It is the liquid gold that has defined the Bluegrass State, spawning the famous mint julep cocktail, but there’s more to bourbon – and Kentucky – than meets the eye, Etan Smallman discovers.
It is the smell that hits you first: an intoxicating aroma of Marmite, which fills the air.
But don’t let the yeasty stench or the imposing Fort Knox-style exterior put you off; a warm welcome awaits you once inside the world’s most decorated distillery and the oldest continuously-operating one in the United States.
Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Kentucky, may be a minnow compared with the market leaders, but the bourbon brand does boast a fascinating history.
It is one of only three remaining distilleries in the US that survived Prohibition – by claiming it was producing its wares for medicinal purposes. Six million alcohol prescriptions were doled out by doctors in Kentucky alone, but you were permitted no more than a pint of America’s native spirit (100-proof) for every ten days of ‘illness’.
‘If that didn’t do you, you’d send your whole family in,’ quips Shelly, our guide.
The company takes its name from the paths carved through the wilderness by ancient buffalo. Unfortunately, the only buffalo you’ll see nowadays is the bronze sculpture in the forecourt.
The whiskey in these parts is so sought-after that a day before I arrived in Kentucky, reports emerged of the theft of 65 cases of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle. Even aside from that loss, the company says it is 100,000 barrels short of where it would need to be to meet the soaring demand.
However, there is plenty to discover even if you’re not a bourbon buff. The distillery was named a US National Historic Landmark earlier this year – joining the ranks of the Empire State Building and the White House – and anyone who’ll savour the chance to taste half-a-dozen whiskeys of an afternoon, on a free tour, is sure to have a blast.
Visitors get the chance to walk through the bustling factory to see the entire brewing process – with sour mash splashing on your feet as workmen shift pipes about, steam rising from grates in the floor, and water being boiled to 240 degrees while the corn is cooked up in giant vats.
You can dip your finger into the mash to have a taste, sample the intoxicating liquor before it makes it into the barrels and walk along the rather quaint production line to see the bottling, labelling and packing being painstakingly completed by hand.
And don’t forget to pop into one of the distillery’s – apparently haunted – warehouses to see the bourbon ageing away. While you’re there, lean against a barrel near the door, and make your own mark on its flavour profile. (Body heat affects the ageing process and means the ones brushed up against by clumsy tourists will mature sooner.) Finally, enjoy a tasting masterclass to get a true sense of what goes on here.
Kentucky is really famous for only two things: whiskey and races (they go together like a horse and carriage). You can’t come here and not savour both – so grab a mint julep – the Kentucky derby drink – and head down to Lexington’s Keeneland race course.
I found the booklet explaining the betting process utterly baffling, despite generous help from locals, but the atmosphere was what all but the most hard-bitten gamblers go for; a whiskey-based cocktail in hand, dressed in Sunday best and enjoying the sunshine and the banter.
I had a flutter (solely in the name of in-depth journalism, you understand). My winnings amounted to nought, at least in part because my method solely relied on choosing the best-named horse. Lovesmelovesmenot, it turned out, loved me not.
A word of advice, though: resist the temptation to rip up your betting slip in a fit of pique, as one of my group did – the results are often altered in the minutes after the race. Nevertheless, we discovered, they will still pay out.
‘It happens all the time. Especially with the women,’ says a man at the desk,’ before imitating an animated filly getting a bit over-excited.
By all means, be attracted to Kentucky by the booze. But please, dear reader, don’t come for the food. Admittedly, as a vegetarian, the state that brought the world KFC was unlikely to have cuisine tailor-made for my tastes. But I can’t be the only one not seduced by the charms of the meat-and-two-stodge diet here.
Hummus doesn’t appear to have reached these parts. Instead, the rather gruesome-looking ‘beer cheese’ is eagerly dipped into (and, no, even an acute sense of professionalism did not propel me to taste it). Bread pudding appears to be a favourite local dessert. At Keeneland, they even serve it soaked in bourbon. With bourbon icing. Of course.
Oh, I nearly forgot – what does the whiskey actually taste like? After my masterclass, I am fully qualified to fill you in, but perhaps it’s still best to leave it to the experts.
According to Clay Risen, the author of American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye, Buffalo Trace’s colour is russet, its body medium and smooth and its palate ‘buttery, corny, camp-smoky goodness’.
He concludes: ‘It is crisp and ice-sheet smooth, making it a fantastic beginner’s quaff. It’s what one might call a “session whiskey”, for those of us who like to spend an entire session drinking good bourbon.’
You know where you can get your prescription…
Travel facts: Plan your own Bourbon break
- Partners British Airways and American Airlines (www.britishairways.com) fly to Lexington via Chicago or Dallas, from £650.
- Buffalo Trace offers a number of experiences, including a ‘ghost tour’ and ‘hard hat tour’. All are complimentary and include a bourbon tasting, but reservations are required (www.buffalotracedistillery.com)
- Keeneland has live racing for three weeks in April and three weeks in October, but welcomes visitors year-round for walking tours (www.keeneland.com)
- For further details on Kentucky visit: http://www.kentuckytourism.com.