On our second morning in Louisville, we woke up extra early for our bourbon tour. I insisted on breakfast before day drinking and the hotel restaurant, Proof on Main, was convenient. Everyone recommends it and now I know why. Marc ordered the Proof eggs benedict with creamy red eye hollandaise and Kentucky ham. I had the 21 C breakfast that included eggs, shaved ham, rye toast and the most incredible grits I’ve ever had. I feel I need to point out that I never eat ham. The typical texture and flavor of the ham I’m used to eating is not my thing, but Kentucky ham is really, really good. Their ham is smoked and shaved and simply delicious. We shared some great coffee, too. A memorable and fantastic breakfast.
For our bourbon tour, we used R & R Limo as transportation after much arm twisting by Marc. Mint Julep Tours are a highly rated group tour and less expensive, but Marc wanted the freedom to customize our tour. I caved and I’m so glad I did. Bill, our driver, was THE MAN. He’s an older guy that has lived a long, full life and has the best stories. We opted for a town car, but they also offer limos and SUV’s which are great for a group. Bill promptly picked us up from the hotel and whisked us away to the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Bill talked about Louisville and the local area as we drove out of Louisville and toward the Frankfort/Versailles (pronounced locally as ver-sales) area . We told him a little about Detroit, too.
Buffalo Trace is one the oldest, continually working bourbon distilleries. Buffalo Trace was one of the few authorized to sell medicinal alcohol during prohibition and was only 1 of 4 distilleries capable of producing whiskey when prohibition ended. The grounds and buildings are beautiful and steeped in history. While we were there, they were renovating their tasting room, but the upstairs was just completed and had beautiful hardwood floors and exposed brick walls. The downstairs renovation is set to be complete within a month or so.
Our tour guide was a funny, older gentlemen with a forearm tattoo and Nascar belt. As we walked from place to place, he warmly welcomed us to the next stop. “How about y’all come join me in the tasting room?” It was our favorite tour of the day and free. Buffalo Trace is not part of the official bourbon trail, but I recommend adding it to your tour list. This distillery seemed the least touched by modern times, doing bourbon the way they always have and honoring the owners and founders that came before them.
Buffalo Trace’s family of spirits includes E.H. Taylor Jr., Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Peychaud’s bitters and maybe you’ve heard of it, Pappy Van Winkle? Some Pappy Van Winkle barrels were stolen a few years ago, making it even more scarce. We were able to see the line that hand-labels and wax dips Blanton’s Single-Barrel Bourbon. They also make a very smooth vodka with vanilla notes at a reasonable price, so we snagged a bottle of their vodka and Blanton’s.
With your tour, you get 3 free tastings. Marc and I shared, so we could try a variety of spirits. We were at the end of the bar and our tour guide slid the shots over to us, which made us laugh. We tried their vodka, white dog (what they call the white liquor before it goes into charred oak barrels to become brown bourbon), Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace and bourbon cream, which is like Bailey’s, but bourbon mixed with cream. We bought a bottle of bourbon cream to share with Mom and Dad. They also had chocolate bourbon balls for sampling which were pretty delicious.
Next, we stopped at Woodford Reserve. The property is really beautiful with lots of green grass for their horses. This tour was definitely the busiest one and we were given ear pieces to hear our tour guide in a big group and transported to the tour area via bus. The standard tour is $10 per ticket.
We were taken to a few buildings and shown the process of making bourbon. Our tour guide was a former teacher, friendly and very professional. We were able to see and smell the bright yellow mash fermenting.
Woodford Reserve triple distills their bourbon in copper and that’s one of their claims to fame. They also have a small bottling area where they bottle for companies like Old Forester, which was being bottled while we were there. This part of the operation is small enough to change out packaging and bottles for other companies to have their spirits bottled.
I’ve enjoyed Woodford Reserve in the past and noticed that quite a few of the restaurants in Louisville use it for their Mint Juleps. This tour seemed a little more “touristy” and less casual than our first tour, but it was very well organized. After our tour of the buildings, we were led into their new tasting room which has a seat for everyone with 2 tastes of their bourbon and a bourbon ball. This bourbon was a bit more fiery than I remembered, but that kick is good in a mixed bourbon drink.
