The only thing more Kentucky than the thundering hooves of the Derby is the swirl of ice in a julep. Sip your way through thoroughbred country.
The Bluegrass State cooks up 95% of the world's bourbon, most of which flows from seven distilleries in central Kentucky. A 225-mile loop between the booze-makers has been dubbed the Bourbon Trail, and road-tripping to visit the distilleries and sample their wares has become an offbeat version of a day out in California's Napa Valley. Only here, the sips are 40% to 60% alcohol (versus wine's 5% to 13%), the crowds are fewer and more relaxed, and the scene out the window is massive horse farms rather than vineyards.
Begin with Woodford Reserve, the Derby's official bourbon and the prime ingredient poured into its 80,000 race-day juleps. The distillery, located smack in the middle of horse-farm terrain off I-64 in Versailles, looks like something out of a fairy tale. Copper pots gleam and burble in the distilling room, while stacks of white oak barrels in an ancient stone warehouse magically yield Woodford's honeyed nectar. The barrels are charred inside, which is what gives all bourbons their color and woody flavor.
More magic awaits at the tour's end, when everyone receives a wee snifter filled with a snort of the drink. To imbibe like a pro, hold up the glass to look at the color (it should be a rich amber hue), give it a swirl and a sniff, then sip and hold it briefly before swallowing. It should feel warm and slightly knee-buckling.
Nearby is Buffalo Trace Distillery at Frankfort, so-named because it sits on an age-old buffalo crossing that became a pathway for westward-moving settlers. Who knows how much farther these folks would have roamed had the distillery not been pumping out firewater? As it stands, Buffalo Trace is the country's oldest continuously operated distillery, in business since 1787. Even Prohibition didn't halt production - the government permitted Buffalo Trace to keep making alcohol for medicinal purposes. Today's samples still cure a cough.
The Bourbon Trail winds through thoroughbred country, so en route to the hilltop Wild Turkey and Spanish-mission-style Four Roses (both in Lawrenceburg) distilleries, part of the fun is ogling the long-legged aristocrats behind their pristine white fences. Try to glimpse their half-million-dollar stables, complete with polished oak walls and chandeliers.
Head south from Louisville along I-65 to find bourbon's biggest manufacturer: Jim Beam in Clermont. The mostly self-guided tour is corporate but low-key, culminating with nostril-singeing small-batch swills in T. Jeremiah Beam's historic parlour.
Maker's Mark in Loretto also resides in the I-65 'hood. Curiously, the longstanding distillery does not offer samples, but it's worth a visit to dip your own hot-off-the-production-line bottle in Maker's signature red sealing wax.
Heaven Hill sits nearby in Bardstown and is positively futuristic compared to the older distilleries, offering a slick, modern experience. Those jonesing for a history fix should zip over to the town's Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. It's home to Abe Lincoln's liquor license and temperance maven Carrie Nation's hatchet, which she wielded to smash bourbon bottles in the early 1900s.
Be grateful Kentucky de-armed her, or the Bourbon Trail would be a far drier drive.
The distilleries cluster in two areas: four lie along I-64 near Lexington, and the other three huddle around I-65 south of Louisville near Bardstown. Most tours take place between 10am and 3pm, Monday through Saturday. All are free except Woodford Reserve. Some distilleries shut down for periods in summertime, so call ahead. For maps and information call 888 568 4784 or visit the Bourbon Country website.
Places to stay: In Louisville, try the 21c Museum Hotel. Contemporary art exhibits adorn its public spaces; Aeron chairs, iPods and 500-thread-count sheets furnish its rooms. Bardstown is home to multiple B&Bs, including the thick-walled Jailer's Inn, the county lockup from 1819 until 1987; today's guests can choose to sleep in a former cell.
Where to eat: Grilled filet of beef with bourbon demi-glace, chocolate pecan bourbon bread pudding, bourbon mousse - you don't have to be hit over the head with a bottle to get the theme at Bourbons Bistro in Louisville. Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown fries a mean plate of chicken.