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The Bourbon Trail

ith Kentucky comes the start of the American South. The drawl sets in, the air becomes sticky and the soil ripe for producing corn, barley and rye. This, mixed with the natural filtration of the Mississippi’s many offshoots, which wind their way into the heart of the state, make for a spirit to rival what is seen as the Scottish and Irish duopoly of whiskey. Welcome to the world of Kentucky bourbons. It hasn’t been until recently that we’ve seen a good selection of bourbons turning up behind bars in the UK, and it is expected that sales will continue to rocket. Between 2005 and 2009, the tipple’s popularity rose by a quarter and it’s likely that there’ll be almost the same rise by 2014. There has never been a time that an all-American liquor has been so hip. While it’s the most important American alcoholic export, it is far from the first that was created by the settlers in the New World back in the colonial era. Fruits were abundant, and the brandy trade swelled – from cherry and plum to peach and apple, which created a type of cider brandy called applejack. When molasses was introduced from the West Indies, tastes changed and rum was the tipple of choice. The New York rum industry boomed and soon became the most important in the entirety of North America. However, says Don Flinn, tour guide for the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky, “when times were hard or during the winter months, spare grain was the only thing some families could find to make smallbatch spirits for themselves”. It was only when the Celts arrived and brought their recipes and techniques that whiskey took off. It was first produced with rye and barley, but the further west they moved to escape persecution, the more and more they relied on maize – or Indian corn, as it was known. Finally a law was passed which meant this new ‘bourbon’ whiskey – named after an

Kentucky’s stock of full whiskey barrels already outnumbers the state’s population, but demand for the smoky golden spirit is increasing. Let us guide you through the mysterious world of bourbon...

Image: James Clarey

The vast store house at Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY


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From top: Blantons bottle; A vat of sour mash at Woodford Reserve; Maker’s Mark bottle; Transporting the barrelled bourbon; Wild Turkey bottle; Filling stations at Buffalo Tace; Woodford Reserve bottle From top: Courtesy of Buffalo Trace; cizauskas (Flickr, creative commons); Courtesy of Maker’s Mark; cwwycoff1 (Flickr, creative commons); Courtesy of Wild Turkey; James Clarey; Courtesy of Woodford Reserve


Bourbon area of Kentucky – needed to be at least 51% maize, as well as needing to be stored in new, charred oak barrels. And this is where we’re still at today. Most distillers aren’t in fear of the 51% corn law these days and use between 65% and 75% for a sweet and smooth base, but it’s what else makes up their ‘mash’ of grains that provides the distinctive tastes, smells and textures. There are three options: rye makes the liquor dry and gives a peppery spice, wheat makes the flavours mellow and round, while malted barley adds to the sweet notes and provides, what Don calls, “an overall creaminess to the mouth feel”. All this, however, can be upset by the ageing process. All the barley in the world can be poured

Bourbon (50.5%) – named due to its 101 US proof alcohol level – which is aged for 8 years. While the bottle proof is high, it is barrelled at a lower level than most to stop its flavours burning off, then subsequently watered down less. For its strength, it is rich, but exceptionally soft with vanilla, caramel and brown sugar flavours to match its heavily charred amber colour. However, some easier-to-drink bourbons are possibly better for newcomers or scotch regulars. Basil Hayden’s 8-year-old (40%) from the Jim Beam distillery has a dry rye finish, but with only-slightly-charred barrels, it has a very light colour and oaky finish with floral notes of bergamot. Four Roses Yellow Label (40%) is one of the softest and

bourbons, with very few that have ever had bad things said about them. The most popular of their brands is Pappy Van Winkle. The 20-year-old Special Reserve (45.2%) is big and brash – plenty of strong flavours can be found, including coffee and raisins with a long, leathery finish. Bigger, brasher and more macho still is the 23-yearold Family Reserve (47.8%). It’s slightly drier, this time with liquorice and oak notes, but is also more balanced for a more pleasant finish. Another huge whiskey is Evan Williams 23-Year-Old (53.3%) from Heaven Hill distillery. It mixes dark chocolate and black cherry notes that are so powerful it gives a distinctive astringency for a unique mouth feel in bourbons. Oddly,

Jim Beam

Buffalo Trace

Four Roses

Only 25 miles south of Louisville, Jim Beam is the world’s largest bourbon distiller, its main product being the eponymous drink – the world’s largest selling bourbon. The master distiller is Fred Noe, the seventh-generation member of the Beam family, recently taking over from his late father Booker Noe. 100,000 visitors head for the distillery each year, drawn also by the chance to look around the home of founder Jeremiah Beam.

