Along the Bourbon Trail
Once ubiquitous to the entire state, bourbon making today has two epicenters. Frankfort is one. The other is Bardstown, which calls itself the Bourbon Capital of the World. We explored the first center in last month’s On the Road column. Now let’s travel the remainder of the Bourbon Trail.
Right in Bardstown, on KY 49, is Heaven Hill, (502) 348-3921, which claims to be the largest family-owned distillery in America. Located on rolling land that used to be a single plantation, it is named for William Heavenhill, who was born in 1783. That was the same year Evan Williams became Kentucky’s first commercial distiller, and the company’s best-selling bourbon is named in his honor.
Heaven Hill gives tours on weekdays at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Group tours at other times are available by appointment.
About 20 miles farther on KY 49 is the town of Loretto, home of Maker’s Mark, (270) 865-2099. In addition to making fine bourbon, Maker’s Mark offers what is unquestionably the best distillery tour along the Bourbon Trail.
Maker’s Mark’s antecedents go back to the late 1700s, although the brand itself is relatively modern, dating only from 1953.
Back in 1780, Robert Samuels settled in Kentucky. Like many a frontier farmer, he turned his extra grain into whiskey. In 1840 the family started distilling commercially, when T.W. Samuels built the family’s first commercial distillery. T.W.’s bourbon recipe was handed down through six generations.
After Prohibition, things changed. Bill Samuels had his own ideas about how bourbon should taste, so he abandoned the old recipe and came up with a new one. Instead of using rye, he substituted winter wheat, which provided a softer, more mellow taste.
As you enter the gates of Maker’s Mark you pass the 1805 tollhouse. The prices posted are the actual ones from that time. Tolls were charged every day, except on Sunday, because the then-Mrs. Samuels felt that people going to church should put the money in the offering plate instead. Note, too, the working antique fire engine housed next to the visitor’s center.
The Quart House, which you’ll pass early on the tour, is said to be the oldest retail whiskey store in America, dating from 1889. Bourbon was sold here at the rate of 25 cents per quart.
After touring the still house and warehouse, there’s a unique keepsake waiting if you want. Maker’s Mark is known for its distinctive packaging as much as for the bourbon inside, particularly the dripping red wax seal. For a moderate charge you can purchase a small bottle of Maker’s Mark and dip it yourself. The label has an area for you to sign and date it as well.
Maker’s Mark tours are offered on the half hour from 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday; and 1:30-3:30 p.m. Sundays.
Return to Bardstown and visit the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, (502) 348-2999, located in Spalding Hall. Oscar Getz spent more than 50 years collecting rare artifacts and documents about the American whiskey industry. The collection was turned over to the city on his death.
Arranged in eight rooms and two halls are whiskey memorabilia dating from pre-Colonial days to the post-Prohibition years. Of particular note is an E.G. Booz bottle, from which the colloquial expression “booze” is said to stem.
Winter hours for the museum, which has no entry fee, are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 1-4 p.m. Sundays.
From Bardstown follow KY 245 about 15 miles to Clermont, home of Jim Beam and the American Outpost, (502) 543-9877.
Jim Beam does not offer distillery tours as such. Instead, static displays and a 15-minute film trace the history of Kentucky bourbon making in general, and the Jim Beam family distillery in particular. Among the displays is a moonshine still, said to be the oldest in existence, even older than the one in the Smithsonian Institute.
Next to the American Outpost is the T. Jeremiah Beam home. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 1911 mansion was the home of Jim Beam’s son T. Jeremiah, who lived here when the distillery was rebuilt following Prohibition.
Jim Beam is unique because it’s the only Kentucky distillery that offers bourbon tastings. These are held in the parlor of the T. Jeremiah house.
Warrior’s Path led from the eastern side of the Alleghenies through a pass in the Cumberland Mountains, and onward in a northeasterly direction. It would later become the Wilderness Road.
Thomas Walker used it when he discovered Cumberland Gap. Daniel Boone used it to enter Kentucky, and was the first to turn part of it into a wagon road. But Boone turned due northward, cutting Boone’s Trace to the banks of the Kentucky River, where he established Fort Boonesborough.
Together, between 1774 and 1796, these roads carried more than 200,000 settlers into the new lands west of the Alleghenies.
The Wilderness Road and Boone’s Trace come together at Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park. And the history they forged can be experienced there still.
The Mountain Life Museum, for instance, is a collection of log houses, outbuildings, tools, and other artifacts that portray the lifestyle of late 18th- and early 19th-century settlers.
It’s also the site of McNitt’s Defeat, site of the worst Indian massacre in Kentucky history. An entire party of settlers, with one exception, was wiped out as they camped along the road. A cemetery marks the site of the massacre.
Near the Defeated Camp cemetery stands McHargue’s Mill, a working, reconstructed gristmill from the 19th century. Paths leading to the mill are lined with millstones from all over the United States, part of the park’s collection (called a library) of more than 300 millstones.
For more information, contact: Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park, 998 Levi Jackson Mill Rd., London, KY 40744, (606) 878-8000.
Primitive deer hunting
To deal with the burgeoning herd of deer, the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources has liberalized seasons and bag limits, including several special seasons. In December that means muzzleloading rifles.
There’s no doubt that the majority of black powder hunters nowadays use in-line systems. That’s understandable. The in-lines have the look and feel of modern rifles, differing only in that they load from the front.
However, there’s a growing number of hunters who want a true primitive experience, and opt for traditional side-hammer percussion and flintlock rifles.
To load and fire a flintlock, first you drop your powder charge, and follow it with a patched ball. In this regard it’s just like a percussion system.
Instead of a nipple and cap, though, you have a frizzen and primer pan. You put a finer grade of powder in the pan, then snap the frizzen down over it. When you squeeze the trigger, the cock–which carries the flint–drops. The flint strikes the frizzen, creating a shower of sparks that ignite the priming powder. The flame then jumps through a flash hole into the main charge and ignites it.
Not only is this a slower ignition system, there are all sorts of things that can go wrong. If the flint isn’t knapped properly it won’t spark against the frizzen. Sometimes the primer ignites but the main charge doesn’t–in which case you have a “flash in the pan.” Which tells you the source of that old saying.
You’ll also see the flash from the corner of your eye, which makes you psychologically think the gun has fired. So you must train yourself to hold through until it actually does.
In-lines and percussion systems are basically waterproof. Not so with flintlocks, which, after all, have an exposed powder charge. So you have to take steps to protect it from the weather as well.