Bourbon and cigars are kindred spirits. Thanks to its inherent sweetness due to the corn, from which it is made, and the woody bite from its aging in freshly charred oak barrels, a glass of fine Bourbon makes an excellent partner for your premium cigar.
The October Cigar Aficionado—on newsstands everywhere starting August 25—covers the ultra-hot Bourbon category and provides a pairing guide with cigars. Here we present extra information on how to explore the wonders of Bourbon country on your own. Happy hunting.
A few decades ago, visiting distilleries used to be a hit-or-miss proposition. Yes, Maker's Mark always had the welcome mat out at its meticulously restored, national-landmark distillery and when Woodford Reserve opened it was likewise a showcase with its triad of copper-pot stills. But at other facilities touring often required luck. You'd have to arrive when somebody was available to show you around. And at some a visit simply wasn't an option.
Now, every major distillery in Kentucky has a visitors program, and an organized Kentucky Bourbon Trail with its own website exists in Kentucky to usher the faithful on their pilgrimage through whiskey land. Furthermore, at the end of most tours there is an opportunity to taste the wares you've just seen being made. For many years that option was legally barred.
Wild Turkey, in Lawrenceburg, recently opened its state-of-the-art visitors center, where the 80,000 annual guests can peer into a decommissioned still and look out through its glass walls at the surrounding wild turkey habitat. The Barton 1792 distillery is now open after years of being shuttered to visitors. Heaven Hill introduced its own tour refurbishment with the Bourbon Heritage Center, which offers extensive tastings. The Spanish-mission-style Four Roses also had a major renovation and offers the chance to sample its many different grain and yeast combinations. Buffalo Trace has a number of different experiences, with behind-the-scenes tours and even some mention of distillery ghosts. Jim Beam's tour includes a replica of a cooperage, where barrels are made.
Not to be outdone by the countryside distilleries, the city of Louisville has been ramping up the opportunities for what the mayor has called "Bourbonism." The concept remembers that the Ohio River city had once been the center of the industry. The Urban Bourbon Trail, essentially a pub crawl on historic Whiskey Row, has been joined by Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, which includes a microdistillery. Old Forester, whose main plant cannot be toured, is spending $25 million on a new distillery, which will serve as an educational center. Newcomers Michter's and Louisville Distilling Co.—maker of Angel's Envy—also plan to open facilities in the city, with accompanying tours. Not far away is the Stitzel-Weller distillery, once run by Pappy Van Winkle. It is now owned by whiskey giant Diageo and houses its Bulleit Experience (although that particular whiskey is made elsewhere) as well as a craft distilling operation and the warehousing for Orphan Barrel whiskeys.
Furthermore the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, which is a central to a number of distillers, has rich displays of whiskey lore (although, sadly, none of the amber liquid itself). And if you’re concerned about sampling and driving, consider the luxury-bus-coach of Mint Julep Tours.
Kentucky has not cornered the market on distillery tourism, however, as many craft makers are similarly proud to show off their homes. And, of course, to the south Jack Daniel's and George Dickel welcome guests to witness their production of Tennessee whiskey.
Remember, it's not overkill to visit a number of distilleries. Each has its own special way of doing things. And besides you might be introduced to some new favorites.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect location for the Wild Turkey distillery. It is in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.