Maker's Mark Distillery, Jim Beam American Stillhouse, Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center
In the US, legal drinking age is 21. Please drink responsibly.
The highlight of my Kentucky Bourbon Trail adventure was during the first stop. I did wait seven years (a quarter of my life!) for it.
As mentioned in the previous post, my Ambassador barrel was ready so it was time to make the pilgrimage.
Maker’s Mark bourbon takes about six to eight years to age-the exact time varies since it’s based on taste. The Maker’s Mark app (iOS and Android) and the Ambassador web portal both show the progress of the barrel.
One of the perks of visiting the distillery as a graduating Ambassador is being able to take a tour for free. At check-in, I received a name tag with Ambassador pin and placed an order for bottles. The bottles would have custom labels with my name and Ambassador information.
Included in the free tour options is the “Heritage Tour”, only offered on Thursdays at 10 am. This specialty tour is led by Bill Samuels, Jr. - the son of the founder of Maker’s Mark and the immediate-past Chairman of the company.
The Heritage Tour focuses on the history of the company, the family that runs it, and history of the buildings on campus.
The history of Maker’s Mark is available to read on their website, but the stories have so much more life when told by a man who lived them. Bill Jr talked about how his mom, Margie, made the first bottle of Maker’s Mark as a paper mâché model and the wax dip was done in their family’s turkey fryer. He told stories about driving around *the* Colonel Sanders (of KFC), or how he played Lincoln Logs in the presence of *the* Jim Beam.
The tour touched a little bit on the process of bourbon making, though on this particular day we didn’t enter the area where the fermenters or stills were.
For a long time, Maker’s Mark offered only one product, but their range has extended in recent history. Maker’s 46, for example, was the brainchild of Bill Jr. Its unique flavor is due to an extended finishing period in barrels that have French Oak staves.
This process occurs in a limestone cave that allows for year-round aging. The cooler conditions force less of the product deep into the wooden staves, which cuts down on the undesirable flavors that longer aging may produce. The Private Select program is an extension of this aging process. Program participants can choose between different wooden stave options for a custom product.
The tour concluded with a tasting of Maker’s White, Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, and Maker’s Mark Private Select (in this case, Maker’s 46 Cask Strength).
While Maker’s Mark will always be the sip that got me into bourbon and is still a solid choice, I may start keeping Maker’s Mark Cask Strength on hand instead of their classic product. It’s what I love about Maker’s, but amped up.
After the tasting, we were released into the gift shop. At this point, our tour had run an hour long (worth it!) and the on-site restaurant, Starhill Provisions, had an issue with their coolers and was not able to serve food. My original plan was to grab lunch before heading to the next distillery. That anticipated the tour ending around 12:15 or 12:30 pm and taking about an hour to shop/dip/eat. It was about 1:10 pm when the tour/tasting ended and I made a beeline for dipping.
It was about 1:30 pm when we left for the next distillery…45 minutes away…to make a 2 pm tour…
KBT Tip: I absolutely recommend the Heritage Tour but would plan to stay longer than the estimated two hours for the tour. Next time, I would even plan for an entire day at Maker’s Mark. I may even stay the night before at the rumored inn on their property. Hopefully, the restaurant would be running and I would be able to try the food, too!
Since lunch plans were thrown off and we were running late to our Jim Beam tour (2 pm), I hoped to get spots on the next tour (2:30 pm) and grab a quick bite at the counter-serve restaurant on Beam’s campus. The 2:30 pm tour was full when we got there, so we were unable to get on a tour that would let out in time for our 4 pm tour at the next distillery.
Bummer, but at least we had time to enjoy lunch and explore the campus. There are no refunds for missed tours, which I knew and accepted at the time of advanced purchase. The representative at the counter was understanding of our situation and offered drink tokens (with a souvenir glass) at the Jim Beam Bourbon Bar as a concession. They didn't need to do so, but I am very grateful they did.
Beam Suntory is the largest holder of Kentucky Bourbon and one of the largest spirits companies in the world. Not only do they produce Jim Beam, but also brands like Basil Hayden and Knob Creek. Maker’s Mark is also under the Beam Suntory umbrella, though their process remains their own. Other spirits in their portfolio include Pinnacle Vodka, Sauza Tequila, and Courvoisier. When I return, I will make my tour time or take a specialty tour/tasting since their operations are so massive.
