The Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Apr 09, 2019 at 02:23 pm by PaigeAtwell


By Johnny Birdsong

Ahhh...Kentucky. The Bluegrass State. Home to bourbon, beautiful horses and fast women.

As a native “Kentucky boy,” I have always heard about and known about, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but have never taken the opportunity to experience it for myself. So, in this month’s issue,
I go UP THE ROAD – I-65, on a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Bardstown, Kentucky – the official “Trail Head” of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Bardstown is the second oldest city in Kentucky, settled in 1780. Home to “My Old Kentucky Home,” and also known as the bourbon capital of the world. Rand McNally also called it “the most beautiful small town in America.”

Since Baptist minister Elijah Craig, developed America’s signature spirit: Bourbon, in 1789; There are now seventy-three licensed distilleries in Kentucky and nine alone in Bardstown. “Too much of anything is bad, but too much whiskey is barely enough,” said Mark Twain, so...where to begin?

I started off at Willett Distillery.

After over eighty years, Willett Distillery remains truly family owned and operated. Founded by Thompson Willett and his brothers, the first barrel of bourbon was rolled into Warehouse A on St. Patrick’s Day 1937. Today, Thompson’s granddaughter Britt Kulsveen serves as the company’s President and Chief Whiskey Officer. Thompson’s Grandson Drew Kulsveen oversees whiskey production as Master Distiller and Director of Whiskey Operations. Janelle Kulsveen (Drew’s wife), leads the expanding hospitality program at Willett. Even Kulsveen, Thompson’s son-in-law, remains involved in the daily functions of the company. In short, members of the ownership family, work in every building, every day, alongside employees and for that matter, employees are considered extended family.

Of the over 100 acres that make up the original Willet family livestock farm, Thompson chose a location that marks one of highest points in Nelson County for the construction of the distillery and warehouses. The altitude provides an almost constant breeze and Thompson believed this strong wind created the perfect environment for aging whiskey.

I found it interesting that though from the same “batch,” a barrel placed on top row of rickhouse and a barrel placed on a bottom row, over the same amount of time, can have a different, color, aroma and taste. All from mother nature.

The Willett brand of southern hospitality stems from family tradition. Below are some reflections from President Britt Kulsveen on the importance of hospitality instilled in her during her upbringing. The excerpt below demonstrates, in her words, how these traditions manifest on the property and into this history of American bourbons. And, I just found so many of these thoughts relevant to just being a Kentucky boy at heart.

“I don’t know if that is the nature of growing up in a whiskey family or a Kentucky family, but I can’t remember an occasion when bourbon wasn’t a central part of our family gatherings. We drink it, we cook with it, we drink it while we cook with it.”

“For our family ‘bourbon entertaining’ is simply entertaining; providing the absolute, utmost hospitality. You break out your china and open a rare release of some of the finest whiskey, an irreplaceable bottle as a matter fact, because it’s Tuesday and it finally stopped raining after ten consecutive days.”

“It’s all about porch time, and what that means to me is quite simply this: it’s your time, please take it, ideally on the porch. It is important beyond measure to make time for an adult timeout, unplug, sit on the porch and enjoy cocktails during the idle hour. It’s about social, human interaction and solving the world’s problems and retelling stories (that have been greatly exaggerated, more so with each sip), over a Willett Rye Old Fashioned, with a splash of champs, of course.”

“It’s about making lasting, universal connections. You may have entered our home as a complete stranger, but we mean it when we say, “make yourself at home,” and you do and are considered family by the time you leave after the two-hour Kentucky goodbye.”

Well, this was the perfect start. This family owned and operated distillery truly gave me a load of hospitality and knowledge of the bourbon making process.

Next stop, fifteen miles up the road to the home of the “World’s Number 1 Bourbon:” Jim Beam. Since 1795 (interrupted by prohibition), seven generations of the Beam family have been involved in whiskey production for the company that produces the brand “Jim Beam.”

Jacob Beam sold his first barrels of corn whiskey (what became known as bourbon), around 1795. It was first called OLD JAKE BEAM SOURMASH, and the distillery was known as OLD TUB. Colonel James Beauregard “Jim” Beam rebuilt the distillery in 120 days after prohibition ended at the age of sixty-nine. He unveiled “JIM BEAM” and the rest is history! It’s a must see!