Our driver recommended getting lunch at the distillery and we were really impressed with the menu options. Healthy sandwiches, salads and biscuit samplers. I ordered the winter salad with kale, butternut squash, brussels sprouts and grains in sorghum vinaigrette. I loved it.
Our last stop was at Four Roses and we took the last tour of the day. Our tour guide was quite a jokester. We watched a movie about the distillery and learned that it was purchased by the Kirin Brewing Company out of Japan in 2002 where bourbon is very popular. They sell very different bourbons in Japan, though, than the Four Roses brands we can purchase in the US. The tour was concise and informational, but again, lacked the charm we loved at Buffalo Trace.
Legend says that the name Four Roses comes from founder Paul Jones Jr. and his love for a young southern belle. He asked her to marry him 3 times and was refused 3 times. He told her he’d ask once more publicly at the upcoming ball and if the answer was still no, he’d leave her alone. Yeesh, buddy. Her response was that she would wear a corsage of four roses to the ball if her answer was yes and apparently the fourth time was the charm.
The tasting portion had our tour guide handing us souvenir glasses and pouring a taste of 3 types of bourbon. This tasting felt a bit hurried and I definitely made a whiskey face while drinking those shots. We’ve enjoyed Four Roses before and first discovered it on our last trip to Nashville, but we didn’t really get to casually sip. We found Bill waiting for us and I was ready for the ice water he had kept cold in his little cooler. At this point, I should have used the restroom, but I knew I could wait until we arrived back at our hotel. Well…
A 5-car accident closed both sides of the freeway and we were stuck in traffic for 2 hours, barely moving, and still had a 45 minute drive back to Louisville. After an hour or so of being stuck, I looked at Marc with desperate eyes, completely embarrassed that I’d have to tell our new friend Bill I had a bathroom emergency. We started to look around the freeway for a discreet spot for me to go as my full bladder felt like it would pop. Bill was such a gem. He never laughed and was intently helping us look for a spot. Unfortunately, one side of that stretch of highway was a deep ditch and the other side was a steep hill and traffic was barely moving. Bill offered to pull over and open both doors on one side of the car, with he and Marc guarding each side. This thought made me nervous and I had hoped a clearing would manifest, but it never did. Bill opened the doors and stood on one side with his back turned like a Buckingham Palace guard. Luckily a large semi was stopped behind us to provide further shield. I had to block out the string of cars that followed the curve of the highway that surely had nothing better to do than to watch what was going on. It was horrible, but I simply had no choice. So that one time we rented a fancy town car for bourbon tasting? I peed on the side of the road.
Let’s shift back to good food, shall we? It was a long day and we didn’t care to venture out for dinner. Back to Proof on Main! The helpful folks at the front desk asked where we were going for dinner and they offered up all of their favorite dishes, which made me even hungrier.
We started with catfish dip and party bone marrow! Well, I called it party bone marrow. Both were excellent, but the bone marrow was so pretty. The description on the menu was deceptively simple, “roasted bones” and we couldn’t have known it would be topped with frisee, beet-pickled eggs, radishes, and stone ground mustard. It was a really generous portion, too. I ordered the mint julep, which was wonderful and Marc tried a rare bourbon flight.
We also split the hog chop, which is a ham-brined and smoked pork chop. It tasted like ham, but had the texture of a pork chop and was incredibly tender. The greens that came on the side were amazing. The perfectly textured greens surrounded by salty and smoky pot liquor was mind blowing.
The bill comes with strawberry cotton candy, which was so fun! We were pretty full, but it was delicious and incredibly fun to eat.
Coming up is Day 3 where we visit Churchill Downs knowing absolutely nothing about horse racing or betting!
R&R Limousine Service 4403 Kiln Court Louisville, KY
Buffalo Trace Distillery 113 Great Buffalo Trace Frankfort, KY
Woodford Reserve Distillery 4855 McCracken Pike Versailles, KY
Four Roses Distillery 1224 Bonds Mill Road Lawrenceburg, KY
Proof on Main 702 W. Main Street Louisville, KY
Woodford Reserve Cafe 4855 McCracken Pike Versailles, KY