A Long Weekend in Bourbon Country

I had always been a beer and wine drinker. I would occasionally have a bourbon and enjoy it, but for a long time my feelings were that a standard Makers Mark pour felt fancy, and everything else was just too expensive to justify. Over the last several years, though, I’ve started to develop a taste for bourbon, thanks to some nicer bottles given as gifts and a couple of friends who dove headlong into bourbon collecting.

This past Christmas, I tore into a small envelope from Jenn to reveal a gift certificate to the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, KY. She proposed that, as one of our last excursions as citizens of North Carolina, we pile into the car and make the 8-hour drive over to bourbon country to see what Kentucky had to offer us. The gift certificate was for a private tasting with the proprietor of the Inn, Dixon Dedman who – unbeknownst to her when she selected the gift – is the man who revitalized his great-great-grandfather’s Kentucky Owl bourbon brand, of which the Batch #1 rye is possibly my favorite whiskey of all time. So, on Valentine’s Day weekend, we loaded up the old Subaru and headed out to Harrodsburg.

Our arrival in Harrodsburg did not start off on the greatest of notes, as we drove through a torrential rainstorm to get there, in places slowing down to a crawl as visibility neared zero. We arrived to find our AirBnb host’s instructions to be non-specific, and after getting soaked wandering around a golf community looking for the door, we found that our apartment had not been properly cleaned. Wet, tired, and muttering to myself as I emptied food out of the refrigerator, washed dishes and dug through the linen closet for fresh sheets, I could have used a bourbon or two. When 2:00am brought what sounded like a waltzing hippopotamus dancing in the room above us, I began to wonder if this was an omen for the trip.

Historic Harrodsburg

The next morning looked brighter, thankfully, and we headed over to the Old Owl Tavern at the Beaumont Inn for my first taste of Kentucky. Prior to our arrival, Jenn had researched the local specialties and had informed me of the existence of the Kentucky Hot Brown. Originating in Louisville, the open-faced sandwich was comprised of turkey breast, ham and bacon, laid over toast and covered in a rich Mornay sauce. Sounded good to me!

One of the reasons Jenn had selected the Old Owl Tavern was their bourbon flights. I love beer flights because they allow me to try a greater variety without actually having to drink 8 pints and then take a nap. Similarly, the bourbon flights were a great way to sample from the tavern’s immense selection. Additionally, Dixon tends to price his bourbons extremely reasonably, so you can try a few things that might otherwise be priced well out of reach.

Quick (novice) tasting notes: the Michter’s 10-year Single Barrel Rye was light and sweet, the Sazerac Ryes were both punchy with the 2017 being more vanilla-forward, and I thought the Batch #3 Kentucky Owl Rye was close to the Batch #1 as one of my favorite ryes. The Batch #8 Kentucky Owl Bourbon had a lot of spice and oak. I also tried the Owl Batch #2 Rye, which was similar in profile to the #1, but a little too light – not my favorite.

In between lunch and dinner, we took a wander around downtown Harrodsburg. We didn’t realize, but the Dedman family is pretty much synonymous with Harrodsburg – the family name is on seemingly every other building, street, and business that you see. Sanchez enjoyed jumping on every stone wall and pillar that we came across, while we enjoyed checking out the quaint downtown and historic homes. We were especially taken with the old Dedman Drugstore, now the Kentucky Fudge Company. Built around 1865, as the Civil War was coming to a close, the interior still has the original tile and oak floors, pressed tin ceilings, and cherry cabinetry with all the old apothecary drawers. The built-ins now also house a huge collection of memorabilia, from old prescriptions to medical equipment to photos and advertisements. There’s also quite a selection of fudge, food, and drinks, and I helped myself to some bourbon fudge and an Italian soda.