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. A strict set of standards from the government regulates what’s what. So just ‘cause it’s whiskey doesn’t mean it’s bourbon. Got that? Because someone who knows will correct you should you mix that up! Bourbon is kind of like whiskey’s “sweet spot.” Bourbon must be at least 51% corn, because corn is a sweet grain. The more corn, the sweeter the whiskey. The only thing that can be added to bourbon (and only to bring it down to proof ), is water. Other whiskey makers can add colors, often caramel, and flavors to their product. But then they can’t call it bourbon. By law, bourbon must be aged in new barrels. It can’t say “bourbon” on the label if it’s not distilled and aged in the U.S. It can’t be “Kentucky Straight Bourbon,” unless it’s distilled and aged in Kentucky for at least two years.

Before making my trip, I had made a list of people and places I wanted to see along the trail. First of these was The Old Talbott Tavern in downtown Bardstown. Now a Bed and Breakfast, I made my reservation early. Especially when I saw they had a “Jesse James Suite!” Perfect for a guy like me. Upon arrival, the southern hospitality was flowing like honey.

The Old Talbott Tavern was built in 1779 and has been called the oldest western stagecoach stop in America as well as the oldest running tavern in the states. To be in a place with such deep history was pretty amazing. To be where such notables as Patrick Henry, Daniel Boone, exiled King Louis Phillipe of France, John Fitch, founder of the steamboat, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Foster who penned “My Old Kentucky Home,” and of course Jesse James was pretty incredible. There are bullet holes in the walls over a mural Louis Phillipe’s brother painted, still there today. Supposedly he was over served and thought he saw birds moving, so he shot them. James’ cousin was the local sheriff at the time, so Jesse felt it was a safe hideout. Also, legend is that there are ghosts in the Tavern. Some have seen the ghost of Jesse James. The morning after my stay I was talking with my daughter on the telephone and she asked me if I had seen any ghosts. I told her it was a great day! 1) I woke up. 2) There were no new bullet holes and 3) I had not encountered any ghosts, but you know they were walking outside my door all night!

There is bourbon history with the Tavern as well. William Heaven Hill (Heaven Hill Distillery), was an early owner as well as T.D. Beam, 1916-1926. The current ownership has owned it since 1964. To borrow a line from Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” .... weep no more my lady, oh weep no more today. I have found the ultimate hidden gem. As we go into horse racing season, it’s all about the hat. This is your place. Just up the street from the Tavern in downtown Bardstown is Peacock On Third. Owner Catherine Clements is a native of Bardstown who thought downtown needed a nice women’s store. “I love clothes and I love to shop,” she says, so Peacock On Third was born. She bought the building that was a family run dry goods store originally in 1856, and then a ladies and children store.

Ladies, she has an amazing selection of Derby hats and clothing. She gets her hats from Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles. “You definitely have to have Derby hats and dresses when you are forty miles to Louisville,” says Catherine. And she does. In addition, she brings in a local hat designer who customizes hats. If you have your own hat or buy a plain hat, she can custom accessorize it with feathers, jewels, ribbons, whatever you want, to match your dress. Fashion and bourbon go hand and hand in the esteemed Kentucky horse country.

Now on to Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital located between Louisville and Lexington. My destination is Buffalo Trace Distillery – named Whiskey Magazine’s “Visitor Attraction of the year.” It stands today as the oldest continuously operating distillery in America. Designated as a national landmark, Buffalo Trace is the most awarded winning distillery in the world for its range of premium whiskeys. For more than two centuries, this distillery has been a major part of history with a list of who’s who names in the Kentucky bourbon.

I found it interesting that during prohibition there was such a thing as medicinal whiskey. The distillery was one of very, very few to receive permit to bottle medicinal whiskey and even fewer to produce new whiskey from 1930-1933. Thus, the oldest “continuously operating” distillery in America.

There are so many brands, and each have their own story, but I was especially curious to learn about Pappy Van Winkle. It was once said to me that “Pappy Van Winkle” was the Bigfoot of bourbon. Everyone has heard about it, but almost no one has actually seen it!