If I would plan this trip again, I would give myself extra time. Visiting Jim Beam could fit on its own day, with other Louisville area sightseeing, or with visiting the Four Roses Warehouse & Bottling center (which is separate from their distillery). Jim Beam also has an Urban Stillhouse in Louisville which offers a different experience for those who may not want to or be able to make it out to Clermont.
Heaven Hill was not a name I recognized, but some of the brands under their umbrella - Elijah Craig, Larceny, Rittenhouse - were. Heaven Hill is the second largest holder of Kentucky Bourbon. Their Bourbon Heritage Center and rickhouses are in Bardstown, KY.
Heaven Hill has an impressive amount of multi-story rickhouses. The rickhouses are not climate controlled, so temperature varies between the bottom and the top, which affects the aging process. The diverse profile of products made by Heaven Hill is sustained in part by that variance in aging.
A devastating fire in the distillery's past has led to additional safety measures for the rickhouses. Each structure has berms built around it that would contain flammable liquids in the event of another fire, which would help keep the fire from spreading. The rickhouses each also have a plumb-bob suspended to ensure the building is level to prevent collapse.
Tastings included a cross-section of their offerings with regard to both mash bill and aging. We tried the Bernheim Wheat (~fourth floor, aged for seven years), Elijah Craig small batch rye bourbon (~fifth floor, aged for 12 years), and Rittenhouse Rye (~first three floors, with the lowest amount of rye that can still be considered a rye whiskey -51%).
KBT tip: A receipt from the Bourbon Heritage Center gift shop gets $3 off an Evan Williams Bourbon Experience ticket and vice versa.
The classic Mashbill tour is a good option, but Heaven Hill offers specialty experiences as well. Particularly the "Stay Bonded" experience, touching on the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and tastings of four Bottled-in-Bond whiskeys.
Bourbon brought me to Bardstown, but fashion is always something I look out for when I travel. JT’s Consignments was one of a few shops open til 6 pm (as opposed to 5 or 5:30) so I stopped in. Very glad I did - bought a few great items to up my fall wardrobe.
JT’s is very well organized - garment types were clearly labeled and sorted by color. Is it a treasure trove of luxury designer goods? No. But is it very affordable and full of solid, quality items? Yep! I noticed a lot of children's clothes also, which seems like a savvy way to shop for little ones.
Another consignment shop in the area I would like to visit is Gabby’s.
In my online search for activities in Bardstown, I came across the Buttermilk Days festival. The kickoff event featured a homemade wine tasting/contest and an all-you-can-eat buffet of game meats. Not game meats like venison or buffalo as seen around Minnesota, but game meats like squirrel, ‘coon, and turtle. I stuck to the more conventional offerings like beans, rice, and catfish, but did try the turtle.
The homemade wine tasting was great - not sure who won the contest but I loved #9! It reminded me a lot of meade. Besides homemade wine, the Buttermilk Days tasting also offered moonshine and spiked lemonade. Best part - the buffet + wine tasting ticket was only $10. While clearly a local community gathering with many old friends convening, visitors such as myself and my partner were welcomed and included. Other Buttermilk Days festivities include live music and a pancake breakfast.
Since I didn’t get my fill of adventurous eats and the wine was hitting pretty hard, I insisted on grabbing comfort food at Mammy’s. We ordered sides of Macaroni & Cheese and Cornbread, and some pie to finish the night right. The cornbread was really filling and skillet sized - I took half of it back for breakfast the next day. The pie was great, but much of it had sold out by 8 or 9 pm so if you are looking for pie, I’d suggest getting there earlier.
Two distilleries in Bardstown that are now on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are Lux Row Distillers and Bardstown Bourbon Co. To finish the Trail, I’d recommend visiting both of these and Heaven Hill in a day. As mentioned before, I would save an entire day for Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam, or at least group Jim Beam with Louisville-area activities rather than Bardstown.
Next time I visit this area, I would love to take a tour of the Kentucky Cooperage in Lebanon. A cooperage is where the staves are charred and barrels produced for aging bourbon. Coopers produce staves and vessels for other purposes as well.
There is a nearby winery that uses berries and other fruits (not grapes!) to produce wines that I would also like to visit- McIntyre’s Winery - McIntyre’s Winery.
Stay tuned for next week's post detailing Day Two: Lexington area fun and distilleries - Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Town Branch, and Woodford Reserve. Cheers 🥃
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