Later on, I had my private tasting with Dixon. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, since I am very much a newbie to the bourbon world, but it turned out to be an absolutely delightful experience. We set up at a tasting bar next to the restaurant, and spent over an hour chatting and sipping. Dixon is full of stories, and is very knowledgeable and passionate about his craft. After explaining that I had only a little experience with whiskeys, I got a good rundown of what to look for in a flavor profile and where different mash bills hit your palette, pairing each lesson with a sip of one of the samples to demonstrate. For the price, I think this experience is a steal and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

So what do you do to finish up such an enjoyable day? A special pour, obviously. Among the dozens of bourbons at the Old Owl Tavern was the legendary Pappy Van Winkle 23-year. While many bourbon enthusiasts will (probably rightly) dismiss the Pappy 23 as incredibly overpriced – since a bottle can run thousands of dollars, and a typical pour will be $200+ – Dixon has priced the pour at a more modest sum. Feeling like this was an opportunity to add a tasting to my repertoire without breaking the bank, I splurged on one.

Quick tasting notes: the Four Roses Elliot’s Select was a mouthful of caramel, while the Pappy 15 was one of my favorites of the trip: rich, oaky, smooth. The Elijah Craig Barrel Proof was surprisingly easy-drinking given the proof, the Willett was a very rye-forward bourbon which I enjoy, and the Batch #9 Kentucky Owl Bourbon was very balanced; you could taste it from the front of your pallet all the way down your throat. The Pappy 23 was all oak and leather, with a finish that lingered until I left the bar.

The Distilleries

The next couple days were dedicated to touring some distilleries. Our first stop was Willett Distillery, a smaller, family-owned distillery that dates back to 1936. We arrived to find an absolutely picture-perfect estate, with beautiful grounds and lovely buildings. After kicking things off with a sample of the pot still reserve, the Seasoned to Perfection Tour was just top-notch – the girl who led it was friendly and knowledgeable about seemingly every little thing in Willett’s history, the group was small, and the spread of whiskeys at the end of was impressive. The tour was spiced up when we were walking back to the bar and caught Sanchez out on a walk with Jenn, snatching a mouthful of cat food that was left out on the patio! Luckily, everyone thought the furry interloper was adorable. At the tasting, they had essentially everything that Willett makes, allowing you to select 3 (or 4, or 5 if you asked nicely) of their offerings, including a single-barrel bourbon that is exclusive to on-site tastings. I worked my way through an Old Bardstown Estate, Johnny Drum Private Stock, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, and their Family Estate 6-year Bourbon. Of those, the Noah’s Mill and Estate Bourbon were the clear stand-outs.

After my visit to Willett ran a little bit long, we had to race over to Lux Row Distillery to make it for the next tasting. I was a little less-than-impressed with the tour here; the girl leading the tour seemed disinterested, and the tasting wasn’t particularly special – two cheap bottles (Rebel Yell and Ezra Brooks) and a David Nicholson Reserve which was too generic to be memorable. Having customers pay for a tasting and then having disinterested employees serving them well liquor doesn’t seem to be a great method for building your brand, so hopefully my experience was the exception rather than the norm.

After Lux Row, we stopped by Bardstown to have lunch at the historic Old Talbott Tavern. The inn and tavern were built in 1779 as a stagecoach stop for pioneers, which makes it 13 years older than the state in which it resides. Considered the oldest bourbon bar in the world, the history of this tavern is rich, having served the likes of Daniel Boone, Lewis & Clark, Jesse James and a young Abraham Lincoln. It is well-known to be haunted, so if you choose to stay in one of the few guestrooms, you may be sharing your quarters with some uninvited guests. While their bourbon list was extensive, I stopped at one pour of a Whistlepig Farmstock Rye – Crop 002. The bartender recommended it, but I found it a little sweet and lacking in character.

The next day we began at Four Roses. After checking in and helping myself to (possibly several) outstanding bourbon balls, I took in the impressively commercialized gift shop. If you’d like the Four Roses logo on something, you can find it in there – in addition to the traditional glasses and t-shirts, you could get poker chips, wallets, and silk scarves among other things. It was a stark contrast to my experience at Willett.

I was treated to a nice, if not cramped tasting with an extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable man who walked us through their standard bourbons: small batch (tasty but uncomplicated), single barrel (nice and spicy) and small batch select (similar to the small batch in profile but bolder flavors). He proudly talked about Four Roses’ presence as a prescription alcohol supplier during prohibition, and showed off a large print of the famous V-J Day “sailor kissing a nurse” photo, over which can be seen a billboard featuring the brand. Overall a nice tasting, but a tad bit crowded.

