I recently found myself in the state of my birth – Kentucky, where the grass is blue, the bourbon waits to be sampled and the rural backroads just beg to be explored.
The Center of Attention
My first stop was Lebanon, the geographic center of the state and home to some of the finest moonshine and bourbon around. I took a tour and got a tasting at Limestone Branch Distillery. The owner and master distiller, Stephen Beam, was on hand to tell me all about his family’s history of making bourbon. Beam, who incidentally is the only Beam left in the world who owns a bourbon distillery, comes by his love for “America’s Native Spirit” honestly. His bourbon roots run deep, as he’s descended from the Beam and Dant families, both legendary in the industry.
The first product in the Limestone Branch line was TJ Pottinger Sugar Shine, named for one of the brands of sour mash and rye whiskeys that was produced by Beam’s great-grandfather, Minor Case Beam. The Sugar Shine comes in a variety of delicious flavors, from Pumpkin Pie and Apple Cinnamon Pie to my personal favorite, Blackberry. Beam also produces Revenge, a moonshine he ages for 115 days in a charred white oak barrel, and Precinct No. 6, which ages for one year and three months. The newest product is Yellowstone, a line that Beam’s Dant family ancestors once owned, which he recently bought back.
Beam likes to experiment with flavors, but he also relies heavily on what his buyers think. In the near future, he plans to try a few new wheats and a few new builds. Visitors to the distillery will test these new recipes, and Limestone Branch will do full production of the most popular lines.
If you go:
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday thru Saturday; 1-5 p.m. on Sunday.
Free tours run every hour on the hour. The last tour departs at 5 p.m.
Evening and private tours are provided upon request.
Limestone Branch is a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, so be sure to bring your passport so you can get it stamped.
A Barrel of Fun
Another must-see for visitors to Lebanon is the Independent Stave Company ’s Kentucky Cooperage. My tour guide, Joe, did a great job of living up to the company’s slogan of being “All Fired Up” about bourbon and barrels. Operating since 1912, the cooperage is the world’s largest producer of bourbon barrels. It produces charred white oak barrels, which are required to make bourbon. Yes, there are actually federal regulations that detail the requirements that must be met for a liquid to be called a bourbon; being aged in a new, charred white oak barrel is one of them.
Along the tour, I learned that the American White Oak wood is used specifically because it is durable and resilient. Before use, it is left outside in the elements so it can be seasoned by the changing weather.
Once the barrel is built, it’s loaded into the char machine for one minute. There are four different levels of char, and each level of char is tailored to a specific distillery’s request. According to Joe, most distilleries use a level 4 char, although I learned that Maker’s Mark prefers a level 3 char.
Finally, the barrel is moved to inspection, a very rigorous process at the cooperage. Each barrel is checked by hand, one at a time, to make sure there are no leaks. If leaks are found, a cooper is called in to fix it. Watching a cooper repair a barrel by hand using centuries-old techniques was my favorite part of the tour.
If you go:
Free tours take place Monday through Friday at 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. sharp. Tours last about 30 to 45 minutes.
Closed-toe shoes are required for the tour. No exceptions.
No cameras are allowed.
Visitors are provided safety glasses and a headset that must be worn for the duration of the tour.
Fun fact: The rivets on barrels made in Lebanon are all marked with a KY.
A Historical Mark
Maker’s Mark , located in nearby Loretto, is one of the most charming distilleries I’ve ever visited. Historic buildings date back to 1889 and help provide the perfect backdrop for photo ops and an interesting tour. Production of Maker’s Mark began on the property in 1954, bottling began in 1958, and in 1980, the distillery was designated a National Historic Landmark.
While Bill and Margie Samuels came from a line of bourbon makers, the family product was not very good. They didn’t want their name associated with their new recipe because they were afraid no one would try it. Margie was a collector of pewter and loved the idea of the maker’s mark that was imprinted on each piece. So she and Bill decided to give their bourbon the maker’s mark of SIV, which stands for Samuels 4th Generation. Margie’s style continued to influence the brand, with her love of cognac bottles as the inspiration behind the Maker’s Mark bottle dipped in red wax.
Grains are an important part of making bourbon, and federal regulations require it be made from at least 51 percent corn. Maker’s Mark is made with 70 percent corn, 16 percent red winter wheat and 14 percent malted barley. By using wheat instead of the more common rye, the bourbon’s flavor is sweeter.
Once the grains pass inspection, they go into the grinder. Next, the leftover mash from the previous day and water are added to the grains, but not just any water. The water used to make Maker’s Mark comes from a 10-acre spring-fed lake, filtered by limestone rock. Yeast is then introduced to the liquid, and it’s left to sit for three days, at which point it becomes 8 to 10 percent alcohol.
The alcohol goes through the still, becomes vapor, and moves through the condenser. It comes out at 120 percent alcohol. The process is repeated, and the product, which is then 160 percent alcohol, is known as “white dog” or, more commonly, moonshine.
The clear “white dog” goes into brand-new, charred white oak barrels, which are then stored in a rickhouse. The barrels stay on the top floor for three years before being moved to the bottom level for another three to four years.
While watching the factory workers dip bottles in the trademarked red wax is one of the highlights of the tour, visitors can actually dip their very own bottle in the gift shop. It’s a challenge to get the spin just right so you don’t get too many “drips” running down the side of the bottle.
If you go:
Tours are $9 per adult age 21 and older. Tours include a sampling of Maker’s products.
Tours last about 1 hour and run Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and on Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., from March through December. The distillery is closed on Sundays in January and February.
Where to eat: I enjoyed a fantastic dinner at a local favorite, Ragetti’s, where the menu was pretty extensive and the dishes were very reasonably priced. I had the lasagna, which was better than most I have eaten at more expensive, big city restaurants.
Where to stay: I overnighted in the Hampton Inn. It’s a smaller property with only 68 rooms, so it books up quickly, but its location is unbeatable. The staff is very friendly, and like all other Hampton Inns, there is a free continental breakfast, free WiFi, a pool and an exercise room.
Editor’s note: The writer visited Lebanon on a hosted press trip, but all opinions are her own and no one reviewed or approved this article.