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A journey down Kentucky's Bourbon Trail

Planning to coop myself up at Mom's in Iowa for much of the summer while I plot my next move meant that I needed to drive myself and my things on the winding 14-hour route from North Carolina to Cedar Rapids, which so happens to run right through the heart of Kentucky bourbon country. My new car is an electric vehicle with a range of about 150 miles, so frequent stops were necessary for the long-distance jaunt. I figured I'd make one stop particularly long and stay one night in Lexington and one in Louisville, visiting a few bourbon distilleries between the two cities and a handful more when heading out of Louisville.

Louisville's "Whiskey Row"

Researching distilleries to visit is more challenging than I expected. I tend to avoid most things corporate, touristy, or with mass-market brand recognition––I'd balk at, for instance, the prospect of visiting the tasting room at a tourist mill, 50,000+ case/year winery in Sonoma or Napa, and instead would opt for off-the-radar, small production, proprietor-owned-type outfit. On the bourbon trail, I learned, this isn't really how things work. While for decades there were countless brands of bourbon being produced all over the state by different small businesses, conglomerates slowly began to form and swallow up brands, absorbing multiple of them into a "portfolio" of whiskeys all produced at one site. These days, the big boy multinational beverage companies control most of the output of Kentucky bourbon country, making the corporate experience pretty hard to avoid.

I'm sure with additional digging I could have found more distilleries that were my speed, but I sorta viewed my first visit to bourbon country like a first visit to a city like Rome––it might be an amusement park, but the first time you go you gotta visit St. Peter's, the Coliseum, the Forum, etc. Get those out of the way and then look for the hidden gems. Luckily, I had way too little time to hit all the "big" distilleries, so I needed to be selective about which corporate conglomerates were worthy of my tour and tasting fees.

Though this will make the blog about a five minute longer read, one of the core tenets of The Maestro Eats is food and beverage education! So, a few basics about bourbon to get out of the way first that one or both of my loyal readers might not know.

Under US law, for whiskey to be called "bourbon," it must be a) distilled from 51% or more corn; b) aged in a new oak barrel that has been charred on the inside; c) made in the United States. There are a few minor, lesser known rules about proof that also apply. "Straight" bourbon has been aged in a barrel for two or more years and is certified to not include any additives––this comes from the early days of bourbon production when some unscrupulous middlemen would top bourbon off with other brownish liquids as they sold bottles from the barrel to maximize their profit per barrel. "Straight" is a colloquialism for "honest," and bourbon aged in barrel for two years and then opened for the customer ensured that the spirit was not tampered with.

Most bourbon is distilled in the foothills and fields northwest of the Appalachians in Tennessee and Kentucky, but it is a common misconception that in order for a whiskey to be called "bourbon," it must be made in Kentucky. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States––in fact, one of my favorite bourbons is distilled just 20 miles from my mom's place in Iowa (the best corn in the world must produce a great bourbon, right?).

Now, Kentucky is particularly suited to bourbon production because underneath Kentucky is one of the world's largest deposits of limestone, and the ground water that interacts with the limestone is remarkably free of impurities which might manifest as unpleasant flavors in the final product. Guess where the other two biggest limestone shelves are? Ireland and Scotland! Moreover, Kentucky has a generally warm, but not too warm, climate, and the warehouses where bourbon is aged do better in the barrel in warmer weather. So, Kentucky might be the most common origin, but it isn't the only one, nor the legally required one!

I took a couple of tours on this trip which gave me a pretty comprehensive idea how bourbon is made. I'll include the process (and photos) here to give everyone a mini-lesson before reviewing the bourbons themselves!

1) Mash. Grain, usually a combo of corn, a "flavoring" grain (rye or wheat), and malted barley, is ground down and combined in a recipe of percentages called a "mash bill"––something like 70% corn, 20% rye or wheat, and 10% malted barley.

2) Fermentation. Yeast, grain, and water are combined and allowed to ferment in gigantic stainless steel vats. As with beer or wine, yeast eats the sugars in the grain and produces ethanol alcohol and CO2, so you can see the bubbling in the mash after a couple of days of fermenting. Once the alcohol level in the mixture reaches about 10%, it's now a substance called "low wine" and ready to be distilled. Mash from this batch is often included in the next batch of grain to be fermented for consistency between batches––this is called the "sour mash" method.

