Kentucky Bourbon 101: How to Drink It, Order It and Distinguish It from Whiskey
Everything you ever wanted to know about this spirit.
A Kentuckian's Guide to Bourbon 01:06
Head to Kentucky for a lesson in Bourbon 101.
The world of whiskey is complex but not complicated. There's no need to be intimidated by it. In the video above, we explain the ins and outs of one famous type of whiskey, Kentucky bourbon.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Central Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon and it continues to be the largest producer in the world. Local distillers formed the bourbon trail in 1999, and its recommended itinerary includes ten distillers. It starts in Louisville at Bulleit and Evan Williams, popular names among bourbons fans, and continues to powerhouses Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark the next day. While in Bardstown, dubbed the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” pop into the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History to view a rare collection that dates back to pre-Colonial times. The tour concludes on the third day in Lexington, after squeezing in the illustrious Four Roses and Wild Turkey.
However, there are plenty of other acclaimed distillers in the region. Step off the official trail to visit beloved brands such as Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace (for cult-favorite Pappy Van Winkle) and Willet. Or take a break from driving: My Old Kentucky Dinner Train rolls through bourbon country and offers bourbon-themed rides.
Kentucky Bourbon Festival
What started as a bourbon tasting and dinner in 1992 has ballooned into a six-day bourbon festival to end all festivals, and is a bucket list must for water-of-life imbibers. Last year’s event attracted more than 50,000 people from the world over. It all goes down in Bardstown, where bourbon’s been made since 1776, and continues to produce the majority of the world’s consumption.
Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, Blanton’s and more will be in attendance, but the festival is more than just bourbon sampling. You can learn what goes into making a barrel, listen to live music, tour local distilleries and peruse craft vendors. For an additional fee, the black tie Tasting & Gala includes dinner and dancing along with the opportunity to hold court with master distillers while quaffing samples from eight local producers.
Kentucky isn’t the only place that makes bourbon, nor does it have to be produced there to call it such. Woodinville Whiskey Co. is a short drive outside Seattle, and definitely worth a side trip to tour the distillery and learn all about its 90 proof straight bourbon whiskey that took more than five years to make. Back in the city, Oola Distillery is a small-batch producer in the Capital Hill neighborhood, and offers tours every Saturday. Its Waitsburg Bourbon Whiskey has won awards and accolades.
2bar Bourbon from 2bar Spirits is made from locally sourced grains, and the distillery is open for tours Thursday-Saturday (be aware that Saturdays book up in advance). Upscale Tavern Law is the place to imbibe bourbon cocktails, or make a reservation at its (not-so-secret) speakeasy, Needle & Thread. Cocktail bar Canon Whiskey and Bitters Emporium claims to have the largest collection of spirits in the Western Hemisphere, and with more than 3,500 options, that number’s hard to dispute.
Now in its 18th year, WhiskyFest is the longest-running whiskey festival in the states. Events are held year-round across the country, and this year’s lineup includes Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Expect to find more than 350 international whiskies, including bourbon. There are also opportunities to participate in seminars and meet whiskey experts, from distillers to master blenders.
Portland isn’t just the leader on the craft beer landscape; a distillery boom is underway as well. In fact, there are so many that there’s even a Distillery Row, which includes Eastside Distilling, whose small-batch bourbon has won awards. Others, like House Spirits Distillery, offer bourbon-tasting classes, while New Deal Distillery holds whiskey-making classes that tend to sell out. Bull Run Distilling Company has a devoted tasting room and several Straight Bourbon Whiskey options.
Bourbon is readily available at bars around town, and The Pope House Bourbon Lounge offers a wide selection, in addition to private bourbon-tasting classes. However, the hands-down winner is destination-worthy Multnomah Whiskey Library for bourbon nirvana. It’s not easy getting in, but once there, sink back into a leather couch, marvel at more than 1,000 whiskey bottles lining exposed-brick walls, and sip away.
