smitten by a Southern belle. (We don’t want to give away too much…)
- Town Branch Bourbon is currently distilled through the Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company. Launched in 2012, Town Branch was the third bourbon here to be launched. Offerring distillery tours, it's a local favorite on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
- Wild Turkey Distillery, also of Lawrenceburg, has quite a story as to how the name “Wild Turkey” came about. We’ll just tell you that it came about accidentally during a turkey hunt in South Carolina. The hospitable people at the distillery can fill in the blanks.
- Woodford Reserve Distillery of Versailles is owned and operated by Brown-Forman Distilleries. The distillery is a National Historic Landmark located in the beautiful Bluegrass Region of Kentucky.
After experiencing one or all seven distilleries along the trail, you’ll enjoy putting your new Bourbon expertise to use along Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail – bars serving up 50 or more varieties of bourbon, comprised of at least seven brands. You can sample many of these distinctive tastes only in Louisville as many of the bars have their own signature bourbons straight out of the distilleries.
Several of the bars are conveniently located in the downtown district, easily accessible by trolley or on foot, with the remainder just a short jaunt away by car. (For a full listing and the addresses, visit www.justaddbourbon.com.)