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With so much focus on the new arbiters of Southern hipness - Nashville and Charleston - Kentucky often gets a bum rap. It lacks big cities, has no major professional sports to speak of and is stuck straddling the cultural divide between its northern neighbors and the Deep South below.
To overlook this sliver of a state, however, is a significant mistake - Kentucky’s got it going on. First, there’s the growing art scene, largely the result of the Humana Arts Festival and Morehead State’s historic Kentucky Folk Art Center. It also has its own musical heritage as the birthplace of the bluegrass and folk genres. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s sports-crazed environment adds another fun wrinkle, as residents are only too happy to share their favorite Derby story or opinion on the UK-Louisville rivalry (know which crowd you’re in before opening your mouth). Even with all these elements at play, perhaps its most unique cultural contribution rests in its rich history of bourbon production.
If you’re looking to delve into this liquid gold’s impressive heritage and transcendent mix of flavors, go no further than the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. And, if you’re the adventurous type, choose to go by two wheels instead of four as the Kentucky Distillers’ Association has partnered with the Bluegrass Cycling Club to develop cycling routes along the state’s scenic back roads.
Plot your own course or consider the itinerary below. Be warned - all routes are likely to be hilly, with stores and restaurants scattered every 20 miles or so. However, the reward is worth the effort. The only thing more satisfying than good ol’ Kentucky bourbon is the same bourbon after a solid day’s ride.
Reserve tours and verify road conditions prior to your trip. Also, consider enlisting a SAG wagon to safely deliver any whiskey purchases to your final destination. Ready. Set. Pedal. (Drink.)
Just south of Louisville, start your sipping and cycling at the Jim Beam Distillery Visitor Center. The most recognizable Kentucky brand no doubt, don’t be turned off by the mass proliferation of this behemoth. With its incredibly wide array of product offerings thanks in part to its role in running the small batch production for some of the industry’s most highly regarded brands (think Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek), there's something suitable for all palates. Start with the elusive Jim Beam Black Label while you’re there. A complex blend of fruit and vanilla notes with hints of licorice and honey, this 8-year aged bourbon provides a great introduction into the world of whiskey for the unacquainted.
Next, saddle up and head 25 miles southeast to Heaven Hill Distilleries' Bourbon Heritage Center. Clip out (Warning: every distillery requires you to take off cleated cycling shoes) and belly up. Take one of the tours if you can - ranging in price from $5 to $35, each includes some level of educational tasting. Also, be sure to try the Old Heaven Hill which is sure to revive spirits thanks to a strong, full flavor with a hint of sweetness, the result of vanilla and oak on the nose followed by sweet and buttery notes with rye spice on the palate.
Stay overnight in Bardstown, the "Bourbon Capital of the World.” Wear your Spandex proudly as you tour the town that hosts the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival and is home to the Barton 1792 and Willett distilleries as well as the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History.
Ride 24 miles to the Maker’s Mark Distillery. Sample the namesake whiskey and note the spice with hints of caramel and malt on the nose, followed by a palate of fruit, spice, vanilla, and oak.
Overnight in any of the towns between Maker’s Mark and Harrodsburg (Springfield, Perryville and Danville are all good options). En route, visit the Perryville Battlefield and Old Fort Harrod State Parks. Be sure to pick up some donuts at Burke’s Bakery in Danville. Go nuts and indulge. You’ll pedal them off in no time.
Waking up to a donut and whiskey buzz is a truly special feeling. Don’t worry, more riding will help you diminish any guilt (calories don’t count on vacation anyways). Check out Harrodsburg and then pedal 24 miles to the Spanish Mission-style Four Roses Distillery.
With Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, you’re in for a treat. Founded in 1884, this company has had a long time to figure out what works, though, in actuality, they’ve changed very little including their use of the same single-story brick house for aging. Sample the wares and pay close attention to the mellow notes of sweet oak and caramel on the nose, followed by a smooth, creamy palate of berries that produces a lingering finish.
Continue wheeling the 8 or so miles to Wild Turkey Distillery. The classic, well-known bourbon offers notes of vanilla, oak, and spice on the nose, while tasting of caramel and vanilla with hints of honey and orange.
Overnight in Versailles, a town in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region known for its small-town charm, beautiful horse farms and (lucky for you) proximity to distilleries. Be sure to try the Hot Brown – an open-faced sandwich loaded with turkey, bacon, country ham and Mornay sauce – at Addie’s Restaurant and Bourbon Bar at The Woodford Inn. A Kentucky staple, we promise it tastes much better than it sounds.
Gear down at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, known amongst other things for producing the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby (can't get more Kentucky than that). Woodford Reserve features a caramel scent with lingering vanilla. The caramel and vanilla then fade to fruit, resulting in a silky, lingering finish.
After an epic four-day exploration into the heart of bourbon country, you'll no doubt leave the trip feeling as if you’ve been transported to another time. This journey isn’t about the future, Facebook likes or Instagram hearts, but about a rich and passionate history (and the drinkable souvenirs you've hopefully collected along the way). Now, take your bourbon booty to the Red River Gorge and climb some rocks before heading home.
Adam is one of the founders of Ezra's. He's on a quest to find every whiskey with "old" in its name and enjoys making his own bitters.