Nowadays, most have sipping licenses, and those who don't offer unique and different experiences. Their free tours are worth checking out, as well (especially since you might find a little sobering-up time helpful). At Buffalo Trace Distillery in Franklin County, for instance, you can watch the tedious hand-bottling process bestowed upon Blanton's. At Four Roses in Anderson County, you can dip your finger in the fermenting vats and taste the sweet, cooked yeast and unsweetened mash. And at Wild Turkey, killer bourbon brownies are served to patrons craving a nip. You get the picture. Let's drink.
"To cut or not to cut?" That is the question I'm asking myself at 9:00 a.m. inside the T. Jeremiah Beam House at the Jim Beam Distillery (as opposed to something more appropriate, like, "Why on earth am I drinking bourbon at 9:00 a.m.?"). Located 25 miles southeast of Louisville, just off I-65, Beam is most people's first stop on the trail.
"Cutting" refers to diluting bourbon with a little bit of water, said to bring out the nuances of flavor and nose, depending on with whom you're drinking (it's an ongoing debate between master distillers and bourbon connoisseurs). My theory is there's already plenty of water in there (Kentucky's limestone spring water is not only the main ingredient, but also the reason bourbon thrives in these parts). So my half-ounce of Booker's - Beam's top-end, straight-from-the-barrel bourbon - packs a gut-warming punch as I nurse its amber glow unadulterated.
From Beam, I head over to Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, whose brand-new multimillion-dollar Bourbon Heritage Center, which opened last year, wouldn't have even been a pipe dream 10 years ago. The premises, like everywhere in these parts, are dotted with tin-clad rickhouses discolored with a natural mold called torula, which thrives throughout bourbon country. It is inside these unique buildings that bourbon barrels are left to mature, some 20,000 or so in each. They are, more than any other characteristic, the defining landmarks of the region.