The lush green hills stretch for miles in either direction. A sea of bluegrass, broken only by iconic white wooden fences that form a grid across the landscape, and the occasional patch of blooming eastern redbud; pink brushstrokes in stands of locust, dogwood, and oak. It is spring, and the incandescent heat of the early afternoon begins to warm your car, as you approach the small isolated hills that make up the area known as the Knobs, home to a certain creek bearing the region’s name, and the large beech and maple forest known as Bernheim, names you might remember from bottles on your shelf. Beyond the next hill a cloud of steam is rising, and as you round the bend, a group of buildings sheathed in corrugated steel become visible, nestled into the hills, surrounded by tanker trucks and warehouses.
Another even more recognizable name is printed on the side of the towers and tankers: Jim Beam.
Past the houses and barns and the ever-present wooden fences, you reach the outskirts of a small town with a big legacy.
As you circle the roundabout in the center of Bardstown, Kentucky, there are signs pointing in every direction—south to Heaven Hill and Willet, west to Barton 1792, and east, out past Rowan Creek (the actual creek, not the bourbon) to Maker’s Mark.
This is the heart of bourbon country, the holy land. You have arrived.
One hundred and ten miles. One hour and 42 minutes. One time through The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream and Divine Fits’ A Thing Called Divine Fits. That’s all that separates you from the Ohio River, and Covington Kentucky, where any Columbusonian’s bourbon road trip embarks. For a state so close us, Kentucky holds a lot of secrets when it comes to America’s Official Native Spirit. No, bourbon doesn’t have to be distilled in Bourbon County, or even in the state of Kentucky, but Kentuckians make more of it each year than anyone else in the country—by a long shot—and they keep a lot of it, too. What is that makes the spirit so special? It might the limestone-filtered water, rich in calcium and iron-free.
Or the warm summers and cold winters that expand and contract the millions of charred oak barrels stacked in thousands of rickhouses, absorbing and expelling the whiskey inside for years on end.
Or perhaps, it might be nothing at all beyond a long history full of the biggest names in the industry and a culture that celebrates that history. Most likely, though, it’s all of the above.
Living in Ohio means accepting that you live in what’s known as a “control state” meaning that the state alone controls the sale and distribution of spiritous liquor. Accepting that fact can be a little tough for bourbon fans. We don’t get all the labels that other states get, and when we get rare bourbon, we don’t get very much. Sometimes our state and those who control the liquor make it feel a bit like we’re living next to the ocean and ignoring all the fish. That being said, if you have a boat—or a car—you can take a quick ride out to sea and catch more fish, or bottles, than you can carry. Step into any liquor store in Kentucky, and you’ll most likely see bottles—and prices—you’ve never dreamed of. Sure, those prices change from store to store (living in a control state means our prices are the same across the board), and the selection is better in some than in others, but for the most part, any store in Kentucky will offer you at least one or two bottles you can’t find back on our side the river. Like any journey, it helps to have a guide and an idea of what to look for.
Here at Stock & Barrel, we weren’t content to just graze the Internet and drool over bottles of forbidden liquor, so I gassed up that boat and headed off for Bourbon country with good music, a change of clothes, a pair of sunglasses, and a lot of trunk space. If your appetite for old brown liquor is as big as mine, by the time you hit Louisville you’re gonna wish you had a bigger boat.
There’s a lot of land to cover in the state of Kentucky, and there’s good bourbon found in every corner, or at least the corners that aren’t dry. For a state with such a spirited history, Kentucky still has more dry counties than wet ones—39 dry counties (counties where alcohol is not sold) exist throughout the state, along with 32 wet counties, where licensed retail alcohol is sold, and 49 unfortunately titled “moist” counties where wet cities exist in otherwise dry counties. It’s a confusing patchwork of laws that would take anyone hours to sort through. Your best bet is to stick to what I call the “golden triangle,” which runs from Louisville in the north to Bardstown just south over to Lexington to the east. This triangle is situated close to most of the state’s distilleries and bourbon-related industry, and the closer the better. I can tell you from personal experience that it is possible to hit all three corners of this triangle in two days, stopping at 15 stores and two distilleries along the way, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The best way to tackle this trip, especially if it’s your first time, is over a long weekend. Give yourself time to explore and fully absorb your surroundings, and have some great drinks while you’re at it. If you don’t have the luxury of a three- or four-day vacation, you can get to any of these spots in a few hours and be home to sleep in your bed that night. Just make sure you aren’t sampling too much before the drive home.
