Last Updated on July 7, 2023
Between Bourbon Classic evening activities in Louisville on my husband’s and my Kentucky bourbon adventure, we enjoyed two days exploring the art and science that goes into the spirit’s production visiting the places making the magic.
We spent our first day touring three distilleries in Louisville’s Bourbon District downtown. The walkable area is easy to navigate by following yellow pole banners and directional signage pointing the way to bourbon bliss.
Our second day of distillery touring took us out of Louisville. We visited the James B. Beam Distilling Co. in Clermont and Buffalo Trace Distillery on the Kentucky River in Frankfort. With plenty of room, these mega distilleries have more of their rickhouses onsite than the downtown distilleries, who own property outside Louisville to store their barrels.
The distilleries varied in size, philosophy, their way of producing and marketing their products, and the appearance of their facilities. What they had in common was their commitment to excellence and desire to not only sell their products, but educate and entertain visitors who come to taste and tour.
Bourbon Distilleries Louisville, KY
Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery
Located in a historic 19th century building that stood empty for decades, Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery was our first stop. When Michter’s purchased the Fort Nelson Building in 2012, it was leaning 23-inches toward an adjacent street. That was only one of the problems the new owners had to solve before opening in 2019.
Michter’s efforts paid off in a bright, airy facility housing its pot stills, a comfortable cocktail bar area, and a gift shop. The Fort Nelson distillery plans it’s first release between 2024 and 202, when it will be aged enough for consumption.
Meanwhile, the Michter’s Distillery in Shively, KY runs its column still 24/7 producing the bulk of the company’s small batch and single barrel bourbon and rye whiskey.
Andrea Wilson, Michter’s Master of Maturation, was our charming and informative guide. She explained Michter’s history while showing us around. We had the opportunity to taste the bourbon and rye produced at both facilities. I sniffed, tasted, and enjoyed all four samples, but found the Fort Nelson spirit smoother and more to my liking.
It wasn’t hard to imagine how amazing it will be when it’s released!
At the cocktail bar, I sipped a Bourbon Manhattan consisting of bourbon, vermouth, and apricot brandy. The refreshing drink went down easy without being overly sweet. You can find all sorts of standard and creative cocktails at the bar and a pleasant relaxing atmosphere.
Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co
What Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. lacks in size, it more than makes up for with quality. We had the pleasure of meeting Carson Taylor, president of Peerless, and listen spellbound as he told of his great-great-grandfather, a Polish Jew, who, in the mid-1800s, arrived in New York with his family.
He grew up hard and found his way to Henderson, Kentucky in his late teens. By 1881 he was opening what would become one of the state’s largest distilleries.
All went well until Prohibition. Peerless was able to sell most of its barrels to the Walgreen Brothers – yes, the same as the national drugstore chain – for medicinal use. Peerless survived, but in 1937, Carson’s great-great-grandfather fell down a flight of stairs sustaining an injury leading to his death, as well as that of his distillery.
Carson and his father reached back into their family’s history and pulled out a plan to resurrect the Peerless brand. In 2014, Peerless was reborn in the historic early 20th century downtown Louisville building it now occupies, and where its high-quality bourbons and rye whiskeys are produced.
The Taylors wanted a mom-and-pop style operation with no investors. They were hands-on in the complete renovation of the building, and they are the ones who decide what to do, with what, and when to do it. Although Peerless produces between 10 and 12 barrels a day, the careful consideration they put into the distillery’s bourbon and rye is clearly evident in how they taste.
Christina showed us around the facility and explained unique aspects of the distillery’s production process. Then it was on to the tasting.
The two bourbons we sampled were smooth and would make fine before- and after-dinner drinks. I was hesitant when it came to the ryes, but the small batch double oak rye completely won me over. Velvety smooth and slightly sweet, it wasn’t anything like the rye I used to drink in my mis-spent youth.
Before leaving Peerless, check out the retail area. You can purchase your top tipple, along with all sorts of other goodies. Even if retail therapy isn’t on your agenda, you really should feast your eyes on the 1917 Model T Ford on display.
Angel’s Envy Distillery
By the time we reached Angel’s Envy Distillery, I wasn’t sure I could handle another tasting, but I was wrong. This small-batch distillery specializes in finished bourbon, the process of aging bourbon in port barrels after the traditional white oak barrel aging.
This additional step produces another layer of complexity to the bourbon. Angels Envy uses the same process in making its rye, only using rum barrels instead of port.
During Covid, Angel’s Envy, an independent distillery under the enormous Bacardi umbrella, used the downtime to make hand sanitizer and expand the building by 3,000-square-feet. This impressive facility now sports a brand-new event space, a bar, an expanded retail shop, as well as new tasting rooms. The overall effect is modern without being pretentious.
During our tour, we learned the process the distillery uses to make its products, then headed to the tasting room. First, we sampled the unfinished 122.6-proof cask strength bourbon from a white oak barrel. It was dark in color and tasted grainy with a hint of charred coconut.
