ONE Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, while most people were at work, I stood in a room at Maker’s Mark distillery, in rural Kentucky, breathing in the pungent fumes of fermenting whiskey mash and feeling a kind of mild contact buzz.
The room contained eight giant wooden vats, each filled near to the rim with a yellow-colored brew of corn, wheat, barley, yeast and water. Bubbles of carbon dioxide rose to the surface and popped as the yeast transformed the sugars into ethanol alcohol. I plunged my arm into one of the vats, swirling the mash, which was warm and soupy, like thin porridge.
“Go ahead, taste it,” a woman who works as a tour guide at Maker’s said.
I slowly raised a wet hand to my mouth. This, I thought, sampling the mash — which tasted like very stale, bitter beer — is what I’d hoped to find when I set out from New York City for Kentucky two days earlier.
Accompanied by my oldest friend, Chris, I’d embarked on a road trip centered on bourbon and bluegrass, exploring the back roads of the state where those two American mainstays trace their deepest roots. It was a trip that spoke to our passions and vices; Chris and I are both avid fans of traditional country and roots music, and we’re also dedicated whiskey drinkers, so much so that holidays are often met with an exchange of a bottle of whiskey between us. (Occasionally, we’ve even combined the two, sneaking a flask into a concert.)
We fashioned our itinerary in the style of a bluegrass song: a defined structure but with ample room for improvisation. During the first part of the trip, we would hit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a whiskey version of California’s Napa Valley made up of seven distilleries (Maker’s among them) that are open to the public. Our final stop would be the sixth annual Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Celebration in Rosine, the birthplace of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. It was in the central part of the state, in the rolling hills between Lexington and Louisville — where a layer of limestone filters the iron from the water, making it ideal for bourbon making — that Scotch-Irish distillers settled in the early 1800s. They had fled west to the area of Bourbon County, Kentucky, from Pennsylvania and Virginia in the wake of George Washington’s imposed tax on whiskey in 1791 and the subsequent Whiskey Rebellion. One such early distiller, the mellifluously named Elijah Pepper, began operating in 1812 in an area west of Lexington that is now thoroughbred country. Today, the distillery, a cluster of old stone buildings nestled in a shallow valley along a creek, is home to Woodford Reserve, the easternmost point on the Bourbon Trail.
In a clever bit of marketing, Woodford calls itself “Kentucky’s most historic distillery,” but the brand dates only to 1996, when Brown-Forman (which also owns Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee) decided to create a small-batch bourbon, having earlier restored the buildings. Woodford allows visitors to see the entire bourbon-making process, from mash to bottle; our tour began in earnest in the fermentation room, in a 200-year-old limestone building at the foot of a hill.
The room had the yeasty smell of a brewery and was surprisingly spare, containing little more than a big cooker and four 7,500-gallon vats. There are, of course, specific rules that govern making bourbon: its mash must be at least 51 percent corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof, put in the barrel at no more than 125 proof, and aged in a new, charred white-oak barrel. When the mash in the vats reaches 9 percent alcohol, or 18 proof, it’s piped into an adjoining building that houses three copper stills with bulbous bottoms and elongated necks, like oversized genie bottles.
Listening to our tour guide, a fast-talking, silver-haired man named Steve, explain the distillation process was a bit like auditing a college chemistry class. But the tour soon revealed simpler pleasures.
Outside, we followed a set of sloping iron rails that had been set into the grass and used to roll full barrels of bourbon to a warehouse nearby. Stepping inside, the smell was heavenly — a musky blend of old wood and bourbon. This was the aging warehouse, where the barrels are stored for six years on average to allow the bourbon to soak in the colors and flavors of the wood; the scent was the evaporate that escapes and rises to the rafters, what distillers worldwide call “the angels’ share.”
Chris inhaled deeply and declared that the angel’s share should be bottled as his personal cologne. He sounded serious.
WE were primed for a sampling of the goods. Fortunately, most distilleries on the trail offer tastings. Unfortunately, the local blue laws dictate that quantities remain barely enough to wet one’s lips: I was handed a shot glass in the Woodford visitor’s center that contained a mere half-ounce of bourbon. No refills.
In fact, that evening at our hotel, the Beaumont Inn, in Harrodsburg, we realized it would prove a challenge to do real bourbon drinking in bourbon country. The Old Owl Tavern at the hotel had a large selection of bourbons, many not widely available outside Kentucky, like Elmer T. Lee, as well as Booker’s, a 126-proof brand bottled by Jim Beam that one local warned me will “take your tonsils out.” But our anticipation was short-lived: we were in a dry county, so there were no bars, and only restaurants like the Old Owl could serve alcohol. And last call was 9 p.m.
