CLERMONT, Ky. — The bad news for bourbon drinkers is that the brown spirit has become so popular that shortages loom.
The good news is that the surging popularity has spurred distilleries to add or expand visitors centers and tasting rooms in Kentucky’s bourbon-making region, where more than 95 percent of the world’s supply is produced.
Not surprisingly, the biggest and most elaborate of the new sights along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail belongs to the best-selling bourbon, Jim Beam.
Beam opened its $20 million American Stillhouse attraction in Clermont less than three years ago.
The main visitors center, shaped like a big red barn, traces the history of bourbon and the Beam brand in particular. It is filled with Beam merchandise and products, including liquor.
About a dozen of us boarded a small shuttle bus for a tour of Beam distillery facilities. As at other distilleries, visitors can peer into the large fermentation tanks; marvel at huge, steaming stills; watch as the crystal-clear distillate pours into the “trybox,” a copper and glass testing station; and walk through the vast rickhouses where the baby bourbon sits aging in new oak barrels for at least four — and sometimes many more — years.
The aroma is heavenly in part because of the evaporation from the barrels of what is called ” the angels’ share.”
A unique feature of our tour was a visit to the bottling line of the premium small-batch Knob Hill bourbon. We were all allowed to pick an empty bottle; operate the line’s bottle washer on our vessel; mark it; place it on the production line; and watch as it was filled, labeled and capped.
And, of course, we were offered the opportunity to purchase our own bottle. The process was fun — and slick marketing. After all, what bourbon lover doesn’t want to buy the bottle he or she helped produce? And the personalized bottles were priced the same as those on the shelf.
At the end of the tour came our tasting. The room had several automated dispensers, offering measured tastes of a variety of “flavors.” Each guest received a credit-card-like card that could be inserted for two tastes of our choice. The experience was very high-tech — and not very personal. But the taste was still great.
I got a much more intimate tour at the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, where just two of us joined our guide on a walk through the production facilities.
I’ve always adored the quirkily out-of-place Spanish mission-style architecture at Four Roses. And the new visitors center, opened in 2012 as part of a $2.4 million expansion, reflects some of the same architectural themes and color schemes of the original 1910 building, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Four Roses visitors center offered an ample and beautiful tasting room, separate from the gift/bottle shop, where an actual human poured and guided the tasting. (Every bourbon lover who dreams of a home bar will be sure to get many ideas visiting the bourbon trail.)
As at many bourbon trail stops, Four Roses offers spirits found exclusively at its visitors center. The distillery produces bourbon using 10 recipes, but only a few are available at retail outlets, so I was able to pick up a couple of bottles of single barrel bourbon from recipes I’d never tried.
Four Roses also has a second new visitors center that opened just last year at its Cox’s Creek warehouse and bottling facility. The Cox’s Creek center also offers exclusive products, and visitors can tour the Four Roses rickhouses.
The Bourbon Heritage Center at the Heaven’s Hill distillery in Bardstown, the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” has been around since 2002, and I’d stopped there before, but something new can always be learned or tasted.
Heaven Hill, like other distilleries, offers several different tours based on visitors’ interests.
Instead of taking yet another distillery tour, I opted for the “Whiskey Connoisseur Experience,” an expertly guided semi-private tasting of high-end Heaven’s Hill products. Four of us gathered in a cozy tasting room, where our guide told stories, offered tasting tips and generally enhanced the experience — not that it needed much enhancing.
The tasting culminated with a heavenly 23-year-old Evan Williams bourbon that is impossible to find at retail outlets. The center conveniently had bottles available — at $279 a pop. I passed, reluctantly.
Less than a mile from Heaven Hill is the Willett Distillery, a small brand that is hard to find in Ohio. Willett is tiny, compared with a behemoth such as Jim Beam. The tasting room reminded me of those found at small family wineries — definitely less touristy than Beam and Heaven’s Hill but certainly well-visited.
I met a group that had been shuttled there for a tasting and tour by Mint Julep Tours, one of several companies that offers Bourbon Trail tours and transportation — a terrific way to experience the trail, especially if you lack a designated driver and want to do more than just taste.
And bourbon-lovers undoubtedly will want to do just that.
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IF YOU GO
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail officially encompasses eight distilleries in the state’s bourbon-producing region between Louisville and Lexington. Visitors also will find several other distillers that are not members of the trail organization.
For information about the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, call 502-875- 9351 or visit www.kybourbontrail.com.
For information about other things to see and do, call the Kentucky Department of Travel at 1-800-225-8747 or visit www.kentuckytourism.com.
This article was written by Steve Stephens Dispatch from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.