Issue Eighteen


The Kentucky Bourbon Trail

WORDS x Mary Dishman
PHOTOS x Adrian Marcoux

8 March 2017
Part One

The Bluegrass State

What is the first thing you think of when someone mentions “Cuba” or “Paris”? Probably cigars and the Eiffel Tower. Now, what do you think of when you hear “Kentucky”?

Twenty years ago, when telling anyone where I was from, I would always get the response, “fried chicken and the Kentucky Derby.” Today, the response is “Jim Beam” or “Maker’s Mark” and, of course, the Derby still holds its ground. So why has chicken taken a back seat to bourbon?

The spirit’s popularity has skyrocketed recently. Unlike other intoxicants, bourbon can wear many hats. It can be a refined drink or it can be rough which explains its presence from Mad Men to Wall Street and every campfire in between.

In just sixteen years, the production of bourbon has increased by 417 per cent. 450,000 barrels were put away to be aged in 1999, compared a staggering 1.88 million barrels in 2015. It is a booming billion-dollar industry partly due to an attractive image of authenticity. Bourbon has a deep-rooted history and always comes with a legitimate “Made in the USA” stamp.

My interest and acquired appreciation for bourbon stems from my roots. Growing up in Kentucky, I was surrounded by the bourbon industry – like living and breathing wine in Bordeaux. However, I had to move thousands of miles away to accumulate pride for the product of my homeland. After a 16-year absence, I wanted to return to investigate bourbon’s stronghold on the masses.

Part Two

Two Fish in a Barrel

It was all set. Planned to the exact mile. We were to pedal bikes (most likely under the influence), to get to the bottom of this barrel. Exposing ourselves to the countryside, its harsh weather and the fierce untethered dogs of Kentucky was the only way we could absorb the rich bourbon culture.

With our rigs tipping scales, zip-locked maps taped to our handlebars, a portable speaker blaring the likes Johnny Cash or Bill Monroe, and dried food that could make the family dog turn its nose, we spent six days connecting the dots on those handlebar maps.

Our plan was to pedal to eight of the 28 distilleries in the heart of the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. As it turns out, an unbelievable 95 per cent of the world’s bourbon is produced within this 100-mile radius.

The reason for the close proximity of the distilleries lies 60-feet underground. A unique limestone shelf is found in this part of world giving Kentucky clout in two industries, each worth more than a billion dollars.

Industry 1.) Bourbon: Limestone contains high levels of calcium which removes the taste of heavy metals and naturally renders a magical pH balance for tap water distillation. It is often said that the single most important factor in a bourbon distillery’s location is the availability of a reliable source of “sweet Kentucky water”.

Industry 2.) Thoroughbreds: Limestone’s added nutrients (particularly calcium) percolate through to the soil and grasses, promoting the growth of the infamous Bluegrass. It acts as the key ingredient in the prestigious Kentucky thoroughbred’s diet and contributes to its reign on the track. Without getting too carried away with science and statistics, the tie between the lands to the glass [bottle] in this pilgrimage is astounding. A circle of this agricultural prowess is unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Part Three

Random Encounters

We filled one small flask with what we had left in the cupboard and turned our backs on the urban metropolis of Louisville, ejecting ourselves from development, traffic, and trackstands. We pedalled into the countryside, where life’s pace slowed as lazily as the dialect.

It wasn’t long after our departure we were blindsided by an oversight in our research. Just a few hours into our journey, our noses were hit by a scent as familiar a Madonna song. After heaving our front wheels over railway tracks (no doubt heavily used to transport Jim Beam and other famous brands), we spotted a few clandestine buildings – rough to the eaves – that could have passed as abandoned rickhouses. (For those that don’t know what a rickhouse is, it is a non-temperature or humidity controlled warehouse full of aging bourbon, where the entire ageing process occurs.)

The distinct smell and a few barrels sitting on an equally battered flatbed made it clear this was one of many storage estates strewn across our path. By talking to a nearby worker on lunch break, we learned that these dilapidated buildings were where barrels were decanted into bottles for Basil Hayden. My heart jumped when I realised the sweet oaky fragrance making my mouth water, happened to be my go-to bottle. A horn sounded signalling the end of break and we continued as planned.

Adrian was on a high from the random encounter and set a cadence of anticipation for what lay around the next corner. I fell right off the back when I looked at the map, then to the black sky we were heading towards. It looked angry.

Part Four

Storm Running

The driver of an oncoming car slowed down to voluntarily voice her concern: “Tornado just touched down ‘bout 40 miles east. Should be headin’ this way ‘bout an hour or so, I reckon.” Our frame bags acted as sails the closer we got to the ominous sky, keeping the ride sporty and shifting us into a fight-or-flight pace as we approached our first stop: Willet Distillery.

We coasted down the winding driveway just in time, passing four rickhouses that held more than 10,000 barrels of oaky aromatic firewater. You could cut our nervous tension with a knife on our abbreviated distillery tour, as the impending storm grew louder. Drew, the master distiller, was hustling to batten down the hatches and our tour guide hit the fast-forward button to get us out from under the stockpile of barrels and back to the gift shop unscathed. Willets’ entire equity and liquid gain lay vulnerable to the fate of this meteorological jab.

Some could argue that waiting out a severe thunderstorm and tornado warning at a place where close to a million gallons of grain alcohol is being aged might be a bit afflicting. But when the only other exit strategy is a bicycle, we chose the sitting duck option and indulged in bourbon truffles and Wi-Fi.

