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Distilleries are as much of an industry as steel mills, coal mines or chemical refineries. They employ thousands of Kentuckians directly, and thousands more on the farms which produce the corn, wheat, rye, barley and oak trees the distilleries require. The Bourbon Trail, a series of 42 distilleries from Lexington to Louisville, has Bardstown as its headquarters. Five major distilleries are in or just outside Bardstown. The others are at most an hour away. All distilleries offer guided tours, but they're in demand so you need reservations. Each tour takes 60-90 minutes plus a tasting session where you'll be seated in a tasting room and be given shot glasses of their various products. During each tour you'll see the grain being unloaded from big trucks, the mix (or "mash") being created, yeast added, the mash run through the big distilling columns, poured into barrels and stacked in warehouses called rickhouses. You'll learn how each distillery makes its Bourbon slightly differently, either by altering the mash or by manipulating the aging process in the rickhouses. You'll also learn how the Bourbon moves through the oak staves, being filtered and adding flavor.
Jim Beam Makers Mark Heaven Hill Willett's Castle & Key Four Roses Old Forester Woodford Reserve Town Branch

Makers Mark has the second most beautiful campus of all the distilleries. It is unique in that it is the only one whose Bourbon ingredients, the "Mash Bill," do not include Rye. This is due to the owner's wife, who wanted a more mellow Bourbon that did not burn tongue or throat. The burning sensation is caused by Rye. Makers Mark replaces the Rye with Wheat, which is more passive and allows the sweetness of the corn to come through. This is the only distillery which hand dips each bottle with their trademark red seal, and at the end of your tour, those who wish can step to the assembly line and hand dip their own bottle with their name on it. You'll be stunned by the scenic grounds and may wish to wander around afterward to take photos of the stream, covered bridge, lawns, flower beds, buildings and other features. To reach Makers Mark from Bardstown take routes 49 and 52 south past Loretto, about a 30 minute drive through beautiful blue grass back country. The basic Makers Mark algorithm is 70% corn, 16% soft red winter wheat and 14% malted barley.


Jim Beam also has a vast and scenic campus, the third most beautiful on the Trail. You'll see its pastoral areas, which look like a country estate, then see the industrial areas, such as the big distilling columns and wide fermenting vats. The railroad runs right through the Jim Beam grounds, so they're still able to ship in grains and wood and ship out finished Bourbon, and the Kentucky Dinner Train comes through every lunch and dinner. But Jim Beam also has the best restaurant of all the distilleries, and you may want to schedule your tour at 10 or 11 so you can eat lunch here. They're the largest Bourbon distiller in the world so everything is big. The buildings extend all the way down a large hill so a shuttle bus moves you from one to the next. You don't get to handseal your own bottle, but you do get to pick out a bottle, send it through the assembly line to be filled, and buy it to take home. This distillery has been operated by the Beam family for seven generations, so the guides here go over a lot of history, including the story of founder Jim Beauregard Beam taking a jug of his special yeast home every night to make sure none of his rivals stole it. The Beam family car from the 1930s is on display, and the old family home is now a visitor center. In many ways, given how huge this facility is, it's very impersonal, but with the Beam family having been here since 1795, there's so much history sitting around it makes it seem like the most personal. To get here from Bardstown take route 245 north west. It will take about 20 minutes. Unlike most of its rival distilleries, which offer one basic tour, Jim Beam offers 10 different kinds. The basic Jim Beam algorithm is 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% barley.

Heaven Hill, located along Bardstown's southern border, suffered a horrific fire which destroyed its distillery and six of its rickhouses. It's just building back. The new Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience is now open. This state of the art visitor center cost $19 million and features high tech interactive exhibits, plus an extensive "taste tour." But realize their new $125 million distillery is not quite open, so you're seeing a museum, not a production line. The basic Heaven Hill algorithm is 80% corn, 8% rye and 12% malted barley.


After seeing three huge distilleries in Makers Mark, Jim Beam and Heaven Hill, you can now see one of the very smallest : Willett's. Next to Heaven Hill on the southern edge of Bardstown, Willett's was founded in 1938 as a bottling plant for other distilleries' Bourbons. It didn't start distilling its own Bourbon until 2012. A complete $93 million upgrading of the facilities is now under way. Willett's has opened a bar and restaurant on the grounds. They bottle a Rye, a Wheat, regular Bourbons under the Noah's Mill (114 proof) and Rowans Creek (100 proof) labels, and elite Bourbons under the Willett Family Estate label. Willett is considered a craft distillery by Bourbon conneisseurs and brings high prices. Willett Family Estate bottles sell for $1000-2000. The major reason for this is because Willett ages its Bourbons nine - 12 years. The basic Willett algorithm is Corn 72% - Rye 13% - Malt Barley 15%.

Castle & Key boasts the most beautiful campus of any distillery on the Bourbon Trail. This is the Old Taylor Distillery, closed and abandoned during prohibition and left to ruin for 90 years. Will Arvin discovered it in 2012, bought it, and launched a decade long restoration. It has a pool, a sunken garden, a castle, a stream flowing through, and other scenic features. First Arvin and his chemists sharpened their skills on Gins and Ryes. Then in 2022 Castle & Key returned to the Bourbon business. Its basic Bourbon algorithm is white corn 73%, rye 10% and malted barley 17%.  Every batch they've made has sold out, at $55 a bottle. Castle & Key is in the locale of Millville, in Woodford County, 45 miles from Bardstown. Take the Blue Grass Parkway to Versailles, then 1659 north to Millville.



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