Kentucky Bourbon Trail Part 1


Natural waterfall over limestone at Woodford Reserve

It's The Water & A Lot More

As an introduction, allow me to enter just a bit of background about Kentucky. The state name seems to have either Iroquois or Shawnee origin, perhaps meaning "meadow". Numerous phonetic spellings from that heritage, like geda'gehkenhtà:ke, këhta’keh or even Ken-tah-ten, make it somewhat easier to see where the spelling of Kentucky came from. But if anyone were ever to ask: "What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word 'Kentucky' mentioned", what would you say? Mammoth Cave? Well, perhaps. After all, the signs for it seem to be on every barn and billboard south of Central Illinois or Indiana.

Unbridled Spirit - photo courtesy of Kentucky Dept of Tourism

However, there is so much more than just caves associated with the Bluegrass State.  In a very long list of activities and attractions available in nine different areas of the state -- selected for geographical and other similarities -- one could easily include such diverse interests as horses (Kentucky Derby Festival, Louisville), Daniel Boone, the Civil War and even bourbon... at the very least.  The full list includes numerous state parks, several hundred festivals and events, countless caves, lakes, and plenty of locations that are brimming with a rich cultural heritage -- all in a state blessed with colorful and interesting history, showcasing the Unbridled Spirit of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

When I recently decided that I wanted to take some time to discover a bit more about the state that I had driven through many times, but never bothered to stop in for more than a fresh tank of gas on my way farther south, I realized it could be a very difficult task. Promising myself that this time would be different... I soon realized that there is a really interesting connection between two of Kentucky's most incredible and valuable resources: water and thoroughbreds. More on that later... for now, the plan had been set.

Homestead Suites in Champaign, IL

Lots of Activities on this Road Trip

It was evident early on that I may have bitten off more than I could chew in terms of the number of things that I had chosen to do, but I didn't mind.  It is only about six hours from my house to Louisville, so I figured that a return trip could be easily accomplished if necessary.  Deciding that it might be wiser to take an extra day on this trip, and not take the route around Chicago and the lake since (1) construction on Interstate 294 has not yet been completed and (2) we would lose an hour due to a time change, our first  night was spent at a new and really nice Homewood Suites in Champaign, Illinois, enabling us to get an early start the next morning from a point closer to our destination.  Although we probably drove an extra 80-90 miles by first going west to pick up Route 39, it was well worth the extra time; the traffic on was virtually non-existent.

Kentucky State Capitol Building - photo courtesy Kentucky Dept of Tourism

Our first stop the next day was the capitol city of Frankfort, Kentucky.  Located in the central portion of the state on an S-shaped curve in the Kentucky River, Frankfort may be small (the population is less than 30,000) but is well known for having one of the most beautiful capitol buildings in the country.  It is also quite easy to get in to and out of Frankfort, as there are some eight roads leading in and out of it. 

There is some very interesting and colorful history regarding the capitol of Kentucky and even which particular city would be the capitol...  But rather than try to tell it all here, my suggestion is to check it out at this Kentucky website.  Suffice it to say that the new capitol building in Frankfort is beautiful and in a very stunning location.  The old building is still there in Frankfort too, and it's worth the trip to check them both out.  Of particular note is a thirty-four-foot in diameter, hundred-ton "living" clock in front of the new Capitol that boasts 10,000 plants grown in greenhouses near the capitol -- beautiful!

Daniel & Rebecca Boone's gravesite in Frankfort, KY

  Daniel Boone

For me, no trip to Kentucky would have been complete without a stop at the gravesite of one of my favorite people in history, Daniel Boone.  As a kid I was hardly ever seen without my coonskin cap!  Rest assured that Daniel was as important to Kentucky as he was to other areas of the early frontier, having been mostly responsible for the exploration and settlement of Kentucky, founding Boonesborough in 1775 after his discovery of the Cumberland Gap, bringing numerous settlers to the state and defending them against the native Indian raids.  Although born in Pennsylvania in 1734, Daniel and his wife Rebecca have now been reinterred on a bluff high above the Kentucky River in Frankfort, and overlooking the land he so loved, from what is an incredibly gorgeous Kentucky vista.

Giant stainless steel gnomon on sundial at the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial - Frankfort, KY

We also had time for a brief stop at the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  A giant sundial , designed so that the shadow of the gleaming stainless steel gnomon touches -- on the anniversary of their death -- the names of all 1,103 Kentuckians who gave their lives in the conflict and 23 who are missing in action.  It is a brilliant tribute to those brave soldiers and an incredibly solemn reminder of the price that we continue to pay for our freedom.

"The location of each name is fixed mathematically…by the date of casualty, the geographic location of the memorial, the height of the gnomon and the physics of solar movement. The stones were then designed and cut to avoid dividing any individual name. The resulting radial-concentric joint pattern suggests a "web", symbolic of the entangling nature of this war."

It was an emotional place to visit; an even more difficult place to leave. But it was getting late, and we had an appointment that I intended to keep. So, with a mental salute and a brief prayer, we left the Memorial.