After waiting for a lull in the storm, we raced to the closest town where we had heard of a B&B of sorts. With a tornado warning still projected until early the next morning, we opted out of our nylon and aluminium shelter and into something a bit more structurally sound.

Part Five

Making Their Mark

So far, my homecoming rekindled an unconscious revival of my long lost southern twang. And when we arrived at what appeared to be a local goat farm, I went straight into chit chattin’ with our hospitable host, Bev. Adrian was not so warm to the welcome and was trying to convince three massive Pyrenees lions we were not there for the goats.

We hardly had time to de-chamois before we were each offered a pair of rubber boots and a tour of the barns. Within minutes we were hatching chicks, bottle-feeding goats, and scratching the ears of the now assured canine guards. Round two of the storm had settled in by this point and the latter part of the evening was spent sippin’ on a bottle and watching a mind-blowing electrical show. Like all good southern hosts, Bev fed us, medicated us and even chased us down the next day to hand-deliver a forgotten hat. Bless her heart.

Maker’s Mark, Town Branch and Wilderness Trail Distillery topped off the list for the day’s agenda. The morning ride was a quick clip along where the farms transformed from hundreds of rows of crops to rolling fields of iconic thoroughbreds.

Maker’s Mark is now one of the world’s largest commercial bourbon operations. Still situated just outside Loretto, KY (population 721) on the original 200-acre plot the Burks family purchased and established 212 years ago, the authenticity oozes from the restored red and black branded walls. 147 employees work together to fill 252 barrels each day.

Part Six

Sourced Locally

Limestone Branch and Wilderness Trail Distilleries are only an hour’s pedal down the road from one another. Our visit to these much smaller micro distilleries after having just left Maker’s Mark was like walking into your local convenience store after strolling around the display rooms at Ikea.

Wilderness Trail is new to the bourbon industry, with founders Shane Baker and Pat Heist opening its doors in 2013. A few minutes after riding down the driveway, Pat greeted us with a delicious plate of barbeque, welcoming us to his business with keen ears hidden behind his impressive beard.

Shane, Pat and other new players have a clean slate in this industry and a mad-scientist approach. They take their curiosity, splash it with personal touches and build the next generation of the timeless craft. With every bourbon we tasted and distiller we met, we noticed the historic process of America’s spirit was becoming gentrified, but still abided by the governing rules of distillation.

Whether it is finished in pinot noir barrels, aged four months in a 5.8-gallon barrel, or even sent off to mature on a rocking ship, it is still the same product at the end of the day. And despite the cereal aisle of selection, it was impressive to see that this bourbon belt is still a single, small and associated community. Grains, some yeasts, and barrels could be sourced literally down the road at any given time; a comforting thought which is far too uncommon these days.

Part Seven

Kentucky Pride

Between the distilleries, our ride through bourbon country was from a postcard. It was a web of lightly travelled roads winding through a rural green countryside, outlined by limestone fences.

My Kentucky pride grew stronger as we pedalled under dogwood canopies, along babbling limestone creeks and past hundreds of sculpted horses. Were we dreaming? Every now and then a four-legged reality check would come bursting and barking out of someone’s yard in full chase mode, reminding us in fact, this wasn’t a dream. This intrusion was forgotten when a filly and her candid foal would be galloping alongside, wanting in on the journey.

With 28 distilleries to choose from and new ones popping up at Derby contestant’s pace, a bourbon trail can look like any constellation on a map. Our trail thus far had given us a good sense of production and culture, but we still felt like visitors to my homeland.

Walking into Hartfield & Co. changed everything. A dynamic rapport was mutually sensed as we quickly got through the grip n’ grin small talk with owner and distiller Andrew Buchanan. He was shocked and honoured to see firsthand our sweat equity had landed us at his doorstep.

He gave us an intimate behind the scenes tour of his operation that will be remembered every time we reach for his bottle. We uncorked ageing barrels, and swapped first takes. We studied smells, tastes, and colour while soaking in the Friday afternoon sun that radiated through the stained-glass picture window. The authenticity of getting to know a product and where it is made, from creator to consumer, made us feel like a member of the bourbon community.

Part Eight

Age Old Traditions

In today’s world it is easy to be detached from what we consume or even our prized possessions. Popular trends and priority shipping have made it too easy to purchase, with instant gratification becoming the norm. Products lose value and character is forgotten. Pedalling through and exposing ourselves to a familiar land home to a revered drink gave us a better appreciation for this voguish product and the character found under the cork.

Coming full circle, we crossed back into Loo-a-vul’s city limits like we were crossing a finish line. We raced home with just one thing left on our bucket list – it had been 16 long years and the anticipation was killing me. We peeled off our helmets and replaced them with flamboyant hats, stuffed our pockets with minis and set out for the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby.

A celebration upholding a reverent tradition for a crowd twice the size of the Super Bowl, the Derby and all its seersucker glory, brings together the two things Kentucky does best: bourbon and horses. As we partook in all the shenanigans, I can honestly say that our mint juleps were cherished and savoured down to the last drop.

Issue Eighteen

Thanks to Mary and Adrian for taking us on a journey through Bluegrass country and showing us a different side of cycling.

A $25 donation to the Eskapee Carbon Offset Fund was made to offset the travel used in the production of this Issue.

The End
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