A Month in Bourbon Country, In Its Most Difficult Year
At 20 distilleries around the region, I found a resilient American industry and the community it supports
September is known as National Bourbon Heritage Month, though this year’s was unlike any other. In place of massive festivals and region-wide celebration, there was the convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing social upheaval in Louisville. It’s a city very much in the midst of trauma, with the bulk of its downtown boarded up and protesters clamoring for justice which remains unfulfilled. No, it’s not your typical bourbon month, but with an open schedule I nonetheless decamped to whiskey country for an extended four-week stay across Kentucky and into Tennessee to see what was new and notable in the glass and beyond.
Life in Louisville
We’re here to talk about whiskey. Though talking about whiskey means talking about the people who make it, the people who drink it and the place it’s made. About the role the libation serves for us — soothing away our stress, serving as a tool for bonding with friends and family, complementing a bite of food or a cigar, or simply a pleasant afternoon or evening. And we all need a drink right now.
“Drive through downtown Louisville and something like three quarters of the buildings are boarded up,” says Brandon O’Daniel, distiller at Copper & Kings. Though a producer of brandy, the influence of bourbon is prominent at C&K, from the maturation and resulting flavor profile of its products to its many collaborations with local bourbon producers and its presence in the Butchertown neighborhood of Louisville. In a city dealing with both protests and the pandemic, it’s the latter which has become more pressing. “Protests have taken the reins here [versus the pandemic],” O’Daniel says. And that was weeks before the Breonna Taylor ruling, levied on September 23.
The 21c Museum Hotel Louisville remains the trendy place in town, though it’s surrounded by buildings offering nothing but graffitied wooden boards and either social-justice posters or notices of temporary or permanent closure. The hotel’s on-site art galleries have been reopened, with some of the pieces appropriately skewering today’s political and social surreality. A gold-covered 30-foot rendition of Michelangelo’s David stands proudly out front, now protecting passersby by donning a black mask.
Restaurant Proof on Main, famous for its refined southern fare but even more so for its whiskey program, is open and spaced out. Without physical menus, if you want to order a flight of its barrel picks, you can call over a bartender and talk through which whiskeys are available and build a custom flight in such fashion.
Several of Louisville’s in-city distilleries and distillery experiences remain closed, while others are open to the extent they’re allowed. In the city, a visit to Kentucky Peerless Distilling stood out, offering an inside look at one of the most promising upstarts, with an already tantalizing collection of single-barrel, cask-strength bourbon and rye whiskeys. Short trips outside of town make major players such as Four Roses and Buffalo Trace accessible, though either feels a world away from the scene downtown.
To Bardstown & Beyond
Of course, there’s more to whiskey country than Louisville, and it’s quaint Bardstown, “The Bourbon Capital of the World,” that serves as perhaps the true bourbon Mecca. The entire town is a dense collection of distilleries, and conspicuous rickhouses storing tens of thousands of barrels apiece line the area’s weaving roads and as far as the eye can see.
There are the legacy producers, such as Heaven Hill and Maker’s Mark (in nearby Loretto), and Barton 1792, a massive producer which has only risen to prominence in the decade since its acquisition by Sazerac (parent company of Buffalo Trace). “This distillery is a mix of new and old; it’s a nitty-gritty operation,” says Josh Hollifield, Barton’s visitor center manager. He does so while I gawk up at a monster six-foot-diameter, half-century-old column still capable of churning out 750 barrels of whiskey per day. Many craft producers would distill that much in a year. Or two.
There are also newer entrants, such as Lux Row Distillers and Bardstown Bourbon Company. Though the latter is indeed new, it has nevertheless quadrupled its production in four years, and now falls into the top 10 bourbon distilleries in terms of production capacity. With a high-tech system that boasts 500 separate points of adjustable control, the distillery currently spends the bulk of its time contract-distilling for other brands. “That’s the difference between buying a suit off the rack and bespoke tailoring,” says Daniel Callaway, Bardstown Bourbon’s VP of product development.
There’s Willett Distillery, perhaps the mecca within the mecca of Bardstown, as the distillery’s single-barrel offerings are in such great demand. The Bar at Willett restaurant offers a chance to taste through as many of them as your wallet (or liver) allows, all while noshing an egg salad sandwich that has its own Instagram account.
Of course, the eating is good in whiskey country, and it’s hearty. Other revelations included a biscuit breakfast sandwich from Butchertown Grocery Bakery in Louisville, and the tacos at Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez in Lexington.
Lexington itself is another hub of whiskey production, with the city’s Distillery District comprising what were the former grounds of the historic Old Pepper Distillery, and now includes the revived James E. Pepper Distilling Co. and a handful of restaurants, breweries and spirits producers. The old operation was once the largest in the country, and the current James E. Pepper now operates under its original DSP-KY-5, as in, the fifth ever distilled-spirits producer license issued in the state.
Consider a stay at The Campbell House, a historic property which has just finished a renovation, and one which pays homage to Lexington’s two chief passions: horses and bourbon. The hotel itself was once an equestrian farm, and its stylings and décor continue to reflect that legacy, while the on-site Rackhouse Tavern has itself been named a partner of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, boasting more than 300 bourbons to sample. One offering is a single-barrel Knob Creek, named “The Honeymoon Barrel” in honor of master distiller Fred Noe having honeymooned at the hotel.
