The Best in Bourbon Tourism
Do you love bourbon? Those who do usually know a thing or two about the topic. But when it comes to an authority on the subject, it’s hard to top Fred Minnick, who is rapidly becoming the go-to source on this specific type of whiskey. He is not only the author of two highly regarded books, "Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon Scotch & Irish Whiskey" and "Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker", but Minnick is currently celebrating the publication of his new work, "Bourbon: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American Whiskey." Minnick is also the official Bourbon Authority for the Kentucky Derby Museum.
There have been other books on the history of whiskey but Minnick takes a unique approach. “I wanted to take the approach of telling bourbon as it impacted American history,” he states, “and study bourbon through legislation and trends. The book is about those men and women who built a legacy for bourbon.” His extensive investigation also narrows down the various men credited with creating the liquor to the most likely candidate to deserve the title “the inventor of bourbon.” In the below Q&A, Minnick offers up some invaluable recommendations and insider information for fellow bourbon fans and tourists.
ROAM: Among the many bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, which would your recommend as must-visit destinations for bourbon fans?
Minnick: Maker’s Mark is number one. It is so beautiful and feels a little bit like you’re back in the 1800s. It’s in Laredo, Kentucky, which is far away from everything and you will get lost driving there. Trust me, you will get lost. Inside they have a lot of really cool art. The famous glass artist Dale Chihuly - he has this incredible display in one of their barrel houses. Maker’s Mark embodies that old school/old country feel of how bourbon used to be and how these facilities used to be.
Number two is Buffalo Trace. They offer a real dynamic, historic tour. It’s in Frankfort and also has that kind of 1800s feel because a lot of the buildings are from that era. I would recommend going on the hard hat tour. That way you can see and do as much as you want. Their warehouses have a special kind of aroma to them. When I’m in the Buffalo Trace warehouse it just smells special.
Number three is a smaller operation called the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and it’s in downtown Louisville. They have this amazing reenactment video where they have Evan Williams talking about his whiskey in the late 1700s. They pay a real homage to the history of American whiskey and you get an intimate feel for how whiskey was produced. If you are only able to go to one distillery on your short trip to Louisville that’s where I recommend you go because they jam pack it full of so much great information. It’s the type of geeky knowledge that I want people to walk away with from a Kentucky bourbon distillery.
Number four is Willett Distillery in Bardstown. They’re a family owned business with really beautiful warehouses. They have a gorgeous pot still, a beautiful column still and you get access to whiskies that you would never get elsewhere. I personally love that tour because they have done so much to save a lot of old bourbon stocks in my opinion. They get a lot of credit for their whiskey but I don’t know if they get enough credit for their role in protecting old bourbon stocks that would have been blended away in something less tasty.
Number five is Woodford Reserve, a real picturesque spot in Versailles, Kentucky. On your way there you’ll see a lot of old horse barns. You may even see some Kentucky Derby contenders. It’s in an historic area right off McCracken Pike. It’s gorgeous and they offer a nice tour. It’s a real educational experience and the operation is very, very posh.
There’s also a company called Mint Julep Tours. I think they are the best tour guides in Kentucky and they will take you around to each distillery and they know the history of them. They do an amazing job and they’re just about to celebrate their tenth year I believe.
ROAM: Can you mention some of your most memorable bourbon tasting experiences?
Minnick: Let me do this from a historical perspective. These are not things you can buy right now. Number one is Old Crow from the 1960s, specifically the chess decanter series when it was still being produced by National Distillers. It was velvety; it just layered your tongue with the richest caramels you can imagine and the most complex vanilla notes I’ve ever tasted. And it had a finish that even now, if I close my eyes, I can still taste. I’ve been trying to recapture that experience since I had that...and I haven’t.
Number two is Kentucky Tavern from the 1950s. Both Kentucky Tavern and Old Crow are really bad today so these are not things people should go buy. These are vintage. They were made in these particular periods and there’s no finding them now unless you go to a special collector or a place that specializes in vintage whiskies. 1950s Kentucky Tavern was very rich but spicy and it had some gorgeous spice notes to it.
Number three is W.L. Weller barrel proof from the 1940s. This was whiskey from the Stitzel-Weller distillery which was owned by a guy named Pappy Van Winkle. His distiller was a fellow by the name of Will McGill and he was old school when it was old school. He didn’t believe in chemistry equipment and that mindset would be passed on to distiller to distiller at that facility until it closed in 1992. That particular bourbon was just so exemplary for that distillery. I don’t know how else to describe it except to say that it was history upon the tongue. It was really complex and offered notes that you just don’t find in bourbon anymore. Bourbon still has caramel in it but it’s the way that caramel tastes - the wood was different, the corn was different, the distillation techniques were different. Everything they did back then in the old days was different. It’s not always better but for these three bottles I mention it was better.
ROAM: Do you know of any restaurants that do exceptional pairings with food and bourbon?
ROAM: Most people think Kentucky is the epicenter for bourbon but aren’t there other places producing high quality bourbon?
Minnick: Yes, Lawrenceburg, Indiana. There is a former Seagram’s plant there that is owned by MGP Ingredients and they make a lot of really good bourbon. They also make a lot of really good rye whiskey. The facility is not very far from the Kentucky border so it has a lot of the same properties as Kentucky bourbon.
New York distillers are making a nice play in the bourbon field. You’ve got Finger Lakes Distilling, Coppersea Distillery and Hudson Whiskey. Kings County, which is a Brooklyn distillery, won double gold for its peated bourbon in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition of which I’m a judge.
In Texas you have Garrison Brothers, a new distillery called Ironroot Republic and one called Balcones. And there’s a place called St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, which is right by San Francisco. They’re not just a bourbon distiller. They bottle bourbon but they focus on a single malt when it comes to their whiskey. They offer an incredible tour. They’re in this old Navy hanger and from their distillery you can see a great view of the skyline of San Francisco.