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The Bourbon Trail 

One male family bonding trip I'll never forget

Since 2012, my father, my two older brothers, and I have made an annual “boys’ trip.” We ventured to spring training in Arizona, wine tours in Oregon, and country music bars in Nashville — to name a few.  Since growing up just outside of Denver, Colorado, my family has been spread across the country, and so these extended weekend trips have been a time for us to get together and catch up on life while exploring and experiencing something new. 

This year in 2023, we headed east to Louisville, Kentucky. We hit the Bourbon Trail for a few “Kentucky Hugs” and stopped by Churchill Downs (somewhat crazy just a few weeks before this year’s Derby), as well as took a few cuts inside the batting cage. When you try to pack so much into just a few days, it is hard to make it all happen, but that is when you bring in the experts.

Never having been to Kentucky, we enlisted the help of the Kentucky Bourbon Boys, a family-run operation based in Louisville, for a unique day of visiting the local distilleries — our top priority for the weekend. They knew the ins-n-outs of every backwinding road and the stories of each of the distilleries. Working with Rachel Cummings, we let her take the lead and make recommendations to set us up with a full day of experiences and a variety of stops and sips. Our guide Steve was incredibly knowledgeable not only about the history of the towns themselves but also hitting us with fun facts like “What is Baudoinia Compniacensis?” 

Stop one of the day was Bardstown Bourbon Company, touted as the most technically advanced distillery in the country. The newest of the three distilleries, Bardstown Bourbon Company, features an all-glass classroom overlooking over 100 acres of active farmland (rumor has it they recently bought another 300). 

We started our visit with a tasting of their two main bourbons – the Fusion and Discovery series – in the whiskey library. Surrounded by a collection of more than 400 of the rarest bourbons in the world dating back to 1892, our Certified Bourbon Steward helped us dive into their unique blends and tasted the differences between the corn, wheat, rye, and their overall flavor profiles. 

Then cruising around their overall campus and distillery, we ended this part of our journey in their flagship rickhouse tasting room (a great spot for a new profile picture). Once inside the building, we learned more about the aging process and how the location of a barrel in the rickhouse, exposure to temperature fluctuations as well as many other factors can change the flavor profile of the barrel at the end of the aging process. We ended our time inside with a quick sample out of the barrel still again, using a tool called a “whisky thief,” which pulls a sample straight out via the bunghole. 

It was then on to Makers Mark. The experience here was incredible, mainly due to the fact that the bachelor party that started their tour before us was amazed at the beautiful mustaches we had grown specifically for this trip — nothing like humbling a group of 20+ twenty-somethings. On top of that, knowing that you can pick up a bottle of Maker’s at any local liquor store, learning about the legacy helps to have their corn mash taste just a bit sweeter. 

Being the most historical of the three, we enjoyed our tour guide’s stories, from the original wooden mash tuns to their co-founder Margie Samuels being the first woman to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. After our tour and tasting here, you walk through a final rickhouse with a Chihuly glass installation that represents the journey of bourbon, from blue water to the red wax seal, along with a few angels tucked in representing the “Angel’s Share.” Once in the gift shop, you are surrounded by various bottles and swag for purchase, but also their dipping zone. This is one of the few places where you can add your own “mark” on the bottle by dipping your own purchased bottle into their signature red wax, which we could not pass up.

We finally rounded out the day at Heaven Hill, which has been perfecting the craft of distilling and aging since 1935. We decided to do a simple tasting to enjoy five premium Bourbon and Whiskey tastings. One of the craziest stories we heard here was about a fire that broke out in 1996, completely destroying the distillery and 37 of the 44 rickhouses, equating to 2 percent of the world’s whisky supply!

Day two of our trip was a little more unstructured. After a quick Kentucky Hot Brown breakfast at Wild Eggs (another solid recommendation from Steve), we stopped by Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby as well as the Louisville Slugger Museum. Churchill Downs was pretty locked down as we were there just two weeks before this year’s Derby, so we could only see a small fraction of the facility. Still, after being there, the race just got put on my bucket list, as the energy, even a couple of weeks before the Derby, was buzzing. As we ventured to The Louisville Slugger Museum, we got a few customized bats (they’ll laser engrave a purchased bat on-site) and then discovered the batting cage near the back. You can pick the exact length and weight of some of the greats, as well as newer players. I personally took Ronald Acuña Jr. and started hitting bombs – just kidding, I played lacrosse in college, and the swing was a bit rusty and underdeveloped. 

The next day we returned home with another year’s worth of memories to cherish. As we get a little older (I’m the youngest of my brothers), we’ve begun to understand the true meaning of family and why these experiences together mean so much more than any material item ever could. And now, with every new bottle I come across to sip and savor, the simple aroma of an artfully crafted bourbon born right here in the USA (a mandatory to hold the name bourbon) will bring me back to this weekend.

As we get a little older, we’ve begun to understand the true meaning of family and why these experiences together mean so much more than any material item ever could