About the Water & Buffalo Trace

It was time to meet Angela Traver, Public Relations Manager for Buffalo Trace Distillery.  There is so much to say about the uniqueness of not only Buffalo Trace bourbon, but of the unique process of making bourbon in general.  Let me begin by revisiting the issue of water and thoroughbreds to which I alluded earlier. Kentucky certainly has an abundance of good water... More importantly though is the geology of the state.

The rocks there are mostly sedimentary, laid down in warm, shallow seas that covered central North America about 350 million years ago. Significantly, there is a fairly large area in North Central Kentucky that is underlain by a specific type of sedimentary rock: limestone. Isn't it odd that this is where 96% of all the bourbon in the world is made? Isn't it odd that this is the region where so many thoroughbreds are born and raised -- many to run in the Kentucky Derby? Well, no not really.

Experimentation still at Buffalo Trave

The Importance of Limestone

You see, the real connection is this: The limestone filters the water in a way only nature can do it, adding the calcium carbonate that does two very magical things. First, it helps to make strong bones -- and is marvelous for making great champion race horses -- and second it makes for a better bourbon because it is free of the minerals that would negatively affect its taste... especially iron, which would ruin any bourbon -- especially a good one. The calcium in the water here is also said to aid the yeast in its job of converting sugars to alcohol. Where else do you get a combination like that? Nowhere!

The buildings of Buffalo Trace Distillery as seen from the top of the 4-story still

Here is where you can take a brief detour, and I'll share with you what I learned about not only the history of bourbon, but the intricacies of how it is made.  In the meantime, let me tell you that our tour of Buffalo Trace may well have been one of the most interesting, informative and enjoyable of any tour I have yet taken.

Angela is incredibly easygoing and upbeat about her job (although I don't think she considers it a job... more like a passion) at Buffalo Trace and easily shares her knowledge about what has been a working distillery since 1787.  She introduced us to the fine art of making bourbon, from square one (receiving, testing and crushing the corn), to the production of the mash, to fermentation, distilling, barrel aging and finally the bottling (corked and sealed by hand) of the amber-colored ambrosia.  I even had the distinct pleasure of sampling what is referred to as "white dog" -- the crystal-clear liquid that results after final distillation and before being put in barrels for aging... at about 135 proof!

Warehouse 'C' at Buffalo Trace

The Value of Aging

Speaking of aging, there is  one more piece of information I'd like to make note of before moving on.  Angela took us to the 100+ year-old warehouse where much of the Buffalo Trace barrel aging takes place.  The smell upon entering is... well, heavenly -- pardon the pun.  All aging is enhanced by Kentucky's climate: high temperatures in the summer driving the bourbon into the charred staves of the new white oak, fifty-three gallon barrels and low temperatures in the winter months pulling the bourbon back away from them; every cycle pulling new strands of flavor -- like vanilla and caramel -- out of the barrel and into the whisky. 

Of course the placement in the warehouse -- toward the roof or floor of the building -- makes a difference as well.  However, about three percent of the bourbon is actually lost to evaporation with the passage of every year.  Affectionately referred to as "angel's share" (a tongue-in-cheek reference and thus the heavenly smell), this evaporated bourbon, combined with the toasted oak and nuances of the whisky itself are unmistakable and divine; they are certainly testament to the quality of the final sippin' whisky for which we must patiently wait, anywhere from six to ten years... 

Blanton's Single Barrel

A lot of tender loving care goes into Buffalo Trace bourbon!  We left the distillery -- only after several samples of excellent bourbon, of course (a must on any tour!) -- and checked in to the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites on the south side of Frankfort before heading back into town for a great dinner at Serafini, an upscale, Italian venue with pleasant ambience, white table cloths and napkins and lots of mouth-watering and inventive selections from which to choose. 

There are plenty of salads, pastas, beef and seafood from which to choose, all with special touches from Chef Nat Tate and Kentucky twists -- like The Governor's Hot Brown and the Kentucky Bison Company Flank Steak.  Our dinners were fabulous -- mine of course naturally followed by a glass of one of Buffalo Trace's best: Blanton's Single Barrel.

Named after Colonel Albert Bacon Blanton, who in 1901 at the age of twenty headed up Buffalo Trace, it was a great  way to finish the meal and the day.  The accommodations at Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites were perfect and seconds after my head hit the pillow, I drifted into a deep sleep; somewhere in my olfactory, the scent of sour mash, yeast and angel's share lingered and brought a smile to my face.

Read about the next leg of our Bourbon Trail trip: Go Climb a Rock

Related Links

Frank Lloyd Wright's Ziegler House

We also took some time in Frankfort to see Frank Lloyd Wright's only structure in Kentucky: The Ziegler House. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

More about the Ziegler House and other Frank Lloyd Wright sites.

Related Products

Buffalo Trace Bourbon Roasted Pecan 26 oz. Large Jar Candleberry Candle

Woodford Reserve Premium Bourbon Balls