The next morning we woke early, a necessity on the trail because the distilleries are spaced miles apart on country roads. On the drives, we played bluegrass CDs, listening to legends like Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, whose “Blue Moon of Kentucky” is probably the most widely known bluegrass song ever recorded.
Like many Southerners of his era, Monroe left Kentucky as a young man, going north in 1929 for factory work, and a central theme in bluegrass is a deep longing for home. Traveling the blue highways of Kentucky, drinking in the scenery, the well-groomed horse pastures and sleepy farm towns, I began to understand why. Driving northwest toward Bardstown, we saw weather-beaten barns with tobacco hanging inside to dry; flat, verdant fields; wide farm valleys with a forest line in the distance. Every time I declared a landscape the prettiest I’d yet seen, we’d go around a bend and I’d have to amend my choice.
At one point, rolling across a plateau of lush grassland near Loretto, the road suddenly dipped and, at the bottom of a hill, completely unexpected, a sign said: “You have just found the home of Maker’s Mark.”
A local historian I’d spoken to, Dixie Hibbs, told me that Maker’s has always invested in image, and this is plainly clear. The distillery is a collection of trim buildings, each painted dark brown with red shutters — the colors of a Maker’s bottle. A stream runs through the property, and maple, river birch and white oak trees (the same wood used to make bourbon barrels) provide shade.
The founders of Maker’s Mark, the Samuels family, can trace their roots to distillers who fled Pennsylvania after the Whiskey Rebellion. But although the bourbon industry plays up heritage, many distilleries once owned by families are now operated by corporations, which explained the Jim Beam truck in the Maker’s parking lot (Fortune Brands owns both distillers).
The Maker’s tour followed a similar outline as at Woodford, with visits to the fermentation room (where I dipped my arm in the vats) and the aging warehouse (where our guide told us how to make “redneck whiskey”: put a gallon of water into a used barrel, swish it around and set the barrel in the sun for a month or so). In the bottling area, aproned women grabbed bottles from a conveyer belt, dipping the tops in hot red wax — the Maker’s trademark.
At the new, modern-looking visitor’s center, which had opened just three weeks earlier, we were given a nip of day-old whiskey, clear as moonshine, and one of aged Maker’s Mark, then sent out into the afternoon sun.
After visiting two small, quaint distilleries I wanted to see a big operation, so we drove north to Clermont, where the Jim Beam distillery cranks out 800 barrels a day — a virtual river of bourbon! (As a comparison, Woodford produces 15 barrels a day and Maker’s about 100). The place resembled a bucolic oil refinery, with pipes reaching skyward and tanker trucks coming and going. But the tour was self-guided and limited to a short video and a few museum-style displays, such as a still purported to be the oldest in America.
The afternoon was fading, but there was one more, unofficial stop on the trail: bourbon shopping in Bardstown, which is a bit like shopping for cheese in Parma, Italy. Bardstown is home to two distilleries and the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, and each September is host of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. On days when Barton Brands distillery is cooking, the town smells like mash.
At Toddy’s, a busy liquor store downtown, I counted no fewer than 49 bourbons, including the colorfully named Henry McKenna, Fighting Cock, Johnny Drum and McAfee’s Benchmark. After a quick scan of the shelves, I saw what I’d come for: Kentucky Gentleman, a cheap bourbon I used to drink years ago at a dive bar in the East Village and that I have asked for many times in many bars since, to no avail.
All along, we’d hoped to see local live music, and that night, after leaving Bardstown, we hit the road trip equivalent of the lottery when we stumbled upon a place called the Barn that has a live country band from 7 to 10 on Friday nights.
The Barn is on the outskirts of Burgin, a little farm town in Mercer County, and to get there you drive out in the country, down a two-lane road, past several farms, up a gravel driveway, and behind a trailer home. It’s so under the radar that many people who live in the same county don’t even know it exists.
Basically a long, low-slung white shed, the venue was opened nine years ago by Tommy Hurst, who wanted a place to play music, and it has retained the pleasantly thrown-together feel of a clubhouse. Mr. Hurst’s 91-year-old aunt collects the $7 admission fee, and the décor consists of Christmas lights strung across the rafters and iron skillets hanging on the walls.
Aside from running the place, Mr. Hurst, who is 75 and big-bellied, plays bass in the house band, the Kentucky Strangers, who don’t do much bluegrass but seem to know just about every country and gospel standard written. The show that night was wonderfully loose. Mr. Hurst, his bass resting on his belly, would turn to the pedal steel player or the drummer and ask them to sing a song, then the band would launch into an old Hank Williams number like “You Win Again.”
