I’m a creature of habit, of tradition. There’s post-Derby Sunday brunch, always heading to Chicago over the 4th of July weekend, Italian Creme Cake at the holidays. It’s as if- over the years- I’ve created so many “always” in my life that there was no room for anything new or different. If I hadn’t tried something in the past, I just didn’t try it, period.
Despite living in Kentucky my entire life, and being an avid enjoyer of Bourbon, I’d never been through a distillery. I knew of the mash, and how guests are invited to dip their fingers in for a taste. I know how Bourbon is made, and the history of a few brands. And, I knew just how perfect our whiskey can be when mixed with bitters and sugar into a perfect Old Fashioned. But… I never walked through a distillery to experience the history of our state’s beverage of choice.
Until Oaks Day.
Having spent a full Thursday at the track with friends, and knowing that Saturday would bestow upon us way too much food and drink and time in high heels (for me, at least), we decided to make Friday a causal affair and head to Bardstown after breakfast for a tour of Willett, supposedly the prettiest of all of Kentucky’s whiskey-makers.
Our tour guide was a retired teacher, and full of knowledge about Willett’s family and distillery history. His kind attitude fit the setting- it was a peaceful a beautiful day despite a light mist that kept falling. After walking through the grounds, we stopped into Willett’s stunning tasting room. Pale, pale blue walls and deep burgundy-hued curtains framed a room full of navy velvet tufted armchairs and a gorgeous gold and crystal chandelier. As guests, we were invited to taste our way though Willett’s signature bourbon, Rye, Pure Kentucky, and Old Bardstown Bottled in Bond. The sun started to come out as we walked out, bellies a little full, and walle’s a little more empty (between Bryan, our cousin and I, we left with 5 bottles).
We made our way back to Louisville, grabbed a quick lunch at Doc Crows (burgers and shrimp and grits) before heading to Old Forester’s new spot on Main among Whiskey Row.
Now, anyone who knows me well enough knows that I’m an Old Forester gal to the core. It’s my favorite. It’s our home “well.” It’s what I educate our friends in Chicago on, gloating about how you can see the Bourbon swirl open when an ice cube or two is added, how a bouquet of caramel and vanilla blossoms out of the glass. I love Old Forester, so I walked into their new Main Street spot with high hopes.
Incredibly well done, with a still that skyrocketed to a glass roof from their gift shop and the addition of George’s Bar- a happy spot at the rear of the first floor, Old Forester’s new space was certainly impressive. The tour began in the basement, where the mash was made, and wove through all of the building’s floors. Here, Old Forester fires and builds their own barrels- a process that was fun to watch (imagine a huge, barrel-sized blowtorch, Mario Bros. style). Bourbon was aged here at the facility, and we were given detail on the single-barrel program. However, given Old Fo’s proximity to downtown hotels and tourist attractions, we all agreed that this tour felt a little more sales-y than Willett’s, which in contrast felt more like being led around a ranch by the farmer who owned it. The guide at Old Forester was informative and funny, but things seemed scripted.
I loved learning that Old Forester has made their new home in their original building on Main Street. Coming back home after 100 years has some significance and some romance to it, and I have to be fair- lots of the downtown distilleries and workshops are there purely for tourism. Still, I was surprised that Willett’s tour was more enjoyable to me than Old Forester’s was.
We ended the day with burgers at Butchertown Social and late night drinks at Odeon with friends, and came home with so, so much Bourbon.
Having skipped out on the Oaks the last several years, we’ve always just treated that Friday as another day off. Laundry, breakfast… the usual. I’ve already, though, started thinking that Oaks Day from here forward should include a tour of one of Kentucky’s finest distilleries. It’ll take us several years, I’m sure. Two down, 18 to go.
** this post is not sponsored in any way. all thoughts and opinions are my own **
** do your part to support Kentucky distilleries. drink Bourbon **