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On the bourbon trail

Touring three Kentucky distilleries


When you hit

the Kentucky Bourbon Trail -- that self-guided tour through, shall we say, a quasi-mythic realm of the spirits that takes you to seven bourbon distilleries located in the very heart of the state -- sooner or later you will hear the tale of Elijah Craig, the 19th-century Baptist minister to whom legend assigns the invention of bourbon.

The Rev. Craig made whiskey for the New Orleans trade, it seems. But after that, the story acquires variations. Basically, it goes something like this:

In his haste to meet a deadline to transport a shipment of whiskey to the Crescent City, the Rev. Craig was forced to use barrels that had been partially burned (as one version goes) in a barn fire. By the time these barrels were taken off boats that had traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the normally pale corn liquor was amber in color -- and it tasted darn good. As the reverend plied his craft in Bourbon County, which sits just northeast of Lexington, the name stuck. And forever after, bourbon has been associated almost exclusively with the Bluegrass State.

Here in Kentucky -- and in a lot of other places, too -- the cult of fine bourbon holds strong. And like any cult, it requires a creation myth. The Rev. Craig serves nicely. As a matter of fact, "Elijah Craig" is one of the brands bottled down in Bardstown by Heaven Hill, with an especially nice single-barrel variety.

Should you find yourself at the Labrot & Graham distillery over in Versailles, Ky., a museum-style display in the visitor center informs you that history cannot accurately ascribe the invention of bourbon to any individual or group. This, however, might be the best creation myth of all. Bourbon, you could say, just happened. Or then again, maybe it was delivered into Kentucky directly from the hands of angels, who then erased the memories of its receivers, leaving just enough brain cells to keep the stills up and running.

Distillery tours have persuaded me that the inventor, whoever it was, deserves some kind of Nobel Prize. Only a genius or a madman could have devised a process this complicated. I still don't understand it, though I now know that if heaven smells like the room where they cook the mash, I want to go there. Here on earth, fortunately, this is something you can do at almost any time. If, that is, you happen to be in Kentucky.

Maker's Mark

Set amidst the rolling, wooded hills of Marion County, the site of Maker's Mark is so serene that city slickers such as ourselves could hardly believe it was real. It has supported distilleries for almost two centuries, and though Maker's Mark, founded in 1953, is a relative newcomer, the brand is now ranked among the very finest. The distillery itself is quite pleasant, fastidiously restored and maintained. For us, it was so studiously mythical. If Santa Claus made bourbon, this is what his workshop would look like. And frankly, we had difficulty seeing it as factory -- which, of course, it is.

Part of the considerable charm of the Maker's Mark tour is the trip itself. It takes you along winding country roads, past farms, quiet crossroads and weather-silvered barns and through the tiny town of Loretto. In the spring, when the flowering trees are in blossom and the swollen, rocky creeks flash in the sunlight, this is a truly grand drive.

Folks in the know will tell you to pay attention to what distilleries do and do not show. Seems they have their trade secrets. At Maker's Mark, the tour is generous. We saw the grains being ground, and then visited the room where the mash bubbled in huge wooden vats, thick and buff-colored -- a real sorcerer's brew. Oh, the odor, the aroma, the sheer sweet stink of it! Among the keys to successful bourbon -- as other guides in other places would reiterate -- are the sweet limestone-filtered water (no iron to mess up the taste) and the regional corn (high starch content) and wheat (a sweet, mellow flavor). The malt barley comes from the Upper Midwest.

Heaven Hill

Founded by the Shapira brothers of Louisville in 1935, not long after the repeal of Prohibition, Heaven Hill is the last of the family independents. And to put it bluntly, these folks are into quantity. They distill and bottle dozens of brands, not all of them bourbon -- although their flagship bourbon labels, Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, are among the most well known.

Evan Williams Blue Label, 23 years old and sold only in Japan for a mere $300 a bottle, is surely a grail for the connoisseur. Tawnie, our guide, assured us that we could not buy a bottle in the States, no matter who we know. Kind of like Derby seats. One of our dozen or so fellow travelers on the tour suggested that a ticket to Tokyo might not be out of the question. Agreed.

Heaven Hill is a factory, and no effort is made to disguise it. Tours meet twice each weekday in the employee cafeteria, so we rested our weary bones while watching tables packed with folks playing cards, sucking down sodas and catching up on the local gossip. Tawnie finally appeared in a lime-green long-sleeve T-shirt and black nylon workout pants. To put it another way, we would see none of the conscientious formality we'd encountered at Maker's Mark, which only serves to pump the bourbon mystique.

Labrot & Graham

Labrot & Graham has an interesting history. A distillery was built by Elijah Pepper on the site along Glen Creek in the early 19th century. The business continued to expand throughout the middle of the century under Pepper's son, Oscar, before it was purchased in 1878 by Leopold Labrot and James Graham. Louisville's Brown-Forman Corp. acquired the place in 1940, but retired the distillery in 1972 after the bottom fell out of the bourbon market. Thus it sat, unused, until 1994, when the buildings were restored and returned to operation to produce Woodford Reserve, the liquor corporation's prestige Kentucky brand. A new era of connoisseurship was at hand, and Woodford Reserve -- with its traditional high-shouldered bottle, cork stopper and acid-etched label -- rose to meet Maker's Mark head-to-head.

This, admittedly, was our favorite tour. Like Maker's Mark, the Labrot & Graham distillery is a registered historic site. But unlike Maker's Mark, it appears to have been restored with the National Historic Register, not the tourist, foremost in mind. It's carefully groomed, without a weed in sight and no pebble out of place, but the tall creek-stone buildings have an ambience created by a master. There are moments when you feel as though you've stepped back into the 19th century. Authenticity -- that's the word.

This, too, is a generous, rather leisurely tour, with all the sights and smells of a hardworking, if small, operation. Mary, our guide, wasn't afraid to let her attitude show, and she had an undisguised sense of humor. She cracked jokes and teased tour members. When one person asked about the proper way to sample bourbon, she said, "If you're going to mix it with cola or soda pop or whatever, we tell you to just start with rot gut, 'cause you won't be able to tell the difference in the glass. No, sir. Tasting bourbon is an art."

There goes that mystique business again. u

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