The setting sun reflected a deep, burnished gold over the rushing waters of the Ohio River, while the graceful curves of the Sherman Minton Bridge were cast into shadow. It’s amidst this swirling array of colors where Louisville bids you welcome. A quiet tale of revival and rebellion surrounds this city with its first-rate restaurants and bourbon distilleries found inside warehouses along West Main Street. The lively bar scene is abuzz, full of potent cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned with the zesty orange slice and incredibly sweet maraschino cherry that runs smoothly down your throat.
If the ancient tradition of alchemy still existed and men strived to turn lead into gold as well as create an elixir for immortality, by our current times it might have acquired a new name: Bourbon. With its distinct mellow flavor and the amber color that turns gold against the sun, this liquid is a panacea that cures all evils as it dances on the tip of the tongue.
History In The Making
As you set out onto the grassy landscapes and meandering roads your first pit stop on this great Bourbon Tour must be Jim Beam’s distillery. Nestled amidst the woods and rolling countryside, Jim Beam’s stillhouse blends perfectly with the surrounding architecture that has graced the area of generations. The imposing buildings in rustic colors reflect the company’s rich family history and the delicious concoctions that are created within.
Water is life and it just so happens to also be the primary essence of any good bourbon. As you step into a dark room, in between the hushed voices of those working there, you hear the trickle of water as you immediately smell the dark and clean scent of the well. The doors then open into a new chamber, the place where the secret mix of corn, rye, and barley is made. Here, the scent is divine. It is a home warm feeling, a comforting scent that envelops you as it reminds you of fresh baked bread.
As you peer down at the massive cookers you see the bubbling mixture. As you slowly dip your fingers, for a moment of panic, you think you might get burned. But you’re surprised to find how the liquid seething and moving against your skin is actually quite cool. There are, of course, the more adventurous who impulsively dip their whole hands, eager to taste the liquid in its early stages. As you remove the left over pieces of rye and barley, you are hit by an acidic flavor that is full of promise.
As you are taken from area to area, it dawns on you that you are witnessing a ritual that has been perfected to create this panacea. Your fingers graze across the wet oak barrels and you taste the unaged bourbon, a strong flavor that could perfectly be described by Louisville native Muhammad Ali’s famous phrase, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” It’s a lightning bolt of alcohol that bears the strong essence of the oak. Suddenly, as you come down from this high of unaged bourbon, you hear the tinkling of delicate crystal, and you will witness the elaborate choreography of the bottling process. The shiny bottles are first washed, not with water but rather with bourbon. Since these bottles will only ever house this alcohol it is fitting that they are cleansed by it.
The people you see walking around the distillery have a deep seated passion for bourbon and its intricate crafting process. Stacey shares how bourbon has always been part of her family and life, “I grew up here and my Pawpaw has always been fond of Jim Beam. You stay loyal and the thing with bourbon is that you drink it in the good times and the bad.” Bourbon is special because it can be hot and spicy, or even peppery, so there will always be something to suit everyone’s particular taste. “In the past women would pass on the bourbon to the men, but now we see more women ordering Manhattans, Old Fashioned’s, and bourbon on the rocks. The good thing is that you appeal to everyone.” It’s certain that as you shift from bourbon to bourbon, even if you are an amateur, you begin to appreciate the underlying complexity hidden behind this golden elixir.
As you leave Jim Beam and see the white buildings fade into the distance, you realize that this is a drink for everyone. It travels smoothly as it warms your whole body. Jim Beam lies in the very heart of Kentucky and, as Stacey well put it, “bourbon is a Kentucky hug.”
“They call it that old mountain dew, and them that refuse it are few."
This intricate process includes a dose of magic and devilry as you’ll realize on the next stop, that will take you a step farther into this mystical land where the golden liquid comes from, to Maker’s Mark. Before it takes on the amber color with vanilla notes and mellows that remains years in those oak casks, this distilled spirit is known as moonshine or white dog. As you see it gushing through the fine copper pipes encased in delicate crystals, you realize this process is a curious mix of perfectly measured chemistry with a small slice of luck.
You will grab a ladle to scoop some up and, as it reaches your taste buds, your eyes will water, as the tip of your tongue burns. As the sensation races though your body you’ll think how the name “white lightning” suits it to perfection.
In the art of bourbon making, the true magic occurs inside a great, black, daunting building several stories high. The doors creak open and, let me tell you, the silence is profound. Row after row of resting casks of burnt oak hold this precious elixir. The smell is what catches your attention. That whiff of burnt wood, soil, and bourbon. This peculiar smell is called the Angel´s Share, the alcohol which evaporates from the casks during maturation and hovers in the air. As you step into this quiet place, you realize that Bourbon is, in many ways, alive. It breathes in and out of the cask, leaching the wood of all the precious and delicious aromas and flavors that connoisseurs, as well as amateurs, love.
As you wander through the traditional buildings you’ll observe how, generation after generation, this place has continued the heritage and time-honored tradition of making a fine bourbon. As you make your way back to Louisville you see how these age-old traditions have blended to perfection with the contemporary world. They seem to redefine the art of modern Southern Hospitality. Burrowed in the historic downtown, 21c Museum Hotel is a boutique hotel, contemporary art museum, and cultural civic center. As you’re surrounded by great pieces of art waiting to be admired, you’ll notice the hotel’s staple red penguins roaming around. Don’t be surprised if you see one waiting to catch the elevator, standing outside your room or taking a fancy ride.
Louisville’s embrace of the traditional and the arts makes it a vibrant city full of promise that continues to make its mark. The great bourbon producers hold on to this spirit and creativity, which is why they invited three winners to experience firsthand its tradition and history. To taste the rich liquid as they admire stunning views of the heart of the United States south. Isn’t it time you had a taste as well?