American Whiskey Destinations
Spring is a great time for exploration and a beautiful time of year to combine budding flowers with trying some great American whiskey and beer. Whether you’re ready to physically travel or enjoy the scenery from your virtual travel seat at home, Kentucky and Tennessee offer world-class unique whiskey and Wisconsin is home to several fascinating beer tours with great local history.
A couple of whiskey stops you may want to consider are Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, and Jack Daniels. Each has famous products as well as unique twist in the whiskey story.
Starting in Kentucky, Buffalo Trace (located in Frankfort, KY) has been making fine bourbon whiskey for over 200 years. Bourbon is a type of whiskey with specific rules around its production including a 51% corn mash, 2 years aged in charred oak, and distillation and one-year minimum aging in Kentucky.
Buffalo Trace is well-known for its almost-mythical Pappy Van Winkle which is made in rare and limited editions with varying age (15, 20 and 23 year for example). Buffalo Trace also produces several other whiskey styles as well as small-batch vodka, Sazerac Rye, and even Root Beer, Ginger Ale, and Ginger Beer.
Tours are open and complimentary, one only need register to sign up. There are several tours to choose from including historical, expansion, barrel, and even botanic garden tours.
If you’re not ready to hit the road yet, Buffalo Trace also has a terrific interactive online feature to create your own whiskey. You can select the mash recipe, how much char is on the barrel, and how long you want your whiskey aged. Once you’ve made your selections, the end result pops up with how your whiskey will taste and when (theoretically) it would be ready. It’s fun to try and also very educational.
Just 14 miles down the road from Buffalo Trace in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky lies Wild Turkey. Another brand that needs little introduction, Wild Turkey is made by Jimmy Russell who is the longest-tenured active master distiller in the world. He has been making whiskey for over 60 years and now shares his passion with son Eddie.
There is, in fact, a hill named Wild Turkey which is how the whiskey got its name. Wild Turkey 101, a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, is their flagship brand. To be labeled a “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey”, the mash must be at least 51% corn and the whiskey must be aged 2 years minimum in Kentucky.
Several factors set Wild Turkey apart from other brands. The water used in the production process comes from the nearby Kentucky River which yields non-acidic limestone-filtered water (a purifying effect on the Bourbon). Non-GMO grains are used along with a proprietary yeast in the fermentation process and the final product is distilled twice to give it its’ signature smooth and rich tones. The original yeast strain is still housed at Wild Turkey incidentally.
Wild Turkey Bourbon is also aged at lower proof than many other brands which means that less water needs to be added at the end. This helps to preserve the pure flavors created in the production process. Longer aging is an additional distinctive feature of Wild Turkey.
Jimmy also broke new ground in 1976 when he introduced the first honeyed Bourbon, today called American Honey. This style has become popular with other producers as well.
You can see all of this for yourself at Wild Turkey’s award-winning Visitors Center when it reopens. Inspired by the silhouette of Kentucky tobacco barns, the charming tasting room overlooks the spectacular Kentucky River. In the meantime, Virtual Tours and Tastings run throughout the day and can be booked here.
Moving over to Lynchburg, Tennessee, Jack Daniel is a must-see for any whiskey lover. Over 150 years old, Jack Daniels was founded by Jasper Newton Daniel (Jack) in 1866. After leaving home in 1864, Jack was taken in by Reverend Dan Call where he learned whiskey making from both the Reverend as well as an enslaved man named Nathan “Nearest” Green. Nearest would become the master first master distiller after the Civil War when Jack hired him as a free man. Four generations of his family have also worked at Jack Daniel.
Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 (their signature charcoal-mellowed Tennessee Whiskey) went on to went a Gold Medal at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, putting it on the path to its’ current fame. This whiskey has won 7 other gold medals.
Limestone again plays a role in the uniqueness of Jack Daniels’ products. Cave Spring Hollow (a limestone cave that Jack Daniel purchased), contributes pure water with distinctive minerality pumped from two miles down in the cave. This water adds to the character of Jack Daniel’s.
A starter yeast is used to kick off fermentation. This starter yeast is the reason why Jack Daniel’s is called a “sour mash” (the process is similar to making sourdough bread). The mash ferments for a full six days before being single distilled in a large copper still. Unlike some other whiskeys, Jack Daniel is vaporized and distilled only once.
After distillation, Jack Daniel’s whiskey drips for days (usually 3-5) through hand-made charcoal until there is no liquid left. This process, called the “Lincoln County Process”, contributes the characteristic smoothness that Jack Daniel fans love and is another factor that sets Tennessee whiskey apart from Kentucky Bourbon. “Charcoal can accomplish in days what the barrel takes a couple of years to accomplish", says Master Distiller Jeff Arnett.
As for the recipe, Jack Daniel uses a mash recipe of 80% corn, 12% barley and 8% rye which lends its noteworthy sweetness. Rye contributes pepper and spice notes while the malt rounds it all out with a creamy smoothness.
Jack Daniel whiskey finishes off in handcrafted barrels that are used only one time. The barrels are made on-site from American White Oak and held together only by the precise pressure needed to create them. After creation, the barrels are toasted and charred to extract out the natural wood sugars which contribute to the trademark Jack Daniel flavor.
Sample it for yourself when you visit Jack Daniel Distillery. Tours are open by reservation and include tasting, whiskey making, and food and whiskey combinations. Speaking of food, the local Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House Restaurant (which has operated over 100 years) is a must-stop for real Southern cooking.