Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail: A Pilgrimage To The Maker’s Mark Distillery

maker's mark bourbonI’m not much of a bourbon connoisseur. In fact, before a recent road trip to Kentucky where 95% of the world’s bourbon is made, I had no idea what distinguished bourbon from regular old whiskey. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so I decided to visit the Maker’s Mark Distillery, reputedly one of the best stops on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.

The distillery is a 25-minute drive, along a windy country road that dips and turns along a pastoral landscape from Bardstown, a distinctive small town named the “most beautiful small town in America” by USA Today this year. Along the way we passed some pitch-black Maker’s Mark warehouses that resembled a disused prison complex and one of them reassured us that we were just three miles away from some sweet Kentucky bourbon.
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The distillery is set across a large complex that makes for a nice walk on a sunny day. There are a host of buildings, each painted dark brown and adorned with shutters the same shade of red as Maker’s Marks distinctive red wax bottle seals, which are hand dipped on the premises. (You can buy and dip your own bottle in the gift shop.)


maker's mark distilleryThe tour used to be free, but it now costs $7, which is still a bargain considering the fact they offer guests a chance to sample three bourbons and learn about a product that’s a deeply entrenched part of Kentucky’s culture.

The Samuels family, which founded Maker’s Mark, and scores of other Scotch-Irish distillers, fled to Kentucky from Pennsylvania after George Washington imposed a whiskey tax in 1791, sparking the Whiskey Rebellion. The whiskey tax went uncollected in Kentucky, then a frontier state, as no one had the will to enforce the law or prosecute those who ignored it.

Our tour guide, Jacqueline, told us that a nearby lake served as the base for the product.




“Why are there so many successful bourbon distilleries in the state of Kentucky?” she asked. “Here in a six county radius, we happen to sit on top of a very rich limestone shelf, that limestone filters our water making it iron free and calcium rich. Perfect for distilling whiskey with.”

maker's mark distillery fermentation roomAnd what makes bourbon different from regular whiskey?
To call it a bourbon whiskey it must have at least 51% corn, in the recipe – Maker’s Mark uses 70%. It must also consist of only grain, yeast and water, with no artificial flavors or colors; it has to be aged for at least two years in new, charred, oak barrels; and it has to be distilled at no more than 160 proof, barreled at no more than 125 proof and bottled at at least 80 proof.

Many of the technical details went over our heads, but we enjoyed having the opportunity to dip our hands in the vats in the fermentation room and were stoked to have a chance to sample three of their products: the 90 proof Maker’s White, which is only available at the distillery (thank God), regular Marker’s Mark and Maker’s 46, which Jacqueline described as “bourbon on steroids.”


We were instructed to taste the Maker’s White first and for good reason – the stuff is nasty.

“I like to look at all your faces as you’re tasting the Maker’s White,” Jacqueline said. “I can tell if you’ve had moonshine before, you know the Maker’s White isn’t that bad.”


maker's mark liberal conservativeBut the Maker’s Mark and the Maker’s 46 were complex, with long, sweet, smooth finishes that lingered on the front of the tongue for a long time. I felt like I was still tasting them well after my insides were already warmed and my mouth felt a little numb, as though I’d just gotten some Novocain at the dentist. But on the way out, rather than getting a toothbrush and some floss, we were given a nice piece of chocolate – a sweet ending to our introduction to the world of Kentucky bourbon.



[Photos by Dave Seminara]

Kentucky’s Forbidden Donuts

donuts nord's bakery louisville doughnutsFor a place that doesn’t get a whole lot of national press, Kentucky must have as many claims to fame as any state in the country. There’s thoroughbred horseracing, famous family feuds, bluegrass music, and the nation’s most storied college basketball team. And in the food and drink arena, the Bluegrass State is known for KFC, the Bourbon Trail, mutton BBQ, hot browns, burgoo, and mint juleps, not to mention backwoods Old Kentucky favorites like squirrel and possum.
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But I’d never heard of Kentucky as a mecca for donut connoisseurs until I read a piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago. William Grimes described the state as “the last calorie-filled province in an enormous swath of territory where the glazed twist, the apple fritter, the chocolate-iced Long John and the vanilla-cream Bismarck hold sway,” and I was hooked.


