Louisville, KY, USA

AKA the time my cousin got married in Kentucky and we decided to sample part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Super!

I’m not a bourbon drinker. I knew this going into it. But, when planning to go to my cousin’s wedding in Louisville, we (Abby, Szymon, Keith and myself) figured we should go a day early and sample some of the regional specialties. How could I refuse, I’m surrounded by whiskey lovers and drinkers. (Thanks to Keith, our liquor cabinet looks like a tasting bar of whiskeys from around the world.)

I actually learned a lot. A few months ago, our same foursome went on a tour at Koval, a craft distillery in Chicago, and learned about the basic distillation process. This weekend, we specialized in whiskey distillation education—more specially, bourbon. What is bourbon? Glad you asked!

  • Bourbon is America’s “Official Native Spirit” and must be made in the United States (but not necessarily Kentucky!)
  • Bourbon must be made of at least 51% corn—the rest is either rye or wheat, and malted barley
  • Bourbon must be aged in a new charred oak barrel
  • No flavors or dyes can be added
  • There are specific proof ranges that bourbon must be distilled, aged, and bottled within
  • And if you didn’t know already, whiskey is the general term for cereal grain-based alcohol; bourbon and scotch are types of whiskey.
The distillation process, a miniature version at Bulleit

There was a ton more information I got out of it, such as what straight bourbon is (aged in a barrel for more than 2 years), age labeling requirements, differences in mash bills (the recipe), and how each distillery has it’s own distinct culture, production and history.

Aging barrels in a beautiful warehouse at Buffalo Trace
Aging barrels at Maker’s Mark, the only distillery we visited that rotates their barrels throughout the ageing process to average out the exposure to weather elements in their warehouses

We ended up at three distilleries: Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, and Bulleit. I did try everything at least enough to say I tried, but in the end Keith, Abby and Szymon all got bonus tastes. I was a good sport! I guess the lesson is: if you want more bourbon to taste at a distillery, take me on a tour! You’ll get essentially double the tastings.

Relatively speaking, Maker’s Mark was my favorite bourbon; they use wheat instead of rye in their mash bill and that makes is softer and less abrasive tasting. Of that, my favorite was Maker’s 46, which uses special oak staves in the barrel toward the end of aging to give it a slightly sweeter taste. We did try a number of bourbons that had been aged for over a decade, like Eagle Rare out of Buffalo Trace and Bulleit 10-year, but they were just bourbons to me. I was just concentrating on trying it. Buffalo Trace was my favorite tour of the three, partly because of our tour guide who had a great sense of humor and was super knowledgeable.

Tasting at Maker’s Mark: White Dog, Original, 46, and Cask Strength
Tasting at Buffalo Trace: Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare
Bulleit Tasting: Bourbon, Rye, 10 Year Bourbon

We all also agreed that the mash doesn’t taste that great. Or at least Abby and I agreed.

Abby tastes the fermenting mash at Maker’s Mark

But, at least at Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace, we were given bourbon chocolates at the end of the tour. They were delicious and my preferred way of consuming bourbon.

My kind of bourbon: bourbon chocolate candies

At Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace, we got to step on the line for a bit and see how the production actually works. It was pretty cool to see the bottles being dipped at Maker’s Mark; they can dip 23 bottles in a minute!

Sealing bottles at Buffalo Trace
On the line at Buffalo Trace
Just dipped at Maker’s Mark

At the end of the Maker’s Mark tour, we got to suit up in protective aprons and gloves and dip our own bottles! Luckily, the professional dippers can contain their excitement better than we could.

Abby about to dip her bottle of Maker’s Mark

Of course, we had to eat too. I had heard about the hot brown while watching The Mind of A Chef but completely forgot it was created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville until I started to research “Louisville regional food.” I should have known what I was getting myself into from watching the show, and I distinctly remember being pretty disturbed by it when I watched Sean Brock help make one. But we searched them out and Keith, Szymon and I all ordered one at our own risk. It should come as no surprise that the waiter also told us that the hot brown would kill us. And it pretty much did. What is a hot brown? This:

A hot brown: roasted turkey breast with bacon, cheddar cheese and tomato on French bread, baked with Mornay sauce

It’s not the prettiest hot brown, but it was a hot brown. And it was too much. Way too much. I guess I can say I’ve had it, and I’ll be glad to never have it again.

Elsewhere, we stopped a tiny little place called Susie Q’s in Bardstown, recommended for their fried green tomato BLT. It was pretty good, somewhat lighter (there was token green lettuce!) but also very, very decadent (there was so much fried corn meal!). Fried green tomatoes are supposedly a traditional Southern food, at least from the last twenty years, and while you can debate if Louisville is in the south or not, it’s another food I can say I’ve tried… and move on.

Fried green tomato BLT at Susie Q’s in Bardstown

Lastly, we tried out this great little bakery called Nord’s Bakery. It was great. And, if “Southern hospitality” is any indicator of being in the South, Nord’s helps put Louisville right there. When we walked in, overwhelmed with the number of choices, intoxicated by the sugar, and tired from a night of dancing, we had to solicit help from a woman at the counter, citing the fact that we were from out of town and clearly needed guidance. [Like they don’t have donuts in Chicago. Right.] Our strategy was simple: between the 4 of us we’d get a half-dozen so we can all sample a variety. Keith ended up getting a 7th donut, we all ordered coffees, and were amazed when our total was $10! For it all! And then, as we were leaving, we were gifted another 4 donuts as a goodie bag from a woman who I can only assume is the owner, because we were “from out of town.” We had on our hands nearly a dozen donuts… and while we didn’t end up eating them all, they were so good and so very sweet. Of particular note was their maple-bacon long john, which was included in our goodie bag.

Donut heaven at Nord’s Bakery, featuring the famous maple-bacon long john

All in all it was a fun weekend, the best part of course being with my family and celebrating Jarred and Angela’s wedding. Keith and I are looking forward to a lot more travel in the next few months, especially as he readies himself for a temporary move to the United Arab Emirates, so stay tuned!

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