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On the Bourbon Trail: Jeep trip takes couple to back roads of Kentucky

Visitors can dip their fingers right into the mash barrel at Town Branch distillery. 1 / 4
The Kentucky Hot Brown -- a concoction of bread, turkey, bacon, white sauce and cheese -- is the state's signature dish.2 / 4
The Spanish architecture of Four Roses distillery is unique in the region.3 / 4
A statue of master distiller F. Booker Noe II, Jim Beam’s grandson, keeps watch over the grounds at the Stillhouse.4 / 4

Legend has it that Paul Jones Jr., a Kentucky bourbon maker, was head over heels for a beautiful Southern belle. She turned down his romantic advances several times until he finally issued an ultimatum: He would ask for her hand one last time and then give up his quest.

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Instead of flatly rebuffing him again, the lady replied that if her answer to his marriage proposal was yes, she would wear a rose to an upcoming grand ball. When she arrived at the function, she was wearing a corsage featuring four red roses.

A year later, Jones named his bourbon brand to commemorate their love — Four Roses Bourbon.

Stories such as that drew Hubby Bryan and me to take a recent trek along Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail in our Jeep Wrangler. For me, at least, the attraction was not the bourbon itself. It’s a spirit that ranks pretty low on my list of preferred beverages, although Bryan enjoys an occasional sip of the Kentucky spirit. But the history and process of it is intriguing.

The decision to make Kentucky the destination for our summer road trip came after plans for another locale — Santa Fe, N.M. — fell through. New Mexico will be on the agenda sometime in the future. Bryan and I had previously ventured through Kentucky a few years back and particularly enjoyed the lush green countryside, winding roads and lore of the distilling trade.

Since our last visit, however, the Bourbon Trail has become better established and promoted, with visitors centers popping up at some of the larger distilleries. So we decided a return trip was in order, this time focusing on the Bourbon Trail rather than randomly touring the countryside. In the course of our brief stay (it takes a while to get there and back in a Wrangler, as we generally stay off the Interstate highway system), we managed to visit five Bourbon distilleries, touring several.

For those unaware of the unique origins of Bourbon, here’s some basic history:

The first settlers of Kentucky — farmers and frontiersmen — found it difficult to transport their crops to market because of narrow trails and steep mountains. Converting corn and other grains into alcohol made them more easily transportable, and “gave them some welcome diversion from the rough life of the frontier,” according to the Bourbon Trail website. The ensuing product became known as Bourbon whiskey because one of the original counties in the state was Bourbon County. Farmers shipped their wares in oak barrels, which were stamped from Bourbon County, downriver to New Orleans. The long trip aged the whiskey, and the oak barrels gave it a distinct flavor and color.

In 1964, Congress recognized Bourbon’s place in the country’s history by declaring it a distinctive product of the United States.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour was formed in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, and over the last five years has drawn nearly 2.5 million visitors to the region. There are eight member distilleries, and visitors are given a Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport to document their journey. If they visit all eight locations and get their passport stamped, it can be turned in for a free T-shirt.

Since we had previously stopped at the Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey distilleries, we focused our travels on some of the other premier bourbon makers, starting with what turned out to be our favorite, Four Roses, located at Lawrenceburg. It might have been the beautiful Spanish-style architecture of the distillery, but more likely it was the exuberant personality of our guide, Heather, that set it apart from the other tours.

The Four Roses gig is a sideline for Heather, whose day job is a government position, but it was obvious she enjoyed sharing the unique history of Four Roses and the bourbon-making process. Unfortunately, the distillery was on its summer hiatus, so we didn’t get to see the entire process, but Heather’s descriptions made us feel like we did. And the sampling, which included several of Four Roses 10 distinct Bourbon recipes, almost turned me into a convert.

(Some people may remember that Four Roses, a number of years back, was not known as a premium Bourbon. Heather explained that one of the brand’s previous owners shipped all the good stuff overseas to Japan. With new ownership that practice changed, and now Four Roses is considered a top-drawer brand.)

The other stand-out in our distillery tours was Jim Beam, which has recently constructed state-of-the-art visitor center facilities. The Beam Stillhouse is a two-story gift shop surrounded by replica buildings that explain the Bourbon-making process. You can do a self-guided tour around the grounds or take a 90-minute guided tour, both ending in a sampling session. Since 90 minutes was a bit of stretch for our travel schedule, we took the self-guided option that included a stop at Fred’s Smokehouse for a pulled pork sandwich.

At the tasting house, we were given a card that when inserted into computerized dispensers would allow us to taste thimble-sized portions of two of Beam’s numerous products. I believe those who purchased the guided tour received four samples and a tasting glass.

We also stopped at Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, Woodford Reserve and Town Branch (a distillery and beer brewery in one location). For us, however, it was all about getting there as we traversed Kentucky’s lush green countryside bordered by picket fences and horse stables.

Despite suggestions from friends and family to experience both the Louisville Slugger factory/museum and Churchill Downs, time constraints and Louisville traffic conspired against those options.

Here are a few other highlights of our Kentucky travels:

n By utilizing an online travel site, I was able to book a night’s stay at the famed Brown Hotel for a do-able price. The Brown is a historic and posh establishment located in downtown Louisville. We enjoyed the luxe accommodations, even though we felt a bit out of place in our wind-blown and slightly sweaty state as we disembarked from the Jeep.

n We also didn’t feel dressed appropriately to enter The Brown’s dining room, but I did sample its namesake sandwich at another eating establishment. The Kentucky Hot Brown — a sinful concoction of bread, turkey, bacon, cream sauce and cheese — was created in the 1920s by the hotel’s chef as an early morning snack for the hotel’s revelers. I can vouch that it is delicious, although certainly something to be indulged in infrequently.

n Just a few blocks away from The Brown is Fourth Street Live!, Louisville’s hub of dining and entertainment establishments. Because we were there over the Fourth of July weekend, we were told it was not as busy as usual, and we didn’t hang out late enough for the throngs of young people to hit the clubs.

n  We found Louisville to be an expensive (gas topped the $4 mark many places) and bustling place. Lexington was a bit more our pace, although we felt more at home in the less populated areas we traversed on the Bourbon Trail. We were happiest drinking in the scenery from the comfort of our open-air vehicle.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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