Hudson Valley, New York
Before Prohibition, the picturesque Hudson Valley was home to at least 1,000 distilleries. Tuthilltown Spirits was at the forefront of the area’s resurgence when it opened in 2005. It produces small-batch Hudson Four Grain Bourbon and Hudson Baby Bourbon, and in addition to tours and tastings, it also serves farm fresh fare at its restaurant, located in a historic grist mill. Orange County Distillery uses local grains to make quality bourbons in small batches. Both of its locations offer tastings, but only the aforementioned distillery has a production facility.
At Black Dirt Distillery, the corn used in its namesake bourbon is grown in said black dirt, which is an ancient fertile soil found in the Hudson Valley. To try it, head to the tasting room at Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery, which is where the bourbon originated. Hillrock Estate Distillery offers a different twist with “solera”-aged bourbon, a technique that periodically removes small quantities of whiskey and replaces it with new whiskey, helping to create a more complex flavor. Make a tour appointment to learn more, and then visit its rustic tasting room.
Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival
This annual festival is traveling to 10 cities in 2016, including Atlanta and Tampa. Besides the requisite beer and barbeque, taste more than 40 bourbons and attend educational seminars. Bourbon exhibitors include Elijah Craig, Yellow Rose and Blanton’s.
New Orleans, Louisiana
It’s rumored that bourbon got its name from famed Bourbon Street in the 19th century, since New Orleans served as a key shipping port. Either way, bourbon still has a strong presence in the city. Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House is first and foremost a seafood restaurant, but it also boasts the largest bourbon selection in town (as well as Frozen Bourbon Milk Punch). The Avenue Pub also has a good selection, from wheated to experimental bourbons, and is also home to the New Orleans Bourbon Society. Chef Emeril Lagasse is behind the annual Boudin, Bourbon & Beer, a food and drink extravaganza that features notable chefs, live music, and of course, bourbon. Last year’s event included a signature bourbon cocktail from Buffalo Trace.
New York City
In the 1800s Brooklyn was once home to at least 20 illicit distilleries, which prompted ongoing raids known as the Whiskey Wars until none were left. Kings County Distillery was the first to return when it opened in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2010. It makes its award-winning bourbon (along with moonshine and chocolate whiskey) from organic corn, and also holds whiskey-tasting classes. Tours and tastings are available every Saturday, and there’s no need to book ahead.
Widow Jane Distillery is also based in Brooklyn, and produces a number of organic “farm-to-bottle” bourbons, including heirloom varieties made from ancient grains. It’s not open to the public, but you can find it at whiskey bar and restaurant Maysville, which boasts more than 150 American whiskeys. The Flatiron Room is considered a destination for whiskey connoisseurs, and its menu features about 100 bourbons. The Flatiron Room also offers a Whiskey School with classes for all levels, from Whiskey 101 to Pappy Van Winkle, an educational class and tasting devoted to the cult favorite.
Not only does KOVAL Distillery focus on making organic spirits, but it’s also the city’s first distillery since the 1800s. Its Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey is unconventional since it employs millet as a supplemental grain instead of the more commonly used rye or wheat. In addition to tours and tastings, it also offers whiskey workshops for furthering your knowledge. FEW Spirits is just north of Chicago in Evanston (ironically, the headquarters of the Temperance Movement, which formed to “temper” alcohol consumption before Prohibition). This small-batch distillery creates an award-winning bourbon whiskey and holds tours.
If you can’t make it there, FEW is served at Fountainhead Chicago, along with other craft and locally made bourbons, such as New Holland Brewing and Journeyman Distillery from Michigan. Fountainhead is also notable for its rare single cask selections. Other places to sip bourbon include The Berkshire Room, an upscale lounge with an extensive bourbon list, from Van Winkle to I.W. Harper, and Untitled Supper Club, a speakeasy burlesque that houses an entire Whiskey Library containing more than 400 American brands.