Exploring Kentucky Bourbon Country

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers merge at the edge of downtown, forming the westward-flowing Ohio River. Less than a year ago, I moved to a town six miles downriver. The Ohio and its barge traffic are now daily sights in my world. My most recent adventure took me a few hundred miles away, but never far from the Ohio.

It all started a few weeks ago when my friend, Aaron, proposed that we visit his extended family in Kentucky. Like me, Aaron had spent the pandemic working from home. We figured a road trip would be safe, practical, and welcoming after a long period of productive isolation. We packed up his car and took off in the last week of June, following parts of the Ohio River as we headed toward Wheeling, West Virginia, passed through Cincinnati, Ohio, and ended our drive in Louisville, Kentucky.

Aaron is a man who likes the finer things in life, including quality whiskey. It was no surprise to me when he revealed that he had a series of whiskey tastings scheduled for us. While the Kentucky distilleries have remained open for the production of whiskey and hand sanitizer, the visitor centers and tasting rooms had remained closed since March. The week of our visit marked the reopening of the distilleries to the public, but with safety guidelines. Face masks are required in the visitor centers and social distancing is enforced with floor markers, signage, and friendly but firm employees. Distillery tours are not open to the public unless the distillery can set up appropriate barriers to keep employees and products safe from contamination.

Angel’s Envy Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky.

Our first tasting was at Angel’s Envy at a massive wooden table in the visitor center. The tasting was limited to only four people, who were each directed to the separate corners of the table to pre-poured whiskey samples. We were only allowed to remove the masks when we were at our respective corners of the table. We were then invited to inhale, sip, and enjoy the whiskey. The guide kept his mask on and remained a respectable distance from the table as he explained the special qualities of Angel Envy’s product.

Our next stop in Louisville was at the Evan Williams Experience. Evan Williams is a brand of whiskey named after a Welsh immigrant who settled in Louisville and began distilling whiskey towards the end of the 18th century. We were introduced to the history of whiskey distilling in the early United States, which was a way for farmers to use up their excess corn and grain to make a product that could be consumed and traded. We also learned of the importance of Louisville as an Ohio River port town – the rapids outside of Louisville made it dangerous for barges to continue with the journey without disembarking and walking past the rapids on foot, making Louisville a natural stopping point for travelers heading westward.

The Evan Williams Experience is an immersive tour – our group enjoyed a video dramatization of Evan Williams getting elected as Louisville’s first wharf master to oversee the transport of good beyond the dangerous rapids on the Ohio. The story gradually unfolded as we moved from room to room – we were introduced to a view of one of the rooms of the distillery from behind Plexiglas with a summary explanation of the distilling process played out on a short video. We were able to view a charred white oak barrel up close, a visual that made it easier for me to see why aged barrels are important in enhancing the flavor and color of bourbon whiskey. Our journey continued along a street in the late 19th century, where we learned of the temperance movement, the growth of Whiskey Row, and how the dangers of adulterated spirits led to standardization. We were invited to walk into a saloon situation on this indoor street, where our pre-poured sample glasses were at four separate tables at different parts of the room.

Social distancing is made possible in the tasting room at the Evan Williams Experience.

I was tickled to see the distillery’s brand hand sanitizer proudly displayed next to the variety of whiskeys chosen for the tasting.

Tasting room samples at the Evan Williams Experience. They made sure to provide their own brand hand sanitizer for our use!

We departed Whiskey Row in Louisville and headed to Bardstown, the whiskey capital of Kentucky. The Willett distillery is on the outskirts of Bardstown, tucked away from the road in the cover of trees. Willett is certainly the vision of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail – the gravel drive is lined with rows of rickhouses, the uninsulated structures that contain charred oak whiskey barrels as they age, allowing them to be exposed to the temperature extremes of Kentucky summers and winters. The visitor center is reminiscent of French Colonial architecture with wraparound verandas and sweeping staircases. The distillery is in a towering building characterized by beautiful stonework.

Leigh outside of a whiskey rickhouse at Willett Distillery.

Aaron and I had the pleasure of touring Willett’s distillery back in 2018, which features an iconic copper pot still. The Willett Pot Still Reserve is a bourbon whiskey that is bottled in a lamp-like Italian glass bottle designed after this still. We could not tour the distillery on this day, but we did enjoy a tasting that maxed out at six people. I purchased the Willett Pot Still Reserve as a gift for my father – while it may be awkward to carry and pour, it certainly is a conversation-starter!

Visitor Center at Willett Distillery.

Down the road from Willet is the Heaven Hill Distillery, where the Evan Williams brand is bottled, along with Elijah Craig, Larceny, and many others. It was the first tasting where I got to share the same space as the rest of our party – they put groups that came together at the same table. In addition to the usual three samples of whiskey, there was also a bourbon ball chocolate. I pleased to find that it had orangey notes meant to complement the flavors of the whiskey samples.

Aaron was curious about a new distillery, Bardstown Bourbon Company, which marked our final stop for the day. While it cannot claim a generations-deep tradition of whiskey production, it was not wanting in the atmosphere of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Surrounded by newly-built rickhouses maintaining the traditional size and shape, the distillery itself is designed to function as both distillery and social entertaining space. Instead of a visitor center, there was a restaurant and lounge in the heart of the distillery. The gift shop was only a modest corner of the massive entertaining space. The patio space consisted of sprawling lounge sofas under wide umbrellas and bocce courts ready for better days ahead.

We were able to get something of a distillery tour at Bardstown Distillery due to their design already including many of the recommended measures for safe touring. We viewed parts of the distillery from behind glass windows as the guide took us through Bardstown Bourbon Company’s approach to whiskey production.

The main ingredients used to make whiskey.

We even got to visit one of the rickhouses on site, where the guide demonstrated how to remove the bung from a whiskey barrel.

Rickhouses at Bardstown Bourbon Company.

Opening a whiskey barrel at Bardstown Bourbon Company.

The demonstration resulted in yet another whiskey sample, and I was the lucky person who could take the bung home as a souvenir.

Using a “whiskey thief” to draw whiskey from an open barrel.

 

Aaron and I among racks of aging barrels of whiskey inside the rickhouse at Bardstown Bourbon Company.
I am holding my souvenir bung from the barrel opening demonstration.

We departed Bardstown and headed west to Cromwell, where Aaron and I reunited with Aaron’s relatives. His uncles certainly have the Frontiers spirit – they are successful men of the world who share a love of nature and thirst for new adventures.

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