3) Distillation. Using a copper device called a "still," the low wine is heated so that the more volatile compounds, the alcohols and flavorful phenols, become vaporized. This vapor then condenses at the top of the still and collects into a clear, high-proof grain spirit called "white dog" by folks in the industry. Copper is the preferred substance for a still because it reacts with sulfurous compounds, bi-products of the fermentation process, and neutralizes them, making the spirit taste better.

Pot stills are centuries old in basic design and use a wide drum for heating and long neck at the top for the condensation to collect; column stills are newer and feed the low wine into the center of the still to fall through a series of trays with dime-sized holes; the liquid that makes it to the bottom is met with hot steam that volatilizes the alcohol and makes it into vapor to condense at the top of the still. Some vapor collects on the trays as well and then is re-vaporized eventually when it again hits the steam, and this process repeats over and over––this results in a cleaner final product.

Distillers using pot stills will usually perform second or sometimes third distillations of their white dog to remove even more impurities that may affect taste from the final product. Companies using column stills add an extra distillation in a device that is essentially a pot still called a "thumper" or "doubler." Column stills are efficient but controversial––many purists say a craft spirit can only come from pot stills, but most industrial spirits production these days happens in continuously-distilling column stills.

4) Barreling. "White dog," the spirit resulting from the stills, is pumped under pressure into charred new oak barrels. Some bigger beverage companies make their own barrels at a facility called a "cooperage." Oak, usually American white oak, is fitted together without any glues or nails that might affect taste and through a series of magic tricks made into the convex shape we know as a barrel. Most cooperages will "toast" their barrels, which exposes them to heat and therefore concentrates components like sugars and vanillin in the wood which will end up flavoring the final spirit. To be bourbon, though, the inside of the barrel must be lit on fire and charred––this charring caramelizes natural sugars in the wood and also provides a sort of charcoal that filters out anything nasty left over in the spirit.

5) Aging. Full bourbon barrels are stored in massive warehouses with as many as 20,000 other barrels for several years, usually between four and seven for mass market bourbon. The temperature in these warehouses is rarely regulated, letting nature do its thing. In the process, some of the bourbon evaporates (called the "angels' share") and the phenolic compounds from the oak barrel seep into the remaining spirit, giving it flavor and color.

Bourbon gains color and flavor from the barrel as it ages

6) Bottling. Bourbon is filtered of the charred wood bits accumulated in the barrel and often diluted a bit with water for lower proof or a milder spirit––bourbons labeled things like "cask strength" don't see any extra water. Some bourbons are "double barrel" aged, which means they're put in a brand new barrel briefly for (usually) less than 12 months for even more flavor. After all is said and done, the final product is bottled for distribution.

Filtered barrel bits from the aging process

Now that we've gotten the process out of the way, let's talk about the distilleries I got to visit and the bourbons I got to taste!

After an overnight in Lexington, I mapped out three distilleries for the day's tours. Experts on the bourbon trail recommend no more than three visits per day so you have ample time to tour and enjoy the facilities and whiskey and also so your palate isn't nuked and you're not plastered by 4pm––this has also become my approach to a day of wine tasting!

First up was one of the "big" distilleries just a half hour outside Lexington amidst the rolling pastures and white fences of horse country––Woodford Reserve. The folks at Woodford claim they were the first to start the hunt for a premium bourbon, since before around 1990, bourbon was considered a lower-end spirit because of its mash featuring a majority of inexpensive corn. Woodford's parent company saw opportunity to make bourbon into a a higher-end spirit, and bought the distillery building and warehouses on site, dating to the early 1800s, to pursue this goal. These days, Woodford Reserve is probably the most ubiquitous higher-end bourbon for the mass market. At just around $40 per bottle, it occupies a rung just above the $20–30 standbys like Maker's Mark, Four Roses, etc.

After a ridiculously pretty drive through rolling horse pastures, enjoying the handling of the new car on winding country roads, I turned the corner to a full parking lot at Woodford's sprawling property. I was quite taken by the grounds, and despite being limited in my ability to wander around, I managed to capture some lovely photos while I waited for my tasting.

I learned too late that it's best to book things in advance in bourbon country––the tours at Woodford were all booked up for the day, and I managed to slide into the very last seat for their morning tasting, but needed to wait 45 minutes, unlike winery tasting rooms where you can just walk in. The tasting room overlooks 19th century production and storage buildings down the hill from the visitor's center, and is warmly lit by sunlight and a fireplace behind the employee running the tasting. I settled in the middle of the room behind three pours of whiskey and two of their bourbon-based cocktails, with an ample view down the hill behind me.