Drive through the horse farms beyond the city and you’ll find other revived historic distilleries, including Castle & Key, at what was once the Old Taylor Distillery, as well as one of the industry’s more well-known brands, Woodford Reserve, and a bit farther afield, upstarts such as Wilderness Trail in Danville.
Lexington may be the personification of Kentucky with its dual passions. That’s been distilled down even further into a single destination outside of Louisville, though, in what might be the foremost Bluegrass State experience you can find. Barn8 Restaurant on Heritage Farm is a bourbon bar in an old horse barn, on an active horse farm. “Getting to drink bourbon on a horse farm is the most Kentucky thing you can do,” says bourbon steward Adam Walpole. The bar specializes in single-barrel picks and offers educational tasting flights, while some guests come and stay for an entire day, touring the horse facilities, dining and drinking, and even visiting the new art walk installation.
Tennessee Whiskey Territory
Moving south into Tennessee offered an opportunity to shift allegiances from bourbon to Tennessee whiskey. Although — and I’ll make this quick — Tennessee whiskey is bourbon in the same way that squares are rectangles; you might not call a square a rectangle, and the square might prefer standing on its extra definition of squareness, but it’s still a rectangle. I digress.
Jack Daniel’s is of course the powerhouse in that sphere, and the distillery can be reached from Nashville in about an hour and a half. Right in Nashville, though, you’ll find Nelson’s Green Brier, purveyors of Belle Meade Bourbon, and another revived family producer, as well as Corsair Distillery, known for an inventive approach using unique grains and grain smoking techniques.
Stopping into Nashville also allowed me to satiate a craving for spice, visiting institutions such as Prince’s (for hot chicken) and Bolton’s (for hot fish). Another institution always worth a visit is the iconic Husk, the temple to classic southern fare and ingredients, where I’d gladly consume a gallon of pimento cheese and leave a happy customer.
That doesn’t mean that Nashville isn’t veering into new directions, though. Take Yolan, a new fine-dining Italian restaurant from chef Tony Mantuano. The restaurant offers tasting or a la carte menus, and an evening there offered likely the best meal I’ve had since the world fell apart at the start of the year.
Mantuano is handling all of the dining at The Joseph, a luxury hotel which only just opened its doors at the end of August. The property showcases a swanky rooftop pool lounge that seems more Miami than Nashville, and elsewhere brings Music City to life with amenities such as in-room record players and music-inspired furnishings. The hotel is filled artwork from the collection of its owners, the Pizzuti family, offers the indulgent Rose spa, and to bring us back full circle to where we belong — whiskey — has also debuted the speakeasy bar Four Walls, with a brown-centric bottle list and craft cocktail program.
For another new way to check out the city’s musical roots, I could not forego the chance to visit White Limozeen, the all-pink Dolly Parton wonderland rooftop restaurant and bar. It may be the biggest Instagram trap ever conceived, with more pink kitsch than a Candy Land board. So I was all the more pleasantly surprised to find a solid whiskey program, a spirits list deep enough to have about a dozen amaros on hand, and well-made cocktails available for those who wanted to diverge from the rosé all day crowd, which is catered to without remorse.
While not quite in whiskey country, Knoxville may be worth a diversion as well. There are distilleries in town and nearby, and you’re within reach of excellent hiking from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Appalachian Trail. Maybe sandwich a stop in between Lexington and Nashville, allowing you to sweat out some toxins for a few days as you prepare to make that leap from bourbon to Tennessee whiskey, or vice-versa.
A stay at The Graduate Knoxville offers an opportunity you may not have known you needed to indulge your inner Peyton Manning fandom. The hotel is an ode to collegiate fanaticism for the University of Tennessee, on whose campus it sits, and all the orange regalia makes it look like a fever-dream shrine to Manning crossed with mid-’90s Nickelodeon aesthetics.
You’ll find murals of Sports Illustrated covers stretching across the lobby and key cards designed to look like the student IDs of famous athlete alums, while my room lovingly featured a framed photo of Manning on the wall. The football legend is a partner in the hotel’s on-site restaurant, Saloon 16, and of course, Peyton has his own whiskey, now, too, with Sweetens Cove bourbon. So there’s that.
And that’s where this whole endeavor began. The whiskey. I visited 20 distilleries over my time hopping around Kentucky and Tennessee. My time in whiskey country even took me as far as Ohio, for about two miles, anyway, as my directions to visit New Riff Distilling, in Newport, KY, had me cross a bridge into Cincinnati before crossing another bridge back into Kentucky.
What I witnessed along the way was an industry which has been hard hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic, and particularly in Louisville, the current, tragic strife of the populace. “But people support their distilleries, we just need to do it safe,” O’Daniel says. “We’re gonna rally.”
It’s an industry filled with people who care about their communities, and with customers who in turn have devoted passions for the spirits they’re producing. I left the area days before the decision came in to not directly charge any of three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, with a renewed pit in my stomach and feeling of heartbreak not only for the residents of that city, but for Black people across our country. Perhaps a strong drink in our hands can help see us through the current madness. In a country torn apart by the ravages of a pandemic alongside ongoing and heartbreaking insults to our collective humanity — and, yes, that little old election on the way — it’s the least we could ask for.
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