can explore distilleries, farm country and
whiskey-making towns on a two-wheeled tour of
Kentucky's bourbon country. The writer's friends,
Greg Dyas, left, and John Wheeler, ride past a
dilapidated farm facility outside of Bardstown, Ky.
pedaled our bikes over the rolling hills of Kentucky, I
could practically taste the bourbon.
be a glass waiting for us at the end of the ride, of
course — two fingers of whiskey, with a single ice cube.
But being surrounded by the raw ingredients had the flavor
tickling my tongue. Fields of corn beginning to brown in
the August sun. Clear water trickling down limestone
cliffs into a massive underground aquifer. The scent
emanating from the distilleries themselves, that sweet
corn mash being transformed into America’s favorite
once the de facto currency throughout much of the country
in the late 1700s. Corn would rot if not used quickly
enough, so farmers took their unsold crops and turned them
into whiskey, which they could trade for other goods and
services at their leisure. Bourbon is once again helping
fuel Kentucky’s economy; it’s an $8.6 billion industry
in the Bluegrass State, which produces 95% of the
world’s bourbon. The state had about 70 distilleries as
of last year — more than double the number a decade ago,
according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.
I’ve enjoyed my fair share of bourbon over the years, I
never considered myself a true connoisseur. Wanting to
learn more, I figured a trip biking on the Kentucky
Bourbon Trail would be equal parts educational and
website suggests three cycling routes, depending on the
number of days and distilleries you want to include. I
opted for the three-day, 165-mile loop that started and
ended in Louisville, hitting eight distilleries and
tasting experiences along the way. A couple of friends
agreed to come along for the ride, while my wife, Dee,
would follow in our Roadtrek camper van.
trip, I had no idea about all the rules, decrees, laws and
regulations there are when it comes to bourbon. One of the
central tenets is that it be aged in new, charred oak
barrels — and it has to hang out there for at least two
years to be designated “straight bourbon.” Bourbon
must be made in the U.S., and the grain mixture has to be
at least 51% corn.
some of the informational nuggets you pick up while
touring bourbon country, where Louisville is a key stop.
We arrived in the city early Friday afternoon and kicked
things off at Angel’s Envy, a century-old elevator
factory turned state-of-the-art distillery.
Envy is unique in that it ages its whiskey an additional
six months in a port wine barrel, giving it an extra
element of complexity. Some purists argue that Angel’s
Envy doesn’t qualify as true bourbon because of this
My No. 1
requirement is that it tastes good, and it did.
At the end
of our inaugural tour, Chris, our “distillery
guardian,” led us to a table where four small samples
— each less than the size of a shot — were lined up in
a row. We were led through an elaborate tasting process
we’d follow for the next three days. We held the sample
to the light, observing the caramel coloring; the darker
it is, the longer it’s been aged. (Bourbon gets most of
its flavor and all of its color from the charred barrel,
which is why aged bourbon typically tastes better.) We
swirled the whiskey in our glass to see if the liquid’s
legs stuck to the side. If they linger more than 15
seconds, Chris said, you’ve got yourself a premium
We let the
bourbon play in our mouths for 10 seconds before
swallowing. That lingering heat as it slides down your
throat? It’s called the Kentucky hug. By taking my time,
I was beginning to pick up some of the subtle tastes — a
bit of vanilla and fruit, with just a hint of bitter
the hug. For others at our table, it seemed like more of a
slap. The liquor had barely touched his lips before one
leathery gentleman wearing a Bama baseball cap began
contorting his face so violently I thought he was having a
Angel’s Envy, we began our journey in earnest. Following
a route that we downloaded to our bike computers, we
cycled along rolling terrain that was challenging at times
but doable for most casual riders. Only a few of the
rollers were long or steep enough to warrant a break at
the top to rest our weary legs.
bourbon tours are becoming more popular — tourists made
a record 1.4 million stops at Kentucky distilleries last
year — cyclists riding the route are still seen as a bit
of a novelty. Folks were always amused by our Spandex
clothing and seemed genuinely impressed by how many miles
we planned to ride.
our first day of riding at Jeptha Creed, one of
Kentucky’s newest craft distilleries, in Shelbyville. It
specializes in “ground-to-glass” cocktails, with many
of the ingredients that go into its drinks grown either on
the Jeptha Creed property or within a few miles of it. As
we pulled into the enormous distillery, hundreds of people
were on the lawn listening to a band playing a cover of
Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
Creed’s 2-year-old “straight” bourbon wasn’t ready
for sampling (it’s slated for release this year), so we
tried the flavored moonshines and vodkas instead. I’m
not typically a fan of clear spirits, but the
coffee-flavored vodka was a revelation.
peaceful night’s sleep camping at Lake Shelby Park, we
pedaled 40 miles to Bardstown, the self-declared
“Bourbon Capital of the World.” Nine distilleries are
within a short drive or ride from Bardstown; three of them
opened in the last three years.
beat a short rain burst to Bardstown Bourbon Co., where we
had a late lunch at Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar.
This being Kentucky, I felt compelled to try the fried
chicken. If I live to be 100, I don’t know if I’ll
ever have a better plate of chicken. I washed it down with
a delicious Bardstown Mule, made with Bird Dog bourbon,
kiwi, lime, ginger beer and Thai basil.
highlight of the day may have been Heaven Hill Distillery,
offering more than 100 types of bourbon. We sampled four,
and I walked away with a bottle of Larceny Small Batch as
tours have become much more polished in the past few
years. When visitors used to pop into Jim Beam American
Stillhouse in Clermont, they sat in an office and watched
a video of the process. Today, tours take guests
throughout the facility and give them a chance to wax-seal
the top of a bottle of Jim Beam’s specialty Knob Creek
bourbon. The experience ends in the tasting area, where
they can sample up to four of the distillery’s whiskies.
Of course, visitors exit through the gift shop.
By the time
we reached Jim Beam on our third day, we realized we were
fighting a losing battle. Our legs might have been strong,
but our time-management skills were weak. We had to make a
choice: ride the remaining 60 or so miles from Clermont
back to Louisville, knowing we wouldn’t make our
scheduled tour at Evan Williams, or hop in the van and
often been the case in my life, bourbon won out over