Woodford's bourbon is distilled from a mash bill that looks a lot like most of the mash bills I saw on my trip––72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. Corn is the centerpiece of bourbon, and rye is considered a "flavoring" grain that adds pepper, spices, herbal notes, and grip to a bourbon (this is different from a wheated bourbon, which is more toffee-driven and sweet). Barley is the primary grain in old-world whisky production, like Scotland and Ireland, and it's "malted," meaning soaked in water under the precise conditions needed for it to germinate and then dried. Barley helps with fermentation in bourbon production by converting starch to sugars, and adds a mild nuttiness to the whiskey.

Tasting Woodford's bourbon, like any bourbon, requires at least three sips––the first one will feel harsh and boozy because your taste buds aren't used to the high alcohol content, but by the third taste you'll get a good idea of the flavor profiles. Woodford's bourbon has flavors standard to almost all bourbon––vanilla, toffee, caramelized sugars––and also some pronounced flavors of cinnamon, baked apple, banana, and black pepper that develop as you taste. It's one of the more rye-forward bourbons on the mass market, so it's a bit spicier and greener, and therefore not for everyone. But, its third distillation in pot stills makes it one of the purer, smoother wide-market bourbons out there, and is also why it commands a higher price!

Woodford released a rye whiskey line in the early 2000s, made with 53% rye, 31% corn, and 16% barley. Feistier than bourbon, rye whiskey tends to be drier, spicier, and more aromatic, though Woodford's relatively low rye percentage in this mash bill mellows out much of the bite of the grain, displaying aromas and flavors of tobacco, coconut, flowers, and intense baking spices. Meanwhile, the newest in the Woodford constellation is their wheat whiskey, distilled from 52% red winter wheat, 20% corn, 20% barley, and 8% rye. Wheat whiskeys tend to be buttery smooth and drinkable, with beguiling toffee sweetness and a fruit-forward profile. Woodford's gets a lot of banana on the palate, which is apparently a product of their proprietary yeast strain, along with caramel mouthfeel and "fruit salad" aromas. A very approachable, but refined spirit!

Their bourbon was used to blend two mini cocktails, the mixers for which they produce in tandem with a craft beverage company in Columbus, Ohio. The first was a spiced mule, like a Moscow mule but perhaps better named a "Lexington mule," and the second made with spiced cherries. Tasty, but not what I came to Kentucky to sample! Last but not least, a little candy made with chocolate, pecan, and (of course) bourbon was provided as a palate cleanser. Yum!

I needed to make my way closer to Louisville, my next landing spot, to visit the next series of distilleries on my list. Bardstown, about 30 minutes southeast of Louisville, is considered the beating heart of bourbon country, and is home to a staggering number of distilleries––it's almost like a wine country town, with similar charm, local inns and eateries, and a feeling of warm, down-home hospitality (as well as Disneyland-like tourist energy).

Just outside of Bardstown, Lux Row's facility may be new, but their brands certainly are not. Luxco, a beverage corporation out of St. Louis, has centralized its bourbon production to this site. Through a series of acquisitions spanning several decades, Luxco owns storied bourbon brands Ezra Brooks, Rebel, Daviess County, David Nicholson, and Blood Oath, which they centralized into this single production facility. Eventually, they will release a Lux Row brand as well––because bourbons need to age several years, it takes a while for a new brand to become available to the market!

While Lux Row was the visit that reeked most of corporatism (we watched a video about their history that was capped by a suit-clad CEO saying "cheers!") it was the first tour I landed on the trip, so I learned a great deal about bourbon production during my visit, which was awesome. We got to look at every step of the process except cooperage, which is done off-site for almost all distilleries, including stopping into one of their warehouses stacked with row after row of beautiful bourbon barrels. The smell of oak and angels' share was absolute heaven, not to mention the sheer beauty of the stacked barrels!

After our enlightening tour we all settled in to taste examples of four of their five brands––Blood Oath is a bit too high-end for your everyday tasting, it seems––in their spacious tasting room. A cool element of this tasting is we got three chocolates to pair with three of the pours. The homogenization of the brands is a bit unfortunate in that they've lost some of their unique character, such as mash bills––Lux Row uses just two mash bills for all of their bourbons, one wheated and one rye, even with six different brands, so it is left to the master blender to decide what barrels blend together to produce the "Ezra Brooks" taste, or the "Daviess County" taste, and so on. This is the biggest cost, taste-wise, of the conglomerate model.