Now after seeing and understanding the process, the time, the heritage, that goes into each bottle, I have a great appreciation for what it is and why it is so rare and hard to get. Go see for yourself.

On to Versailles. A must see: The historic Old Frankfort Pike. You’ll pass through six historic districts and four national landmarks. This IS horse country, and there is one beautiful horse farm after another. voted this as “ONE OF THE TEN BEST SCENIC DRIVES IN THE UNITED STATES.” This almost seventeen-mile drive is breathtaking. In the spring, the flowering redbuds and dogwoods make an especially spectacular display. The breeding, racing, and sale of thoroughbred racehorses is a multi-billion-dollar business and the horse industry in Kentucky has its roots right along this road.

The drive down Old Frankfort Pike isn’t complete until you make a stop at Wallace Station. I had seen this featured on The Cooking Channel’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and it was also featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, so I couldn’t wait to visit. And I was NOT dissapointed.

Another stop after lunch was in downtown Midway, also known as middle way, from Frankfort to Lexington. Midway was the first town in Kentucky founded by a railway. 176 buildings here are on the National Register of Historic Places and its reputation for antiques, crafts, gifts, restaurants and clothing brings me to another REAL FIND:

Crittenden Rawlings. Critt started out in Kentucky working as a traveling salesman (known as a “packer”), of men’s clothing the summer before he was to go to college. Sixty plus years later- what a story he has to tell. He had joined Norman Hilton Company for ten years. He says “Norman Hilton, as a graduate of Yale, had a great New England style, then he (Hilton) and Ralph Lauren invested $50,000.00 each and started POLO, which is now a $18 billion-dollar business.” He then worked for Ralph Lauren for nearly a decade. His last stop was as President and CEO of Oxford Clothes, home of “the best suit made in the world,” for ten years and thought he was ready to retire back home in Kentucky, when restless and bored, he started Crittenden in 2008. “We sell more sport coats than any fine men’s store in Kentucky,” he says. He has traveled all over the world buying cloth. “We buy all our own fabric. So, everything we have is ours exclusively. We will only make twenty or so of each fabric, so you won’t see yourself walking down the street,” says Critt. He bought a coat that was tailored for the Duke of Windsor at an auction to simply use the patterned design to design all of his coats. Gentlemen, the wardrobe is an investment. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy getting to meet Mr. Rawlings, but I knew when I walked in the door I was leaving with a new sports coat – and I will be back. You can only buy his clothing at this store and he has a special line at Keeneland. Make it a point to visit here. You will thank yourself later.

Ten minutes from Midway is Versailles, and nestled amid the rolling hills of bluegrass and thoroughbred farms, sits historic Woodford Reserve Distillery. The official bourbon of The Kentucky Derby and one of Kentucky’s oldest and smallest distilleries, the present-day Woodford Reserve distillery is built on history. It sits on Kentucky’s oldest distilling site where Elijah Pepper began crafting whiskey in 1812. It was on these grounds, that years later, Master Distiller James Christopher Crow perfected his whiskey making methods, which today have become common practice, which includes the implementation of sour mash into fermentation.

The distillery is home to a 500-foot-long gravity fed barrel run. They boast one of the only heat cycled barrelhouses in the world. This gives the barrel opportunity to expand and compress more than mother nature and gives Woodford Reserve, it’s color and signature flavor. You will not see an “age” on Woodford Reserve. Though aged on average around seven years, they select based on flavor not age.

Well it’s off to the races. Literally. My next stop, I start the morning at Keeneland Racecourse. Spring Race Meet is April 4th – 26th. You will find several resources on planning your day at the races at I hope to have the opportunity to visit many, many places I have not been. But to date, this place, Keeneland, is one of my must-see and experience to anyone who has not been. This wasn’t my first trip here and it won’t be my last! There is something magical here. It’s beautiful, fun and vibrant. Just like the races. Just like Kentucky – where the trail always leads to something! I hope to see you there. And I hope your day is as smooth as Kentucky bourbon and of course, that your horse wins!