(Photo: Bourbons Bistro)
Dipped your finger in the bubbling mash? Check. Got schooled on the angel’s share? Done. Know your whisky from your whiskey? Please. You’re a bourbon hound — and you’re ready to go beyond the run-of-the-mill distillery tours. Look no further than Louisville, Kentucky, where even up-and-coming aficionados can immerse themselves in unique whiskey culture and some serious barrel-aged #BraggingRights.
First, Some History
Kick off your visit with a look at the official document that defined bourbon. Yes, it took an act of Congress to codify rules behind the reason all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. Resolution 19 has left the national archives for the first time since it was signed 50 years ago. See it at Frazier History Museum in Louisville through fall.
Cave Hill Cemetery (Photo: Click-track Heart/Flickr)
Say Hello to Pappy
Pappy mania has seized the world, with demand for ever-scarcer, long-aged Pappy Van Winkle bourbons ratcheting up in price, and the Internet awash in tales of rabid fans shelling out five grand for a single bottle. While you can score a pour of the elusive bourbon at bars around Louisville (if you’re willing to pony up $60 or more per pour), why not toast the man himself? Cave Hill Cemetery offers a Bourbon History Tour — part of the CemeteryTours app (iPhone or Android) — where you can explore the bucolic grounds while learning about/paying respects to bourbon legends like Julian Proctor Van Winkle (a.k.a. “Pappy”).
Feel The Burn
Whiskey starts out clear. Years in a oak barrel give it that golden color, plus the flavor and aroma of bourbon. Grab safety glasses and earplugs and hit the Brown-Forman cooperage in Louisville to see barrel raisers in action, practicing the craft like they have since 1945. (And because fire kicks up the excitement, check out the spectacular process of charring the barrels.) Visits are only available through Mint Julep Tours; book ahead.
Scenes from a cooperage (Photo: Keith/Flickr)
Each barrel weighs 525lbs — and could be yours! (Photo: Matt Lehrer/Flickr)
Then Buy the Barrel
Ready to drink bourbon like a boss? Go big and buy a barrel. Louisville restaurant Bourbons Bistro offers a barrel program where you and your buds can get in on this once-exclusive experience at the distillery of your choice. The buy-in is as few as 10-20 bottles per person (prices vary but plan on about $40-$50 a pop, plus another $100-$150 per person for the full-day experience, including meals). The distillery will bottle it for your drinking pleasure and bragging rights back home, complete with personalized label.
Another option gets you access to a normally off-limits Brown-Forman warehouse, where master distiller Chris Morris will lead a private tasting and selection of Old Forester. The approximately $8800 tab gets you up to 240 bottles of a one-of-a-kind bourbon labeled with your name, plus the original barrel head and a tour of Brown-Forman’s campus.
For the hardcore enthusiast, forget that store-bought swill. Enroll in Moonshine University at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter in Louisville where you can get your feet wet with a $395 one-day class; try a two-day workshop on whiskey-blending or fermentation for $1,595; or go full throttle with a five-day distiller’s course costing $5,750. Just like any university, classes take place weekdays, so why not build a trip around your lessons? Pro Tip: Brush up on your science before you go. Whiskey may be part mysterious alchemy, but it’s also lab-coat chemistry — and that’s what you’ll get in these hands-on classes.
Eat Your Bourbon
Learn to cook bourbon-infused dishes starring Bourbon Barrel Foods products in small classes in their Butchertown kitchen. Louisville chefs show a versatility beyond the sip. “Eat Your Bourbon” sessions are only $15, but plan on a shopping spree loading up on intoxicating goodies like Kentuckyaki glaze or Bourbon Smoked Paprika, a staple in local kitchens.
Have a drink, then cook it up in Bourbon Barrel Foods’ kitchen (Photo: Bourbon Barrel Foods)
For the truly dedicated, plan a Louisville trip around the Bourbon Classic (February 2015) or the Kentucky Bourbon Affair (May 2015 TBD): Think cocktail classes, master distiller panels, exclusive distillery tours, events, and tastings — oh, the tastings. Because at the end of the day there may be plenty to explore around the history, legends and production of whiskey, but let’s not kid ourselves. In bourbon country, you’re here to drink.
Dana McMahan (BodyByBourbon.com) is travel, food and fitness writer, bourbon enthusiast, and serial learner of sports. She lives in Louisville, but you’ll often find her in Detroit.