The tasting was quite well-designed, however, with unique characteristics to each bourbon for contrast. The Rebel brand used to be called "Rebel Yell" until they rightly decided that was a little Confederate, and because Rebel's chief distinguishing trait is that its flavor grain is wheat, not rye, they now cheekily brand this line "defiantly smooth." Wheated bourbons, as discussed previously, are very smooth and approachable, and the Rebel led with aromas and flavors of buttered popcorn, honey, and dried fruits. Certainly a wheated bourbon! A salted caramel milk chocolate truffle was the pairing, and it was perfect. The Ezra Brooks flagship whiskey was next, and unlike the Rebel, this was a whiskey made using their rye-flavored mash bill. I detected standard bourbon notes of vanilla and toffee, but with a distinct bite of black pepper on the sides of the palate. They paired this with a dark chocolate coated cherry, which brought out welcome flavors of dried red fruit in the spirit.

The Daviess County brand, dating to the mid 19th century, was revived by Lux. The new approach combines bourbon made from each of Lux Row's two mash bills in each Daviess bottle. Two of the three Daviess brand bourbons are finished after the first barrel aging process in a second barrel––the example I tasted is finished in a California cabernet barrel for six months. The double barreled bourbon certainly had a cherry characteristic derived from the cabernet casks, and I got distinct notes of toasted marshmallow and concentrated vanilla bean. Consistent with the cab vibe, a cherry truffle was the chocolate pairing. Meanwhile, David Nicholson is one of Lux's first brands, coming from St. Louis just like the company, and has become Lux's higher-end mass market bourbon. We got to taste the Nicholson Reserve, which comes from Lux's rye-flavored mash bill and is their flagship 1843 bourbon aged for a few more years. Despite the age, this is a more piquant bourbon, with toasty honeyed backbone but distinct spicy elements like coriander and peppercorn. A very good whiskey, and one I'd happily seek out.

Derby Week brings out a lot of cool specials for tastings, and we had the option to add a $10 extra pour (and accompanying take-home Glencairn glass!) of premium bourbon to close out our tasting. Only eight of us had added it, but after it was poured for we few, pretty much everyone ordered one. Unlike the Ezra Brooks flagship, I absolutely loved this "Old Ezra" bourbon, bottled at cask strength (without dilution out of the barrel) and aged seven years. Cinnamon was the primary note I detected, along with leather, aging wood, and flowers. Excellent.

I was a victim again of my lack of planning when I arrived at my next spot, Willett, just outside the heart of Bardstown, and learned the next tasting would not begin for over an hour. Because the predicted thunderstorms had started, I didn't get much of a chance to explore the grounds, though I will say I found the facilities to be a bit more bizarrely disjunct than the other spots. I rode out the storms in my car and got some tasks checked off my list rather than driving next door to the hyper-commercial Heaven Hill to taste more whiskey, and during the remainder of my waiting time interacted with the adorable distillery kitty adorning a window sill.

Willett is the family name of this company, also called Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, which is still headquartered on the family property and run by descendants of the founder. For several decades, KBD didn't actually produce any bourbon, and instead owned, bottled, and distributed brands that did their own work. In 2012, KBD decided to revive and lean into the Willett name, and began making bourbon on site again, though many of their bourbons are still made by off-site distillers working under the banner of KBD/Willett and their own brands.

Willett's was an interesting contrast to the business models from Woodford, which is a single, otherwise independent brand owned by a big multinational conglomerate, and Lux Row, which is a regional conglomerate that acquired many brands and deploys all of them using the same mash bills under the same roof (though still with a big boy bev parent company). Willett, meanwhile, is more of a loose confederation of brands that is truly local and family-owned, and has been in and out of the actual distilling business for nearly a century. Moreover, unlike any other distillery I visited, they are pretty cagey about how they produce their whiskeys, and it's nearly impossible to find info about their mash bills, production facilities, or the history of their brands.

Despite probably having the most premium whiskeys, Willett was the least fancy-looking of the places I visited that day––the visitor center had an old, tacky southern home kind of vibe to it, and the tasting room just looked like a vague, under-decorated ballroom with a mini fridge in the corner. The tasting approach, though, was cool––we all got a pour of their flagship Willett "Pot Still Reserve" bourbon, iconically distributed in a bottle that resembles a pot still, but after that it was a "choose your own adventure" type of tasting, where we got to pick between two or three different whiskeys, each taste being the next "tier" up from the previous.

