Spirited away: on the bourbon trail in Kentucky

In cities from Lexington to Louisville, previously abandoned distilleries are getting a fresh taste of success in the birthplace of bourbon

When I met Mark and Donnie at a roadside cafe in Kentucky, they were sporting bike leathers, tattoos and badges that hinted at involvement in military campaigns. Normally, Id find a pair of grizzled guys riding Harleys pretty intimidating but these ones had Minnesotan accents. Oh my gorrrrd, youre driving down I-64? asked Mike, in an unexpectedly high register. Youve gotta gooor drink whiskey!

The pair were in the middle of a three-week ride to Gettysburg and they had already blazed through several of Kentuckys best-known distilleries Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Wild Turkey on their path east. We only put 100 miles on yesterday, because we had so many places to stop, grinned Donnie. Our saddlebags are full already.

Central Kentucky has been the epicentre of bourbon production since the 1800s, and the major brands have been walking visitors through their warehouses for a couple of decades. But the bourbon boom of the past few years is transforming the region. New brands are burgeoning in the former factories of Lexington and Louisville, and along the highway that connects the two cities long-abandoned distilleries are being given a yeasty breath of life. Meanwhile, Louisvilles Frazier History Museum, with the Kentucky Distillers Association, is to develop a Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which will include bourbon-related historical exhibits.

People
Down the hatch touring Buffalo Trace distillery

Not that the area exists in a permanent state of inebriation. In fact, on the Wednesday night I arrived in Lexington, the town seemed disappointingly sober. In the first bar I entered, a singer in a cowboy hat performed to a near-empty room. At a place further up the road, a guitar and pedal-steel played some sort of prog country rock for the barmaid alone. When I finally found a place with more customers than staff, I ordered a pork chop, and asked a local where everyone was. He laughed. Come back tomorrow, he said.

He was right: the next evening the streets were full of people partying at the towns regular Thursday Night Live. Dozens were dancing to the Cuban salsa band that played in the square, and many more milled around food trucks and beer booths. These weekly music-based events are common in Americas southern towns, designed to draw locals downtown at the end of the week, and Lexingtons attracted a diverse crowd young and old, black and white.

At Town Branch the first new distillery built in Lexington in 100 years master distiller Mark Coffman told me that Lexington had undergone a dramatic change in fortune in the past few years. Bourbon is a billion-dollar business now, he said. You get wishing you knew it was going to happen four or five years ago and youd have set down more product. We just try to keep up with it. Founded by an Irish biochemist, Town Branch has cannily combined its business with Americas parallel craze for craft beer, and its used bourbon barrels find a second life in their sister brewery, imparting flavour to a range of Kentucky ales.

Rows
Drink up towering barrels in a warehouse

Bourbon is a spirit infused with folklore, not least because of its association with prohibition. During Americas national stint on the wagon, only five distillers were allowed to remain in operation, selling medicinal whiskey to those who managed to swing a doctors prescription. There is plenty of myth but the 80-mile drive through the states epic countryside certainly reinforces the romance, taking you through prime horse country, where animals with Gwyneth Paltrow manes gallop behind white fences.

Amid the expensive-looking stables I passed a stone castle whose turrets and towers had a newly scrubbed gleam, and seemed to belong on a Hollywood backlot. Once owned by the legendary bourbon pioneer EH Taylor, and rescued from decades of neglect, Castle & Key is one of five new distilleries set to open this year.

Horses
Horse country a farm in Lexington. Photograph: Alamy

Midway to Louisville I turned off the interstate to stop at the town of Frankfort, whose position as the county seat belied its radical edge. Its independent bookstore champions local ecologist and novelist Wendell Berry; the coffee shop next door fosters artists and musicians as well as green community projects. Even its historical society a phrase that makes me think of Waspy women collecting antique rifles and quilts is an eye-opener, a vast museum that proves Kentuckys state history is about far more than just the pioneers and the civil war.

Bourbon makers like to lean heavily on their heritage: such as Woodford Reserve, which revived a 19th-century property in the late 1990s and now has one of the plushest tasting rooms on the trail. In Louisville, however, an urban bourbon scene is emerging that challenges the country-club vibe. At distiller Angels Envy, the centrepiece of production is a two-storey column still that would out-steampunk HG Wells. This is no style over substance: its cask-strength bourbon has been named the worlds best spirit.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Marissa SafontSpirited away: on the bourbon trail in Kentucky

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