Each week there’s a featured entertainer, and that night it was a black country singer from Louisville named James (Mac) McDaniel who specializes in Charley Pride songs. Before his set, Mac explained to Chris and me that the Barn was part of a circuit of local “jamborees” around Kentucky in which he performs. Backed by the Kentucky Strangers, Mac did a lively set of standards like “Pop a Top” and “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger” and danced and clapped and belted notes as if he was performing at the Grand Ole Opry.
With its old-timey feel and focus on tradition, the Barn turned out to be a good prelude to the bluegrass festival the next day in Rosine, a little town 80 miles west of Bardstown that has a cemetery, a general store and not much else.
Bill Monroe was raised on a hillside there called Jerusalem Ridge, and a few years ago a veterinarian and bluegrass enthusiast, Campbell Mercer, moved to Rosine, oversaw the restoration of the old Monroe homestead, and began holding a yearly festival (Mr. Mercer is also host of “The Cumberland Highlanders Show,” on RFD-TV).
When we arrived, on a Saturday, the festival was in its third day, and the fields were full of RVs and pop-up campers, and the ridge was brimming with activity. There were food vendors and booths selling CDs and mandolins (Monroe’s instrument) and people hanging out on the homestead’s porch.
The main stage was a rustic-looking, open-sided wood structure built at the foot of a hillside; the audience sat in rows of lawn chairs that ascended the ridge. In the afternoon, Mr. Mercer, wearing a red shirt, a white cowboy hat and an acre-wide grin, and accompanied by a dozen or so musicians, performed a live version of “The Cumberland Highlanders Show.” There are no amplifiers used in traditional bluegrass, only microphones, and the sidemen took turns stepping up to solo. The performance was loose and informal; the musicians sent out prayers for friends who were ill and told corny jokes (someone dedicated “The Old Gray Mare” to “the wives”) and invited people on stage to sit in on a song. A white-haired banjo picker who once played with Monroe got up and did a number.
There was something decidedly old-fashioned about the festival, as if everyone had agreed to turn the clock back 50 years for a few days. The bands had names like the Kody Norris and the Watauga Mountain Boys and Larry Sparks & the Lonesome Ramblers, and the musicians dressed in flashy suits like Nashville stars from the ’50s and sang lyrics like “I’d like to wander back to the old hometown.”
At one point, Sheriff Doolin and the Magan Square Dancers held a square dance, and Chris and I watched in disbelief as a man in the audience wearing bib overalls and a long, hillbilly beard actually stamped his feet in a jig.
But it never felt mannered. Many festivalgoers had been raised in and around Appalachia, and came to hear the mountain music they’d grown up with. “My father and grandfather both played bluegrass,” a man from West Virginia, Ronnie Arbaugh, told me. “When I was little, we’d go to my grandfather’s house and they’d play all night and I’d fall asleep on the couch.”
When it got dark, Chris and I sat at the foot of the stage and watched Dave Leatherman and the Stone County Boys, mesmerized. Aside from the standard bluegrass instruments of upright bass, banjo and fiddle, the band featured a dobro player, and when Mr. Leatherman sang the Tom T. Hall number “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” a tale about a dead guitar picker, the mournful sound of his voice and the dobro carried up the dark ridge.
During the break, I took a walk around the grounds. The festival had been going for three days and would continue for another, but the musicians and festivalgoers showed no signs of tiring. There was live bluegrass on the main stage and bluegrass on a second stage tucked into a shallow hill, and amateur musicians were huddled together wherever there was an open patch of ground, strumming and plucking and singing songs.
Rosine is in a dry county, and there was no alcohol at the bluegrass festival, bourbon or otherwise. But everyone there was drunk on music.
Because the distilleries adhere to roughly the same 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. tour schedule and are miles apart on country roads, it’s best to map out your route along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail carefully. Most tours last about an hour. The trail can be divided into two areas: Lexington and Bardstown.
IN THE LEXINGTON AREA
Woodford Reserve, Versailles; (859) 879-1812
Four Roses, 1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg; (502) 839-3436;
Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg; (502) 839-4544;
Buffalo Trace, 1001 Wilkinson Boulevard, Franklin County; (502) 696-5926; www.buffalotrace.com.
IN THE BARDSTOWN AREA
Maker’s Mark, 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto; (270) 865-2099; www.makersmark.com
Jim Beam, Clermont; (502) 543-9877;
Heaven Hill, 1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown; (502) 337-1000
Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, 114 North Fifth Street, Bardstown; (502) 348-2999; www.whiskeymuseum.com.
Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Celebration, Rosine; (270) 274-9181;
The Barn, 345 Buster Pike, Burgin; (859) 748-9689.
WHERE TO STAY
The Beaumont Inn, 638 Beaumont Inn Drive in Harrodsburg, is a former women’s college dating from 1845 and a charming base for the Lexington end of the Bourbon Trail; (859) 734-3381; doubles from $92.