Located in the state capitol, the distillery is placed on the Kentucky River where it crossed a trail used by herds of buffalo moving westward, known as the Great Buffalo Trace. It is the oldest continually-working distillery in the US, continuing through prohibition to produce alcohol for medicinal purposes and set against stunning rolling hills in the land of bluegrass. As well as Blanton’s, the first single barrel bourbon, it produces Elmer T Lee, named after their now-retired master distiller.

Built in 1910, this distillery features an extraordinary example of Spanish Missionstyle architecture – one of the only places in Kentucky to do so. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and its ground are laden with beautiful red roses. Their master distiller Jim Rutledge has worked there for 40 years and swears by the use of water from the nearby Salt River, which is spring-fed and famed for its limestone water.

Louisville Frankfort Clermont


Bardstown Elizabethtown



into a mash, but if it’s bottled too young, say on the two-year mark, the bourbon will be aggressive and fiery – an older whiskey, on the other hand, can mellow a spirit heavy on spicy rye, and round off its edges. However, as Don says, “a balance has to be sought – bourbon was never meant to be an elegant or sophisticated drink”. Much the same as scotch whiskies, the low-end brands tend to be younger, the premium, mid-ranges are older, then superpremium names come into the game with single-barrel variations. To start with, let’s get straight into the premium brands – accessible, relatively inexpensive, but still packed full of complexities in flavour. The world’s top selling premium brand is Wild Turkey 101


sweetest around, at 75% corn, and with a long finish of apples and pear, one of the easiest to drink. Other brands that go down easily but have a more complex palate are Blanton’s Special Reserve (40%) from the Buffalo Trace distillery, which has an earthy feel, with mellow citrus and honey. There is a subtle mint flavour too, which turns to anise in a long finish. Finally, Maker’s Mark (45%) is a classic, with its recognisable hand-dipped red wax seal. It is reliable, oaky and nutty which is heavy on wheat. It has a fruity nose with a hint of banana amongst the deep toffee aroma. Moving on to the superpremiums and there’s one huge name in this sector – Buffalo Trace. This distillery churns out a huge number of amazing, high-quality

Noah’s Mill 15-Year-Old (57.15%) from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers is stronger, but is much sweeter too. It’s a rich, masculine tipple that finds a lovely and warming balance of spice and vanilla, all wrapped in a tobacco and cedar finish. As those powerful flavours die off, a definite fudge flavour is left. For the epitome of superpremium, Jefferson’s Reserve (45.1%) from McLain and Kyne distillery is a must-drink. McLain and Kyne are known in the industry for their love of very small batch bourbons, and maturing each for no set time, instead tasting them every so often and bottling when their master distiller says the time is right. This is a velvety affair, with notes of peach, dates and blackberry giving it an almost-syrupy feel.

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Images: James Clarey

Clockwise from top: Don Flinn pouring some premium bourbon for a distillery tasting; The trademark buffalo at Buffalo Trace distillery; Beautiful stretch of Route 64 in the heart of bluegrass country; Iconic Buffalo Trace water tank

Illustration: James Clarey

Paducah Bowling Green

Maker’s Mark

Wild Turkey

Take the Tour

A little further out of the way than others, this is the oldest bourbon distillery still using its original site, from 1805, and is a National Historic Landmark. It’s also one of the smallest, producing just the one brand. A tour of the distillery takes you through the entire process of making the drink, from their grain mix, which is unusually high in wheat and low in rye, to the hand-dipping of every single bottle in their distinctive red wax.

Master distiller Jimmy Russell is renowned throughout the world of bourbon. He has created some of the most exciting, adventurous and simply fantastic bourbons to hit the shelves and he can be spotted on visits wandering the floors of the storehouse testing barrels for the perfect time to bottle. Overlooking the Kentucky River, this distillery is picturesque and its staff dedicated to the product – Jimmy has just celebrated his 55th anniversary working there.

Sure, it’d be nice to hit the open road in the land of the free and while away a weekend visiting the distilleries in the Deep South, but who really has the time (and money)? Not to worry. Prop yourself up against the du Vin bar and take the tour right now. We have all the bourbons mentioned in our hotels so you can take that trip around Kentucky and discover the wonders of America’s favourite drink.

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The Bourbon Trail  
The Bourbon Trail  

A guide to Kentucky bourbon, written and designed by myself for a Hotel du Vin prototype magazine I created. Images are original and copywri...