Three essential Bourbon Trail stops in the heart of Kentucky.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Located in the center of the state, Lebanon markets itself as the “Heart of the Bourbon Belt,” the epicenter of barrel and bourbon making.
It’s no mere boast.
Lebanon is an official trailhead of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and is home to three essential stops.
Tour any distillery and you’ll likely leave knowing more about bourbon than you did when you arrived. Each tour is different, so visiting any distillery is worthwhile. Having toured the Kentucky Bourbon Trail twice now, however, I feel qualified to say that tours at Maker’s Mark rank among the best.
While you’re waiting for the tour to begin, take time to stroll through a funky retro kitchen that pays homage to the family matriarch, who’s credited not only with dreaming up the brand’s signature red wax but also the recipe. (All bourbon must use at least 51 percent corn; most brands use rye as the second-most-plentiful grain in the mash bill but Maker’s Mark uses wheat. For that, you can thank momma, who apparently baked a lot of bread to test various grain combos.)
You can also get surprised by some high-tech special effects that are most often put to use at haunted houses and Disney World.
At the appointed hour, a tour guide will walk you through the production facility, starting with grain samples and following the bourbon-making process to its packaging finish. One special treat is the chance to dip your finger into the bubbling sour mash for a taste. It’s sweeter than expected. Tours here are a hands-on experience with guides who have real knowledge and didn’t just memorize a script.
A new tasting facility is the second to last stop—the gift shop is last, naturally—and you’ll be able to sip samples after proving you’re age 21 or older. (Yes, IDs are checked.) Sample pours are small per state law, but sufficient to glean your opinion of whatever is poured. And you’ll get to taste a few different versions of the recipe momma helped make famous.
A stop on the new Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, Limestone Branch Distillery plans to release bourbon at some future point in time. But since by law bourbon must age in a charred new American oak barrel for at least two years (among other requirements), right now the focus is on moonshine.
A comparative tasting of Sugar Shine and Revenge—which both begin as the same 50/50 mix of corn and sugar cane, but only Revenge is aged in a barrel—is an education for your palate of what wood can do to booze.
Brothers Steve and Paul Beam designed their micro-distillery to mimic those more common in the past. With a focus on authenticity, they use a 150-gallon hand-hammered copper pot still to produce small, one-barrel batches of their products.
Folks working here have genuine enthusiasm for what they do and it shines through the tour and across the tasting bar.
Bourbon gets its color and character from the barrels it’s aged in and this is where to see how barrels are made.
The first thing that hits you when you get out of the car in the parking lot is the smell. It’s a yummy vanilla-caramel-toast smell that any bourbon lover will recognize.
For more than 100 years this family-owned operation has tailored barrels to each distiller’s request. “Bourbon gets 100 percent of its color and about 70 percent of its flavor from barrels,” said one tour guide. “So each distillery is very specific.”
Watching humans and machines wrestle flat boards into rounded containers that can hold 53 gallons of liquid—without leaks, for years at a time—is a sight to behold. It’s a process with many steps and it’s both thrilling and shocking to watch those finely crafted barrels get set on fire (briefly) in order to char the interior. But char is an essential ingredient!
The company also makes barrels for wine and other uses. Before we left, we bought a little two-quart barrel for at-home experiments we can share with friends: A batch of Manhattan cocktails sits aging in our kitchen now.
Where To Eat…
Henning’s at Rosewood Golf Club
From country-fried steak to frog legs, spaghetti to southwestern chicken, scallop stir-fry to spinach salad, there’s sure to be something on the menu at this casual restaurant to satisfy cravings.
Where To Stay…
Hampton Inn Lebanon
1125 Loretto Rd.
Lebanon KY 40033
More To Do…
Explore the Civil War Discovery Trail. Incorporated as a city in 1815, Lebanon played a crucial role during the Civil War.
Hike or bike the newly expanded Gorley Naturalist Trail at Fagan Branch Reservoir.
Taste wine at the new WhiteMoon Winery, which ages its wine in used bourbon barrels and where the owner/winemaker lets her unique sense of humor shine through the labels. Her award-winning Damson plum wine is a local favorite.
Visit the Marion County Heritage Center to see the Turtleman exhibit, a stop on the new Turtle Trek. Displays also honor local musicians and area history.
— Photo Credits: bottles on line and shutters courtesy Maker’s Mark; graphics courtesy Visit Lebanon KY; remainder © HSP Media LLC