MOUNT VERNON, VA - On a lukewarm Kentucky evening beneath a full moon, crickets chirp and a trio of musical locals sings bluegrass. The setting is a wrap-around porch. You’re rocking in a chair and sipping fine bourbon. It’s a made-for-movie moment — one guaranteed to wash down any laundry day blues.
Dream or reality? Reality — if you’re on the American Whiskey Trail.
Described as an educational journey into the heritage and history of American spirits, the Trail has nine whiskey distilleries and six historical sites. No single road connects them along the route (beginning in Mount Vernon, Virginia, continuing through Kentucky and ending in Tennessee); but it’s a guaranteed peek into Americana — past fields of cornstalks and horses, over stone bridges, into traditional taverns and through everyone-knows-you-by-your-first-name towns.
Here’s the drill: From films, tours and tastings you’ll get a glimpse into whiskey production from start to finish. First hand you’ll inhale the smell of toasted grain, see clear whiskey come off the still, observe fresh whiskey placed in barrels and stroll through rack houses of aging barrels. The most popular step comes last — sampling (only rule: you must be at least 21 years old to taste). Each of the Trail’s distilleries is different, each is inviting and each is about whiskey. And though I did not visit them all, I sipped my way through a healthy sampling.
George Washington Distillery Museum, Mount Vernon, Va. Begin your journey here, the gateway to the American Whiskey Trail. Noted as the only distillery where you can witness 18th-century America whiskey making, this site is a reconstruction of president George Washington’s distillery. Adding to the fun are costumed winemakers, making observation of the distillation process like attending a play.www.georgewashingtondistillery.com
Above: The quaint horse farms of Kentucky are all part of Whiskey tour.
Maker’s Mark, Loretto, Ky. In the multi-product world of whiskey, a distillery with only one expression and known for its small batch brand is noteworthy. Meet Maker’s Mark. Established in 1805 on the banks of Hardin’s Creek, it is the oldest working distillery on the original site. It’s picturesque — brown painted buildings, red shuttered windows and green manicured lawns. But a path to the past is not the sole reason to go; the favorite tour stop is the bottling line, where workers methodically dunk bottle tops into tubs of hot red wax. Best souvenir: Hand-dipping your own Maker’s Mark bottle ($16 U.S.). www.makersmark.com
Jim Beam Distillery, Clermont, Ky. Made by the same family for more than 200 years (seven generations of distillers), Jim Beam’s lineage is called the first family of bourbon. Dedication to excellence defines this spirit’s history. Jim Beam was so protective of his bourbon’s yeast strain, he’d take a jug home on weekends, a tradition that continues to this day with his great-grandson, Fred Noe (the gift shop sells hand-signed bottles by Noe). Continuing the family tradition, the parlour of the T. Jeremiah Beam House - one-time home to three generations of distillers - is where today’s visitors sample a free tasting. Cited the world’s best-selling bourbon, Jim Beam’s one millionth barrel was filled in 1965. www.jimbeam.com
Woodford Reserve Distillery, Versailles, Ky. Located in Woodford County, a region known to have half as many residents as horses (it’s the retirement home of legendary race horse Big Brown), it’s no surprise that the distillery is the Kentucky Derby’s official bourbon producer. And a visit to nearby Keeneland’s Thoroughbred Horse Races is the perfect accompaniment to a mint julep. Fashioned with 19th-century limestone maturation warehouses and old-fashioned copper pot stills (the state’s only distillery to use them), the historic site has been restored to its 1800’s splendour — it’s a National Historic Landmark. www.woodfordreserve.com
Above: U.S. whiskey brands are known around the world.
Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Ky. Though the structure is simple and unadorned, the distillery sits majestically on a hill crest overlooking the Kentucky River; a colorful turkey on the signage signifies you’re there. During a visit you’ll be privy to the operations of a real working distillery — you’ll see the new bourbon poured into handcrafted barrels and stroll the timbered warehouses where thousands of barrels age. Seventy-five-year-old master distiller Jimmy Russell is legendary — he’s the unofficial Godfather of Kentucky Bourbon. Like the distillery’s outward appearance, the master distiller has a simple, yet exceptional approach to whiskey making. A “Jimmy Russell” story recounting bourbon tasting following a wine tasting best illustrates his lack of pretension. When wine lovers sniffed glasses of bourbon, citing tastes of cinnamon, carrot and pear, Russell quietly confided to a colleague: “I don’t know about y’all, but we like to keep ours pretty simple — you won’t find any carrots in Wild Turkey.” www.wildturkey.com
Jack Daniels, Lynchburg, Tenn. America’s oldest-registered distillery is one of Tennessee’s two whiskey makers and is the country’s most visited. While touring, you’ll see a life-size statue of Mr. Jack (he was 5’2”) and you’ll hear the inside scoop. Daniels purchased the cave spring and land at age 13; received the first U.S. whiskey distillation license at 16 and featured whiskey at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Because it’s a dry county, there are no tastings and no liquor is sold (exception: commemorative bottles), but don’t fret — there’s a liquor store in nearby Fayetteville. The Web site touts: “Jack Daniels is enjoyed around the world, but every drop is still made in Lynchburg, Tennessee (pop. 361).www.jackdaniels.com
George Dickel, Tullahoma, Tenn. Situated between Nashville and Chattanooga, the distillery is nestled in a nook you won’t find on many maps — Cascade Hollow. It’s “the other” Tennessee whiskey. The distillery was founded in 1870, and the whiskey continues to be handcrafted as it was when George Dickel first perfected his eponymous spirit. To observe tradition, you need look no further than the label, spelled whisky without the “e” to keep with Scotch whisky tradition. The distillery has tours but offers no tastings and sells no whiskey. No problem. After touring, spend an I-don’t-have-to-do-anything afternoon in a rocker on the front porch of the general store. www.dickel.com