The rolling green hills of Kentucky, dotted with thick white oak forests and carved by more miles of rivers than any other state, are home to two distinctive industries: thoroughbreds and bourbon. Both thrive in this land of limestone that grows bluegrass and purifies all that spring water.
Indeed, bourbon is booming. It grew faster than any other big liquor industry in the United States in 2011, and small-batch micro-distilleries have jumped from about 50 in 2005 to about 250 today. It's the most American of alcoholic spirits. In fact, in 1964, Congress declared bourbon whiskey to be a distinctive product of the United States.
To be called straight bourbon whiskey it must be made in the United States from at least 51 percent corn. Only new, charred white-oak barrels may be used for aging, and it must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof and must go into the barrel at no higher than 125 proof.
Only water can be added to bring the spirit to the desired bottling strength, and the spirit must be aged at least two years in those new charred oak barrels.
It all started in Kentucky in the late 1700s, when northeastern Kentucky was actually Bourbon County, Va., named after France's House of Bourbon in honor of King Louis XVI, who supported America's Revolutionary War. Kentucky went its own way in 1792.
Early settlers had come from Germany, Ireland and Scotland, where distilling was already a popular pursuit. Corn was one of early Kentucky's bumper crops, and it quickly found a new life distilled into bourbon.
Those early settlers included three whose families still create some favored bottles. Robert Samuels began making whiskey in 1783 while the sixth generation of that family, Bill Samuels Sr., created Maker's Mark in 1943, and his son, Bill Samuels Jr., continues the family bourbon bottling today.
Evan Williams opened the first commercial distillery in Louisville, Ky., in 1783, and bottles of Evan Williams Bourbon are among today's most popular. In 1789, Elijah Craig opened a distillery in Georgetown, Ky., and he is credited for inventing bourbon after a barn fire.
In the early 1800s, Louisville was a shipping center because it was located on the Ohio River, which fed into the Mississippi River. Early corn whiskey moonshine was very popular in New Orleans and had to be barged down those rivers, taking six months to arrive.
"Elijah Craig realized too late that the inside of his oak barrels had burned, but he sent the moonshine in them anyway," Mike Lankford of Jim Beam told me. "When they arrived in New Orleans, they discovered the normally clear liquid had turned brown, and bourbon was born."
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is the place to learn it all. The biggest distilleries are on this trail, with the six of them combined bottling more than 100 labels of bourbon: Jim Beam Distillery; Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, where Evan Williams and Elijah Craig bourbons are made; Maker's Mark; Four Roses; Wild Turkey; and Woodford Reserve.
The trail lies roughly between Louisville and Lexington, with the small town of Bardstown being the epicenter, also called the Bourbon Capital of the World.
My companions and I based ourselves in Louisville and took an overnight trip to Bardstown, Kentucky's second-oldest city dating to 1780, where we visited distilleries and found one of the country's best Civil War museums; took an evening "spirits tour" at the 1825 Federal-style Wickland, home of three governors; had a visit to "My Old Kentucky Home" that inspired the state song by Stephen Foster; and enjoyed a downtown walkabout where more than 200 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.
We learned how bourbon is made and bottled at Barton's 1792 Distillery in Bardstown. At the Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center, a barrel-shaped tasting room invited us to try Evan Williams and Elijah Craig bourbons. Billy Joe, our "bourbon host" at Heaven Hill, taught us to "swish and swirl it on the tongue, tilt your head back, open your lips and suck in some air, then sip slowly," to savor the beautiful bourbon.
At Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, we met Drew Kulsveen, 30, and his brother-in-law, Hunter Chavanne, 32, who continue a family tradition as boutique distillers, making small-batch bourbons including Willetts, Rowan's Creek and Noah's Mill.
"We're restoring a 1935 distillery started by my grandfather," said Kulsveen. "We bottle fewer than 20 barrels a day, doing it all by hand. We choose to control the quality and we taste every barrel."
"We never know what one barrel will be compared to another," added Chavanne during our tour. "Where it's stored can make it totally different.
Our metal warehouses are old-school — warmer in summer and colder in winter."
Different chars on the oak barrels make a difference, too. And, of course, the recipes change it up. While bourbon is made mostly from corn — and often more than 70 percent — the other grains vary. They are usually rye and malted barley, though wheat is used in some recipes.