Harleys and Whiskey Part 2: The Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Master Distiller Jimmy Russell
“No other land can give so sweet a solace for your cares; neither liquor soothes you so in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like Old Bourbon whiskey.” -The Mint Julep by J. Soule Smith
In a land called Kentucky in a country called the US there is a sweet nectar of the gods made of the indigenous grain corn. It is America’s only native spirit, our only original liquor, the one and only bourbon whiskey.
Like the Koreans with soju, the Japanese with saki, the French with wine, and the Mexicans with tequila, we have a well-established love affair with our homegrown liquor. To be more specific I have an established love affair with that old bourbon whiskey.
What better way to celebrate such a love affair than a two-day ride on a Harley Fat Bob through the Bluegrass state on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. What is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail you ask, well let me enlighten you. As the world has embraced the rich taste of bourbon whiskey the state of Kentucky has responded to this rise in popularity by establishing a tour known as the Bourbon Trail. This tour takes you across the state and by beautiful horse pastures to seven, soon to be eight, of the top bourbon distilleries in the world (Evan Williams, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve). Each distillery provides a unique tour about their production, history, and bourbon characteristics(each tour admission is no charge to $8 and lasts about 1.5 hours). The best part though is each tour ends with a bourbon tasting, hell yeah.
Kentucky has put together a great website with information and maps with driving directions to get you around to all the distilleries even offering alternate routes for more scenic drives. It is impossible to see every distillery in a day since they are anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours apart, but if you start early you can see about 2-3 distilleries in an afternoon since they mostly operate tours from 9:30am-3:30pm.
On my adventure I was able to see three, which I chose on their relative close proximity to each other. The cool thing is at your first distillery you get a nifty little Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport.
If you are a traveler then you understand my love of passports and stamps. When you visit each distillery, which I plan on doing, you get a stamp in your passport. When your passport has all 7 stamps for each distillery on the trail you get a styling complimentary Kentucky Bourbon Trail t-shirt. So if drinking bourbon and riding motorcycles wasn’t enough you now get swag, it just keeps getting better.
The first distillery I arrived at was Woodford Reserve. On the regular and when I can afford it I enjoy a smooth ass glass of Woodford on the rocks. It’s like adult candy that just slides right down to it’s home in my belly. My buddy Brandon and I really enjoyed the Woodford tour. They took us through the entire distilling process and filled our minds with more bourbon history than we could handle.
Some fun facts we learned during the Woodford tour:
-When alcohol was deemed illegal and all barrels of it were destroyed during prohibition in America during the early part of the century bourbon was spared due to several of the sitting US Presidents love for the juice. Instead it was made to be “medicinal bourbon” which you could get a prescription for from your local doctor. Brings new light to the phrase, “Give me a sip of Grandpa’s cough medicine.”
-Every year during the aging process a barrel of bourbon loses 5% of its contents to evaporation raising the overall alcohol percentage of the whiskey. This lost amount of whiskey is referred to as the “angel’s share” and to myself is proof that there will be bourbon waiting for me in Heaven. Amen.
After a brief tasting, a delicious bourbon soaked chocolate candy called a bourbon ball, and some hefty delicious sandwiches from the distillery café we hopped back on our bikes and headed to the Wild Turkey distillery.
Going to Wild Turkey was a bit of a pilgrimage for me since it was the bourbon of choice for one of my favorite madmen, literary heroes, the godfather of Gonzo, and native Kentuckian himself Hunter S. Thompson. If you read through enough pages of any of Hunter’s books you’ll find mention of his Wild Turkey consumption at some point or another.
In true Gonzo fashion we arrived late for our tour and missed it, but just in time for a chance meeting and an aweing interview. Nestled in a green valley Wild Turkey Distillery is an enjoyable drive and provided a range of 7 bourbons for us to try. Wild Turkey bourbons are usually a bit bitey, a kick in the nuts that leaves some lingering heat, but an always-enjoyable experience that you’re eager to repeat. We had four ¼ shots of which I easily decided my favorite was the smooth yet rich and full bodied Russell’s Reserve, named after master distiller and unknowingly my soon to be new friend Jimmy Russell.
You see after my tasting I wandered into the lobby of the distillery and low and behold standing there shaking hands with the visitors is Wild Turkey’s master distiller Jimmy Russell the man, the myth, the legend. You may not know who Jimmy Russell is, but you’re about to. Jimmy is known as the “Master Distillers’ Master Distiller” and the longest serving master distiller alive today dedicating 52 consecutive years of his life to perfecting the sweet taste of bourbon whiskey. Basically, if someone had to be King of the Bourbons it would Jimmy and he was standing right in front of me shaking hands with his guests like a true southern gentleman.
I approached Mr. Russell and asked him if he would be open to do an interview with me. Turns out he was such a nice guy that he not only did the interview with me once, but twice since my camera deleted half of the first interview. I could go on to describe how awesome Jimmy is, but instead I think I’ll just let you watch the interview below. Also, excuse my shitty ripped up band t-shirt, the temp was about 100F or about 38C outside and motorcycles don’t have AC.
After Jimmy Russell sent us away like a wise bourbon Yoda we headed to our last distillery Four Roses. Sadly, after our tour at Woodford and a great conversation at Wild Turkey we were too late. The entire Four Roses Distillery campus appeared closed down. That was of course until a worker saw us and came over and gave us permission to take a look around. It seems that people that work with bourbon tend to be friendly, pleasant, and willing to help you have a great time. Each distillery was unique in it’s own way and Four Roses was no different. It had a surprisingly Spanish style to the gardens and architecture that surrounded it. Although we had missed the tour my buddy Brandon and I decided to have our own Four Roses tasting at a local bar to make the experience feel complete and I can honestly say that Four Roses makes some pretty tasty batches of bourbon.
After a day of fun in the sun with Harleys and bourbon we headed back to our hotel in Lexington where we got a good meal, put on some clean clothes (with sleeves), and explored the city.
Of the seven distilleries I got to visit three on the Bourbon Trail, but after some near perfect motorcycle riding and beyond perfect bourbons I will be going back to the others. Don’t be surprised if you see a part three to this series later in the summer. Several people have asked me which distillery was my favorite and honestly they were all great in their own way. The distilleries are a lot like the bourbons they serve, all great but everyone has their own preference. My experience at each was as unique as it was enjoyable, I truly don’t think you could be disappointed by any of them.
So until next time travelers I hope your adventures remain as smooth as a glass of Kentucky bourbon whiskey on a hot day.
**On this ride I visited Three Whiskey distilleries over six hours and consumed exactly three shots of liquor and a massive lunch over that period of time leaving me 2 hours in between each shot to safely digest and drive my motorcycle. I do not condone nor encourage drinking alcohol and driving. Harley Davidson, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and myself all stand against drunk driving. Please remember to be responsible and if necessary call a taxi if you drink too much. Motorcycles do not mix with intoxication. To have shameless travels you have to be alive, to be alive you have to use your head. Safe riding and driving are 100% definitely Shameless Approved. Godspeed riders.
Next entry: The Traveler