The Willett Pot Still Reserve bourbon is probably the best mass market bourbon I've had. It's wheated, so it has little of the spice of rye, and instead is absolute silk on the palate. Buttery lemon cake is the best way to describe it. It's elegant, brilliantly balanced, and rich with that quintessential bourbon mouthfeel. Absolutely stellar, and what a bottle!

We got to pick from three of their Old Bardstown labeled whiskeys next, the label described for us as some of their most classic bourbon. I went with their "Estate Bottled" bourbon, which had a bit more age than the others at ten years. There was a definite rye dominance in this bourbon, with a smokiness and licorice character that never really let up, even after a few sips. Next up, Rowan's Creek, which is supposedly named for the creek that runs between the Heaven Hill and Willett properties along the road. With a handwritten look, the label certainly lends credence to the assertion that the bourbon is hand crafted in small batches. Fortunately, the flavor does as well. I found this bourbon to be rather aromatic, with distinct baked apple and pear as well as piquant green peppercorn. The brightness and complexity of the whiskey was delightful, still finishing with luscious vanilla like a good aged bourbon.

We were offered a selection of three of their most premium whiskeys as our last tasting, and I gravitated toward their rare release rye whiskey so I could switch things up a bit. My goodness, I am glad I did. Dark cherries dance on the nose and palate alongside a spearminty, almost menthol quality that undergirds the rye baking spices. With a bit less age, the various phenols of the whiskey really speak and are not dominated by anything too sugary and weighty on the palate––a backdrop of honey is all the stage these cherry and tropical fruits and aromatic, medicinal spices need to sing. A knockout whiskey that punches well above its $70ish weight class.

Louisville was already starting to hum on the morning of day two of my visit, with searsucker-clad tourists dotting Whiskey Row puffing cigars and sipping Kentucky's finest. Perhaps no whiskey bar in Louisville is buzzier than Doc Crow's, and in true Derby spirit, the Doc had broken out some ultra rare selections in the lead-up to the perennially busiest weekend in town. After grabbing an early lunch at Doc's, I was happy to also snag a flight from their limited-time-only Derby menu.

The cool thing about this flight is I was able to sample whiskey from exactly the types of places I originally wanted to find. Instead of going full conglomerate, this flight, with four whiskeys from up-and-coming producers (though some owned by major corporate parent companies), was called "Heirs to the Throne," and might be a look into what the world of premium whiskey looks like in Kentucky in ten years. I knew these were special bottles when the bartender had to climb a giant ladder and move a bunch of other whiskeys aside to get at them.

Unlike the scant tasting room pours, these were a serious one ounce each, and I gave myself plenty of time to really enjoy each whiskey individually while also chugging multiple cups of water between each sample––I did have one more distillery left and a seven-hour drive afterwards!

Limestone Branch Distilling, founded in 2010 by two Beam family descendants (but owned by the largest distilling company in North America, MGP), is responsible for the first selection, named "Minor Case" in honor of the patriarch of the Beams, who operated a popular distillery in Kentucky pre-Prohibition but passed shortly after Prohibition was repealed. This is a "pre-Prohibition" style rye, like Woodford's, which uses just above 50% rye and balances it out with a lot of corn. Rye was Americans' whiskey of choice before Prohibition, and modern ryes usually try to contrast with bourbon with much higher rye percentages in the mash, so these mellower, pre-Prohibition style ryes are pretty unusual. This one had the softness characteristic of its mash bill with aromas of apricot, raisin, pink peppercorn, and subtle vanilla. The finishing in sherry casks becomes evident on the palate, and the whiskey almost reminds you more of a Highlands Scotch than an American rye whiskey. A great intro to this unique flight.

Lucky 7 Spirits is (finally) a smaller outfit in the bourbon business, but they don't actually distill any bourbon. Instead, they source killer bourbon from all over Kentucky and blend it themselves to create their whiskeys. Lucky 7's "Holiday Toast" is double barreled, aged a second time in a new barrel before being bottled. "Holiday" is the perfect moniker––elements of gingerbread, figs, dark chocolate, banana bread, and heavy baking spice make this bourbon a perfect Christmas Eve sort of tipple. Immensely flavorful and concentrated, and the Lucky 7 folks even made a short video to pair with the bourbon, like they do all their spirits!

