After a delicious breakfast in the courtyard of the Jailer’s Inn, we headed out to see the final two bourbon distilleries of our trip – Heaven Hill and Maker’s Mark.
Heaven Hill had a very impressive, recently built, visitors’ center just south of Bardstown. We arrived a few minutes before they were officially open, and had time to browse their History of Heaven Hill bourbon exhibits before taking our tour.
There were three or so distilleries that were purchased and continued post-prohibition by the family that owns Heaven Hill. They also own or distribute quite a few other labels – we learned that Christian Brothers brandy, distilled from California grapes, is actually aged in used bourbon barrels and bottled in Kentucky.
Our guide at Heaven Hill was a good storyteller, with anecdotes about the work in the barrel warehouses (and how the workers would sample the whiskey when no one was looking), and told us about drink recipes for some of the Heaven Hill products – he was particularly fond of Pama pomegranate liquor.
The white dog for Heaven Hill is actually distilled in Louisville, so we only toured the barrel warehouses there, but we got to go into the very center of the barrel warehouse instead of just staying near the perimeter. We also got to see the barrel elevator and learn about various cooperage tools. The grounds of Heaven Hill were well-manicured, with a family sculpted out of bourbon barrels and a butterfly garden in full bloom.
The tasting room was super-slick – there is a giant bourbon barrel shaped room in the middle of the gift shop, and the tasting was inside at a circular bar.
We had samples of two bourbons – Elijah Craig 18-year-old bourbon and Evan Williams single barrel bourbon; the glasses were placed on special lighted pedestals so we could see the color of the bourbon more clearly. Before tasting the bourbons, we did a scent experiment – each person had two scent canisters and we had to guess what the scents were; we then analyzed the scent of the bourbons, and added a few drops of water to observe how that changed the aroma.
Saturday lunch was barbecue, at a little place outside of Bardstown that I found in a Nelson County visitors guide that I picked up at Heaven Hill. There was no official address, just directions to go two miles past the junction of two roads. It was definitely a very local place, with a meat smoker in the parking lot, checkered plastic tablecloths, and laminated plastic menus.
The ad claimed that they were famous for pork, so I ordered a rib tip dinner, and Chuck had a pulled pork sandwich. With “unsweet” tea and sides of cole slaw and baked beans, I had quite a good plate of food – the rib tips were darkly smoked and very tender – the bits of bone on them were so soft that they had almost turned to gelatin!
After lunch we headed south again toward Maker’s Mark, passing the remains of the burnt-down former Heaven Hill distillery on the way. Maker’s Mark was the busiest of all the distilleries we visited, and had a well built-out tourist infrastructure to go with it – it’s basically the Disneyland of bourbon distilleries.
There was the Toll Gate Cafe at the beginning of the property (formerly a real toll booth!), and portraits hanging on the walls of the visitors’ center came alive and started talking as we walked through the room; there were 30-40 people leaving on tours every ten minutes. All of the buildings were black wood with red trim, adding to the Disneyland impression with well manicured grounds and immaculate upkeep.
It was a pretty comprehensive tour – we saw the fermenting tanks – 12 feet high and 12 feet in diameter, a few older wooden tanks and some newer stainless steel ones – as well and the stills. I was impressed by how close we were to all of the equipment controls – I could have reached out to press buttons and pull levers!
We also visited the barrel warehouse, where we learned that Maker’s Mark is the only distillery that still rotates barrels, moving them from top to bottom throughout their aging period to ensure uniform aging characteristics through all of the barrels. We also saw the bottling line, where the signature wax-dipping of the bottles happens.
While we visited, a few workers were dipping wax-topped Christmas ornaments. The tour ended through a back wall of the barrel warehouse into the gift shop, where we tasted Maker’s Mark and Maker’s 46, which is classic Maker’s Mark aged with extra toasted French Oak staves. Maker’s 46 had a nice smooth flavor, but can’t be officially called bourbon because of the non-standard aging process.
After our tour of Maker’s mark we headed back to Bardstown for the evening, where we dined at Kreso’s Restaurant, indulged in ice cream at Banana Moon, and stayed at the Red Rose Inn, another B&B two blocks down from the Jailer’s Inn. This was our final day of bourbon touring, and we felt well-educated in the ways of bourbon by the end!