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A Trip to Bourbon Mecca

Three hobbies make cocktail enthusiast Jeff Powell’s list: eating, drinking and running. The running allows for the eating and drinking. In today’s guest post, Jeff gets to combine two out of the three—excellent planning, right?

As a runner, I often find myself using a race as an excuse to go somewhere. I “dragged” my wife off to Barbados two years ago so I could suffer through a 70?˚ half marathon (at 6:00 am) to experience the pure bliss of heading straight into the cool Caribbean after the race was over.

And as I’ve become a bourbon aficionado over the last few years, I thought a trip to bourbon mecca (i.e., Kentucky) was in order. Why not find another excuse? I could run a long race, and then not feel too guilty about indulging in bourbon for the rest of the trip.

My friend Jerry joined me in signing up to run the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon/Half Marathon in Louisville. Jerry is insane and is working towards running a marathon in all 50 states. Kentucky would be state #29. Me, I just wanted to run the half marathon and then go drink bourbon.

The Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace distilleries were non-negotiable stops on the list. I’ve been a fan of Maker’s for years, enjoying its caramel (or is it toffee?)-like flavor both on the rocks and in Manhattans too many times to count. I have since replaced my bourbon with rye in the Manhattan, as I find Maker’s just too good to mix with vermouth.

Both the wonderful Buffalo Trace and Elmer T. Lee are made by the same distillery—the latter named after the still-living emeritus distiller who, at 92 years young, frequents the distillery to pick out the grains that make up his bourbon. This is the best sipping bourbon I have ever tasted and I personally make sure my local liquor store keeps it in stock.

My hope was to meet Mr. Lee at the distillery, so I could tell him how much I enjoyed his whiskey. Alas, it was not meant to be. He apparently works on Mondays. I was there on Monday. He apparently was not working that Monday.

However, on both tours, I gained an encyclopedic (or at least encyclopedic enough to sound cool at a cocktail party) knowledge of bourbon.

I had always thought bourbon had to come from the specific region of Kentucky to be called “bourbon.” Not so. The Bourbon region of Kentucky just has really good water (it flows through limestone, which rids it of iron). To be called bourbon, the liquor must meet the following qualifications:

  • The whiskey can not exceed 160 proof when fermented and cannot be stored at more than 125 proof.
  • It must contain at least 51 percent corn (along with barley and rye or wheat) and be stored in charred oak barrels. (Most bourbons contain rye. Maker’s Mark gets its trademark sweetness from winter wheat, rather than rye.)
  • A “straight bourbon” must be stored in an charred oak barrel for two years or more.

Like Scotch, the longer the bourbon sits in a barrel, the more refined (and expensive) it gets. The charring of the barrels is what gives bourbon its color and hints of caramel and vanilla. This is why bourbon tastes so good!

Wandering through distilleries, taking a whiff of bubbling barrels of fermented corn and barley, was a heavenly experience. It made the tastings at the end much more rewarding.

I also considered it my reward for 13.1 miles well run.

Looking for more information on visiting both distilleries? We’ve got it here:

And look for an excellent use of Kentucky rye in next Monday’s post.

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  1. I’m up here in Michigan wine country, so am happy to learn a bit about bourbon. It’s only 2 p.m. here on a Monday, and I’m kinda wishing I had some.

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