At the recommendation of a friend, we swung by the Woodford Reserve Distillery. The drive over was gorgeous, with rolling fields, beautiful barns and horse pastures culminating at Woodford’s lovely grounds. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a production line out there – in fact, there’s a bus to drive you back and forth across the road because there are so many people. We took in the gift shop, simply to buy some bourbon balls for family, and then went on our way. A beautiful location for sure, but too crowded for our tastes.

Our final distillery was the famed Buffalo Trace Distillery. Named after the trails left by the buffalo on their wanderings through the local grasslands, the history of Buffalo Trace dates back to the late 1700s. The site itself is enormous and sprawling, and the free tour is surprisingly comprehensive. While I knew that a variety of brands were produced at Buffalo Trace, it was great to hear the history behind each name – such as once-distillery president Albert Blanton who developed a fondness for bourbon aged in a particular metal warehouse, and whose name is now carried on bottles aged in that same metal warehouse to this very day.

Along with Four Roses, Buffalo Trace was one of the few distilleries allowed to operate through Prohibition, meaning their bourbon-producing history is uninterrupted. According to our tour guide, there were twice the number of whiskey prescriptions written as there were residents of the state during the years of prohibition! Also of interest was the display of oak barrels with a representation of how much liquid is left after the aging process. Surprisingly, a full 10% of the liquid is absorbed into the oak in the first 24 hours – colloquially known as the “devil’s cut.” After the 23-year Pappy gets done, a mere 5-8 of the original 53 gallons remains, the rest having evaporated into the “angel’s share.” It’s little wonder that a few of these older bourbons command top dollar – not only do they have to predict demand more than two decades out, but they lose some 90% of their product in the process.

While the tour was fascinating, the tasting at the end was unspectacular. We sampled the classic Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare 10-year, Wheatley’s Vodka (which is startlingly good), their bourbon cream (a bourbon equivalent to Bailey’s Irish Cream, too sweet for my tastes) and their Freddie’s Root Beer (which is excellent). All in all, although the Buffalo Trace tour is great, it’s definitely impersonal – you’re with at least a dozen other people – and there’s nothing special on the tasting. On the other hand, it’s free, informative, and you get to see the oldest distillery in the U.S.

Bernheim Aboretum & Research Forest

Of course, no trip of ours is complete without some kind of outdoor excursion to bring our fuzzy adventurer along on. After a little bit of research, we discovered the Bernheim Arboretum – about 20 minutes north of Bardstown – with some 40 miles of trails. We arrived to find a nearly-empty parking lot and a surprisingly enjoyable property with lots of easy walking trails that wove their way through fields and forests and around small ponds and swamps. Along the way you could find signs for the “Forest Giants,” a set of large wooden sculptures of an unknown species of large forest dweller. Sanchez found the park to be delightful – full of smells and things to climb on. On the way out, much to our delight, a herd of deer even showed up to graze near the park’s exit.

While this is no epic adventure, Bernheim is nonetheless a great place to stop off while you’re in the area, to enjoy the outdoors and stretch your legs on some easy, accessible trails. Entry is free, but donations are encouraged.

Final Thoughts

Our whirlwind trip through bourbon country was a lot of fun! Overall, I would say that nobody should pass through the area without taking advantage of the Innkeeper’s Tasting at the Beaumont Inn with Dixon – it’s a terrific value and a pleasant way to spend an hour. And while you’re there, you can take advantage of the Old Owl Tavern’s reasonable prices for premium bourbons (and a delicious hot brown).

For tours, the best experience was at Willett. It was very personal, thoughtful, with a lot of focus on the history of the family, brand and property, and the tasting was far-and-away better than any other tour I took. Of course, Buffalo Trace is a can’t-miss just for the history, the scale of the operation, and the importance that the distillery has in the history of bourbon.

Incidentally, Sanchez’ favorite distilleries were also Willett and Buffalo Trace. If you’re bringing a pup (or kids, or just a partner who isn’t into whiskey), Willett has lovely grounds to wander, and Buffalo Trace has a huge green space with paths that wind past gardens and the distillery’s smaller buildings. Sanchez was also excited to stumble upon Just Barked, a dog bakery in Bardstown, where she got her own bourbon-themed cookie to remember her stay in Kentucky.

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