As far as what to look for, personal preference will play a big role. No, you probably aren’t going to find any Pappy Van Winkle, and don’t go around asking for it in the stores. Walking into a store and asking if they have any Pappy is a bad way to start. Liquor store owners and employees get this question 50 times a day. You’re not the first person to ask that day, and you won’t be the last. The good news: there’s a lot of great bourbon out there that you might like even more than Pappy, and your wallet will definitely like it more. You will almost certainly find a bottle or two of something rare and expensive; on my last trip it was the Willet 25-year rye in the gift shop for $350. I passed on that one but pulled the trigger on the eight-year single-barrel rye for $114 at a store a few hours later. Finding a bottle of old expensive whiskey is fun and exciting, but don’t blow your entire budget on the expensive stuff. The best value in Kentucky is the wealth of bonded bourbon that is inexpensive and mostly unavailable in Ohio. Bonded, or bottled in bond, means that it was distilled in one season, at one distillery, aged for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof. All of these things act as a guarantee of quality, and while some offerings are better than others, it’s tough to go wrong with a bonded bourbon. For my money, the best value out there is the Heaven Hill bottled in bond white label. It is six years old, can be found for around $11 a bottle, and is a fantastic everyday sipper; good luck finding that in Ohio. There are a number of other bonded bottles to look out for, and most can be found for under $20.
Finally, don’t forget to stop and enjoy the cities and towns a bit. Skip that last store you wanted to hit, and check out some restaurants in Louisville or Lexington, or hit up a great bar. Don’t forget to relax and enjoy the trip. The store you skipped probably didn’t have what you wanted anyway. I’ve highlighted a few favorite restaurants and bars, but there are many more along the way. Happy hunting.
This small town is about 45 minutes south of Louisville and is known as The Bourbon Capital of the World, for good reason. It is home to the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival and is surrounded by distilleries such as Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Willet, and Maker’s Mark. A tour at any of these famous distilleries is well worth it and provides the opportunity to peruse their gift shops, which can often yield distillery exclusive bottles. Heaven Hill has a number of bonded bourbons and provides a tour of one of their rickhouses and a tasting for $10—don’t worry, like all tours, it ends in the gift shop. Aside from the gift shops, there are a couple stores worth checking out when you’re in Bardstown. Liquor World and Keystone Liquors have large selections, and the tiny Toddy’s Liquor is worth stopping in to have a look.
There are great liquor stores all throughout the city, but there are a few that stand out. Morris Deli and Liquors is a small shop attached to a deli where you can find some great rare bourbon and pick up a country ham sandwich on your way out. Head east and you can find Westport Whiskey and Wines, which features a great selection and a tasting room. In the popular Highlands district, make sure to stop by Old Town Wine and Spirits to see what it has on the shelves. A mile north on Bardstown Road, you will find Holy Grale, the converted church turned beer bar and restaurant. The beer is amazing, and so is the food—this is the perfect spot to have dinner and take a break from bourbon hunting. The next morning, check out Gralehouse, the small house turned coffee shop/brunch spot connected to the church of beer. No visit in Louisville is complete without a stop at Haymarket Whiskey Bar. This downtown rock and roll dive will blow you away with its selection of rare whiskey to try, but without pretension and snobbery. The store has a package license, so you can buy whole bottles to take on your way. You can sip a common bottled in bond whiskey for $5 or $6 or go all out and sample the nearly extinct A.H. Hisch 16-year listed on the menu as “market price” ($125 a pour when I asked). And yes, they have Pappy.
If you’re headed to Lexington on Interstate 64 from Louisville, stop in Frankfort on the way for a tour of Buffalo Trace and check out Red Dot Liquor while you’re there. If you’re coming from Bardstown via the Bluegrass Parkway, then don’t miss a tour of Four Roses, just south of Lawrenceburg. Once you get to Lexington, you’ll want to hit up Thoroughbred Shop to see what bottles are on the shelves, and don’t miss a stop at the Party Barn, located off of Man o’ War Boulevard on the east side of the city. The Party Barn is a chain of stores, but this absolutely massive location tends to have a great selection. You could get lost for hours in the maze of booze inside. Once you’ve scoured the shelves, hop on 75 North to head back toward Columbus, but make sure to stop just north of the city at Red State BBQ. This place is a bit out of the way in the middle of nowhere, but you will not regret ordering the brisket, ribs, or pulled pork, along with a few sides.
Just Good Bourbon
Old Grand Dad 114 We’ve got the 80 proof and the bonded here in Ohio, but the 114 proof offering is excellent.
Anything from Willet Willet only recently started distilling its own whiskey, but it has been sourcing and bottling great bourbon and rye for quite some time. The Pot Still Reserve is always a great choice, but some of the Family Estate Single-Barrel bottlings are out of this world.
Anything from Weller The Antique and the 12 year can be tough to find, but the Special Reserve is easy enough to get in most stores. Weller is sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s Pappy” because ever since Pappy Van Winkle became a Buffalo Trace brand, it now uses the same wheated mash bill that goes into Weller, also owned by Buffalo Trace.
EH Taylor Small Batch, Single-Barrel, Bottled in Bond, Tornado Surviving, or Cured Oak, it doesn’t matter. Any of the E.H. Taylor collection, also produced by Buffalo Trace, is worth picking up, and is a lot easier to find south of the Ohio river.
Very Special Old Fitzgerald This 12-year-old bourbon is easiest to find in the gift shop at Heaven Hill, and it’s worth the trip.
Elijah Craig 20 and 23 Both can also be found in the Heaven Hill gift shop, if you feel like splurging and like old oaky bourbon.
Michters The Single-Barrel offerings from Michters are fantastic and well worth the sometimes high price tag.
For more, visit kybourbontrail.com.