We followed it up by immediately tasting Angel’s Envy’s 86.6 proof signature finished bourbon. The color was lighter with notes of dried citrus peel and stone fruit. This was definitely a smoother sip, and the difference between the unfinished and finished bourbons was crystal clear.
We then sipped some ruby port to help us understand how the barrels affect the bourbon. Angel’s Envy uses ruby port barrels as opposed to tawny port, because the latter has more of a caramel flavor and is heavier on the tannin. It’s the color and flavor of the ruby that makes it the preferred choice.
Bourbon: Kentucky Tours
Jim Beam Distillery in Kentucky
Our first stop of the day was James B. Beam Distilling Co. in Clermont, 27-miles from downtown Louisville. This campus is constantly growing with a combination of modern construction and respect for family whiskey-making history dating back to the late 1700s.
We were privileged to have been invited to tour the Fred B. Noe Distillery, opened in 2021 and named for Master Distiller, Fred Noe. This facility is not yet open to the public, so we had the place all to ourselves.
Standing in the center of the floor, we could see every step of the process, including the massive 50-foot still. The Fred Noe Distillery is home to the production of Booker’s, Baker’s, and Little Book, as well as innovative projects.
Although the distillery is owned by Suntory, a Japanese-based company, family is still at the heart of the bourbon flowing from James Beam barrels. We learned about the eight generations, beginning with Jacob Beam, a farmer who made whiskey from his corn surplus and built a family legacy that is still going strong.
From Jacob to Fred Noe’s son and Co-Master Distiller, Freddie, we came to appreciate each generation’s contribution to the bourbon dynasty.
James Beam propagates the yeast it uses as the starting point for its bourbon. This is a precious commodity descended from wild yeast introduced by James (Jim) himself. He was so possessive of what he felt was the perfect yeast, he took it home in the evening in case some calamity destroyed it overnight. Today, the yeast is under lock and key, and few have access to it.
During our tour of the main building, we each cleaned an empty bottle with 9-year single barrel Knobs Creek bourbon, and placed it on the conveyer belt for bottling, sealing, and labeling. Each bottle was sealed with one layer of wax. Before taking our bottle of bourbon bearing our name on the label, another layer of hot wax was applied, and we added our thumbprint for the final touch.
In Warehouse F, we met Fred Noe himself. Sassy, salty, and funny, Fred regaled us with more stories as he took a mallet and not-so-gently removed the bung from a barrel of Jim Beam.
After sampling the contents, it was on to the formal bourbon tasting held in The Kitchen Table, the distillery’s onsite restaurant.
We sampled Basil Haden 80 proof, Knob Creek 100 proof, Baker’s 107 proof, and Booker’s 125 proof. Naturally, the bourbon got stronger with each glass.
My personal favorite was the Knob Creek. To me, it hit that sweet spot for strength and flavor.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
Buffalo Trace Distillery is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States. Its history dates back to 1792 when Commodore Richard Taylor constructed the single-story “Old Taylor House” and started the bourbon ball rolling on his property. The house and other historical buildings are still standing, and what Taylor started has grown into one of the largest and best-known distilleries in the world.
The distillery that grew on Taylor’s land continued to thrive and was bought and sold several times. It survived Prohibition by selling its bourbon for medicinal purposes. Finally, in 1992, the Sazerac Company purchased it, and the distillery was once again a family-owned business.
Taylor’s legacy continued to increase, and in 1999, it was renovated and named Buffalo Trace Distillery, in recognition of the path once taken by herds of migrating buffalo along the Kentucky River. From 2000 to the present, Buffalo Trace has been frequently recognized for its bourbon, including “Brand Innovator of the Year” by Whisky Magazine in 2011.
In 2013, Buffalo Trace Distillery was designated a National Historic Landmark.
The tour was fascinating and covered a lot of ground, since the operation is so large – to the tune of 1,800 barrels per day. At the time of our visit, Buffalo Trace was in the final stages of a $1.8-billion expansion project, which includes environmentally-friendly features that protect the river and are carbon neutral.
A second 7-foot-wide still, a replica of the one currently in use, is now complete. When the new still is in full operation, production will double. Rickhouses, where the bourbon hangs out in barrels to age and become beautiful, are going up at the rate of two a month.
The six enormous grain silos, with a capacity of 7,000 bushels, provides Buffalo Trace with a mere day and-a-half of reserve grain. Considering the distillery produces over 20 bourbons, including the prestigious Pappy Van Winkle brand, it’s no wonder Buffalo Trace is rapidly expanding its operations.
Master Distiller Harlan Wheatley walked us through our tasting. We sampled five bourbons, each aged in a different oak barrel: Mongolian, French, Canadian, Chinquapin, and Spanish. The one that grabbed me was the bourbon aged in Spanish oak. It was smooth, and I liked the woodsy note in the finish.
Make it a Personal Experience
If you attend the Bourbon Classic, enjoy at your own pace. The entire experience is an opportunity to find your perfect personal bourbon, and to understand why you like it. So set your sights on the next Bourbon Classic and prepare to be amazed.