Tours at Heaven Hill culminate in a high-tech, barrel-shaped tasting room featuring a chic in-the-round bar fashioned from cypress wood that was recycled from former fermenting vats and laminated. Not only is it gorgeous, but it's also synonymous with bourbon's newfound hipness. I sip on Elijah Craig 18-year-old single-barrel and Evan Williams vintage-dated single-barrel - the stars of Heaven Hill's fleet - in tasting glasses as beautiful as anything made by Riedel. Kentucky law says I can only taste two half-ounce pours of bourbon per day per distiller while driving the trail (not a bad law, to say the least), so, afterward, I head to Maker's Mark in Loretto, where there's no tasting but plenty else to take in.

"The bourbon world is thought of in two ways," says Maker's Mark president Bill Samuels Jr., the straight-shooting maverick son of Maker's founding father, Bill Samuels. "Before Maker's, and after Maker's started 'getting a grip.' " Samuels is referring to the mid-'90s bourbon renaissance, when Maker's used a combination of savvy marketing and an unyielding attention to detail to lead the charge to change bourbon's somewhat stained reputation. As a result, the spirit began its upward climb. "My father never really liked bourbon," he remembers. "So Maker's was bourbon made for people with good taste who don't like old bourbon."

These days, Maker's is the only distillery along the trail that dedicates itself to one product. Whereas Jim Beam, for instance, produces not only Beam, but also Knob Creek, Booker's, Baker's, and Basil Hayden's, Maker's Mark sticks to its signature bourbon recognized the world over for its red wax seal. A visit to its facilities in Loretto gives visitors a chance to see the distillery process from water to whiskey, even allowing for a taste of unaged, 120-proof "White Dog" whiskey straight from the still (basically moonshine, yes). The tour culminates with the opportunity to dip your own custom bottle of Maker's in the 350°F wax - a big hit with the brand's now maniacal following.

There once was a time when bourbon meant nothing more than Kentucky swill, but those days are long past. So the next time someone shows up at your black tie event with a bottle of bourbon instead of bubbly, don't think that guest a heathen. Bourbon is the new Bordeaux. If any of your grape-guzzling friends disagree, have them take it up with Bill Samuels Jr.

"We dispelled the image of bourbon as a Kentucky moonshine, cowboy-and-Indian, blow-your-ears-off drink," he says. "All of which was true, by the way."





Kevin Raub is a San Francisco-based travel and entertainment journalist. His work has appeared in Travel+Leisure, the New York Post, FHM, and Stuff, among others.

Illustration by Artman.