Here are my rankings of the 8 tours we did on our whisky themed vacation. The only Kentucky distillery you can tour which we didn't is Tom Moore, makers of 1792 Ridgmont Reserve. George Washington's is the only one on the list not in Kentucky (it's in Mt. Vernon, VA).
1. Woodford Reserve-The corn to cork tour was classy, informative, and fun.
2. George Washington's Distillery and Gristmill-I really enjoyed getting up close to the history and process of American whisky production.
3. Buffalo Trace-Some tours show you more, maybe we just got lucky with a great tour guide, maybe I'm biased toward the brand. But this tour was very cool.
4. Wild Turkey-If you are only visiting two I would make this my second choice. It was just so different then the others, in a good way.
5. Maker's Mark-Over the top and Disneyfied. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, still a lot of fun.
6. Heaven Hill-The tasting was cool but mostly HH is not really worth the time.
7. Four Roses-In a way this is worse than Beam because they make some effort and still come up small.
8. Jim Beam-There is literally nothing to it. Stop in for the free tasting if it's not too far out of your way.
We did other things besides visit distilleries. We drank bourbon by the fire. We went kayaking. We went to 3 bourbon bars. Okay, we drank our fair share of bourbon. I won't do full reviews of the bars we went to, but two of them bookended our trip quite nicely and deserve mention. On our first night in Bardstown we went to the Old Talbott Tavern, an old stagecoach stop where Lincoln once stayed. Their bourbon menu is very solid and they have a great deal: 5 shots of any bourbon at the bar (with the exception of Pappy Van Winkle 20) and a souvenir shot glass for $25. These are the ones we had, using strong recommendations from both the bartender and a local guy at the bar:
Four Roses Single Barrel
Rock Hill Farms
The cheapest bottle of these in terms of retail is probably at least 35 bucks, and they go up to around $75. You can't get a deal like that at any bar in Philly.
On our last day in Kentucky we stopped at a bar called Bourbon's Bistro. Unfortunately they weren't open for lunch, but we did stop in for a drink before heading to Indianapolis to visit Nicole's folks and sister. The bourbon selection was unbelievable. I stupidly asked the bartender if he likes bourbon, and he rattled off a few of his favorites, saying that mostly he rotates through brands depending on mood. When he realized I was from Philadelphia and looking to try something new, he tried to sell me a shot of Four Roses Single Barrel which the bar hand selects at the distillery, but I just had to try the Sazerac 18 year old rye, Jim Murray's whisky of the year last year. It was fantastic, like drinking a glass of rye bread. Before we left, the barkeep showed me a bottle of Old Forrester (I think, I can't remember the label) that was bottled in 1915 that they will open for the Breeder's Cup, when tourists in town will pay $50 a shot to try it.
Yes, most of these bottles contain bourbon:
You can appreciate bourbon without going to the bourbon trail. But if you can tolerate a bit of marketing and some cheesiness, visiting the distilleries that make your favorite spirits is a whole lot of fun. Now, when I kick back with a glass of Woodford Reserve or George T. Stagg--I just ordered a bottle of the new batch that we saw being bottled at Buffalo Trace--I will picture the sour mash in giant cyprus vats, rows and rows of resting barrels in sleepy rickhouses, hand bottling lines, and friendly tour guides like Frank from West Philly, who left the city life for rolling Kentucky Hills and bluegrass country. I doubt I'd follow his lead and leave the city, but it's nice to have in mind stables, farmland, and white picket fences while I sip America's famous spirit. I, for one, won't be sharing any of my bourbon with the angels.