When I finished med school in 2002, I decided to do my three years of residency training in North Carolina. That meant that in June of that year, Tamara and I would be moving out of the state of Kentucky for the very first time. We always knew we’d come back, but it still seemed like an awfully good excuse to get out and do some Kentucky things we’d never done before, and the Maker’s Mark Distillery was at the top of the list.
I had the afternoon off on an unseasonably warm January day, so we made the trek down winding and poorly-marked country roads to Loretto. We found the entrance after passing it up at least once, and after we got in it took us a minute to figure out which of the quaint little buildings was the visitors’ center. And even then, finding an employee was surprisingly difficult. But before too long a cheerful retiree was giving us the spiel we’ve heard a hundred times since then–the legal definition of bourbon, how it’s made, how it’s been made the same way for generations.
The tour was lovely; the first time you smell fermenting mash or the inside of an aging warehouse is not something you’re likely to forget. We watched as two women caught every bottle coming down the line and hand-dipped them in red wax. The only concession they had made to tourists was some tape on the floor to keep us a safe distance from the dangerous machinery.
Did I mention we were the only two people on the tour?
The gift shop, housed in a corner of the visitors center, was smaller than my bedroom. They had a few t-shirts, some glassware, logo-imprinted golf balls, and their bourbon chocolates, of which they gave us a sample. There was no bourbon tasting; as the distillery was in a dry county, they couldn’t offer public tastings. The only booze you could buy was a special commemorative 375mL bottle which you got to dip yourself in a Crock-Pot of molten red wax. (Ours still sits in our cabinet of commemorative bottles, aka the Emergency Bourbon.)
My trips home over the next few years usually involved at least one drive across the state and straight through Bourbon Country, so I tried to break up the trip with other distillery visits. At first they were a lot like that first trip to Makers–working factories with token gift shops–but then they started to change. Slicker visitors’ centers. Big tasting rooms. MUCH bigger gift shops. A much more actively managed tourist experience. People were finally figuring out that bourbon distilleries were cool places to visit.
Then, at some point, it exploded.
Go to Maker’s Mark now and you won’t have to look around for where the tour starts–it’s where the giant crowd is lined up. The whole property is much friendlier to visitors. The gift shop is like a department store, with an elaborate raised dipping station. It’s still a great experience that I’d recommend to anyone, but it’s nothing like that visit from 14 years ago.
At some point, Kentucky threw its arms around our native spirit and squeezed hard.
One of the biggest celebrations of the brownest of the brown liquors is Louisville’s Bourbon Classic, happening this weekend (February 27) at the Kentucky Center for the Arts. Friday night is the Cocktail Competition, featuring small plates paired with both classic and contemporary bourbon cocktails. Saturday brings Bourbon Classic University, an afternoon of classes on all manner of bourbon topics, followed by the main event, the Bourbon Classic Taste, where all the big distilleries will bring out their best.
We’ve covered the last three Bourbon Classics for WCN!, and it’s always one of my favorite weekends of the year. And I’m just as excited about spending the few days running up to the Classic touring distilleries, doing the town, and generally hanging out with some of my favorite bourbon bloggers and podcasters: Modern Thirst, Bottom of the Barrel, The Bourbon Guys, Bourbon and Banter, Sippin’ Corn, Straight Up 615, Sips Suds and Smokes, and a bunch I’m probably forgetting. Not only are they all a blast to be around, but their bourbon knowledge and palates all put mine to shame, so I get to learn a ton.
And you’ll get to learn something too! Because Saturday we’re all sitting down and I’ll be hosting a Mass Podcast with all of these folks! You’ll be able to hear it next Wednesday on WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, and next Friday we’ll post the extended cut on our podcast feed.
But if you’re in Louisville, definitely come check it out for yourself.