The last two were the truly special offerings, however. Bardstown Bourbon Company was at the top of my list for distilleries to visit in Bardstown, but as mentioned, wasn't open on Mondays, so I am thrilled I got to try one of their premium bourbons at Doc's. Like many new distilleries, the early offerings at Bardstown were sourced bourbons rather than those they distilled themselves, since their sprits need to age. Their "Discovery Series" is an homage to the process of finding these whiskeys and blending them. The bulk of this all-Kentucky whiskey, the first in the Discovery Series, was a 12-year bourbon combined with dashes of feisty younger bourbons and a storied older one. The result was fantastic––berries, waffle cone, caramel apple, and a vegetal undertone of anise guided the palate, with lingering spice gripping on to the palate from the high-proof younger spirits in the blend. Really interesting, and I'd be very tempted to seek out the other members of their Discovery Series.

Last was the best bourbon of the trip. At 135 proof, "Door Knocker" is a truly special bourbon made by Three Boys Farm Distillery out of Frankfort. A true craft distillery located on the farm from which they source their grain for their whiskey, Three Boys is making some spectacular and enigmatic small batch whiskeys out of single barrels or two-barrel blends. I was amazed that such a high-proof spirit could be as velvety as it was––luscious, resinous cedar came immediately to the nose and palate. Behind the cedar was classic vanilla along with musky notes of tobacco and smoke. Just spectacular.

Just steps from Doc's, Old Forester built a state-of-the-art visitor center mostly used for tours. Their main distilling operation is well outside of town, but some more experimental bourbon making is done in the Louisville facility. For Derby week, they were featuring a specialty tasting accompanying a handful of their tours called "Nothing better in the market." Featuring four pours of more exclusive Old Forester bourbons, it was a great way to get a bit of a more premium experience.

Old Forester started under the ubiquitous pretense in the early 20th century that whiskey had profound medicinal applications. Doctor Forrester, a Kentucky physician, took umbrage with the unscrupulous sales tactics of pharmacies that sold bourbon from the barrel, such as topping it off with other brown fluids to sell more of it. To fight this, he created the world's first bottled bourbon––the thinking was that if it's sold in individual bottles, nobody can mess with it. Still peddling its product as "medicinal" bourbon allowed Old Forester to operate continuously through Prohibition, one of the only American beverage manufacturers to do so.

The tour is impressive, almost like a museum, and covers all of the stages of bourbon production. Besides tasting the bourbons, the coolest part was seeing the cooperage display, including a showy demonstration of the charring process.

The "Nothing better in the market" flight begins where their flagship flight ends––with a premium bourbon called "1910." As mentioned, a "double oak" bourbon is transferred from the first barrel, in which it is aged for several years, into a new barrel where it is aged for another few months, concentrating the flavors of vanilla and imparting new flavors from the second barrel. The 1910 was double barrel aged, with an almost confectionary quality of caramel, banana, and baking spice. Another double barrel aged bourbon, called "117 Extra Old," followed the 1910, but this one was aged nearly three times as long in the second barrel. With this bourbon, the richness of molasses and toasted marshmallow rolled warmly across the palate, with background notes of baked fruits and cinnamon. We were offered the exclusive chance to acquire a bottle of this to take home, which I, of course, jumped at.

"Birthday" bourbons are a particularly coveted and highly allocated Old Forester products for which the master distillers find the best of the best bourbons distilled on Doc Forrester's birthday. They select these every year, creating a very special bourbon in the process. We were lucky enough to taste one––brighter and spicier flavors of green peppercorn and melon characterized this bourbon, giving the spirit a little bite to punctuate undulating underpinnings of toffee. The last pour was a single-barrel bourbon, or one that comes from only one barrel and features no blending, a pretty rare technique for a commercial producer. This one was also bottled at cask strength (i.e., without dilution), so it had just a hint of high alcohol burn to it, but once that subsided I welcomed the cherry pie and baking spice flavors which capped off an exceptional slate of whiskeys.

I had a blast wandering around bourbon country and sampling some of the best examples of the spirit, but my favorite component of my visit was learning more about how bourbon is produced, and getting a sometimes-literally-hands-on look at the process behind America's favorite spirit. I only regret that I didn't get to visit more spots, but I suppose that's just a good reason to come back!

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