Regular readers might recall that I’ve gotten into trouble with my wife over the years for taking the family on long detours to Western New York State’s Amish Country in pursuit of donuts. With that unpleasantness in mind, I didn’t insist on hitting all seven donut shops scattered around the central and northern part of the state mentioned in the article. But we were already planning a long-weekend trip to Kentucky when the Times piece came out, so I added donuts to our weekend to-do list.

hadorn's bakery bardstownOur first stop was Hadorn’s Bakery, an institution in Bardstown, a lovely small town in the heart of bourbon country, for more than 26 years. Hadorn’s didn’t make Grimes’s list but I smelled the place from a block away and noticed the line snaking out the door at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning and figured it had to be good.

I had to recalibrate my order three times while standing in line though, as the hungry individuals standing before me snatched the last of the pumpkin donuts and two other varieties before I could call out my order. But I came away with a half dozen decadent little beauties: two glazed, two chocolate glazed, a caramel glazed and a pretzel donut.

The plain glazed were 60 cents, the others 70 or 80, and they were all light, moist, fresh and melt-in-your mouth treats. On my walk back to the hotel my plan to divvy up the donuts when I got back to the room went up in smoke, and my wife and sons had to battle it out for what I’d left in the bag.

 burke's bakery danville kentuckyOn Sunday morning, I was ready for round two at Burke’s Bakery in Danville, another appealing small town that hosted the Vice Presidential debate in October. Burke’s was part of the NYT piece and also came highly recommended by Stuart Meyer, who produces a show called Small Town Flavor. Meyer featured Burke’s in an episode of their show (see below), and after watching the segment, I was ready to get in my car and make the 8-hour drive before the clip had even ended.


But you never want to digest too much hype before seeing a movie and donuts are the same way. Burke’s doesn’t open until Noon on Sundays and they bake only a few varieties of donuts rather than their usual full assortment, so I was unable to get the coconut frosted special or any of the others I had in mind. I had a crumb donut and a glazed, both quite good and a bargain at 60 and 65 cents, but it wasn’t the this-donut-has-changed-my-life experience I was hoping for.

nord's bakery in louisvilleOn Monday morning, I was geared up to try the maple bacon donuts at Nord’s Bakery, a popular neighborhood joint in the Germantown section of Louisville, but my sons, ages 3 and 5, decided to sleep in late, after we dragged them out late three nights in a row. I didn’t have the heart to wake them up but I feared that my chances of getting one of their famous maple bacon donuts were dwindling with each passing minute. Still, as we set off from our hotel around 10 a.m., I felt like we still had a shot since it was a weekday.

But by the time we found the place, alas, the maple bacon donuts were history. I did feel a bit better though when Martha, the young woman at the counter, told me they’d sold out hours ago, rather than mere minutes, and my mood brightened further after I tucked into a crunch nut donut that was full of nutty, coconut goodness.

We repaired to Sunergos Cofffee next door with a bag full of the little treasures, (they don’t mind and their coffee is great) and my 3-year-old son James devoured his chocolate glazed donut so quickly that he tried to attack my wife’s donut while it was still in her mouth – a sure sign that he knew he’d stumbled across a pretty damn good find.

“This kid is like the Homer Simpson of donuts,” my wife complained, trying to restrain him with an outstretched leg.


Nord’s was the clear winner of our Kentucky donut quest – the others were very good but these were sell-your-soul-to-the-devil-for-them good. Like the Rolling Stones song, I didn’t quite get the donuts I wanted, but I learned that the Bluegrass State does indeed have one more little known treasure to be proud of: its forbidden donuts. But if you want to reach donut nirvana in Kentucky, you need to get your donut loving behind out of bed much earlier than I did to get the good stuff.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

The Scottish Highland Games Head To Kentucky

haggis If you want to join in on the famous Scottish Highland Games but can’t afford the flight across the pond, you can head to Bardstown, Kentucky, this Saturday for their annual take on the event. While many people know of haggis, a Scottish dish containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs that are stuffed into a sheep’s stomach, as food, Bardstown is using the delicacy for something else: hurling.

All over the world, Highland Games showcase contests requiring brute strength, such as the caber toss, which requires participants to essentially throw a small telephone poll, and tossing blocks weighing 28 to 56 pounds.

“In Scotland, they used to use throwing events to determine their best warriors,” Kerry Overfelt, a three-time North American Highland Games champion and Bardstown resident who helped organize the inaugural Games three years ago, told NCB News’ Overhead Bin. “Most of the events are based on ways to kill people.”

The haggis toss, however, is based more on skill. This goes along with the theme of Bardstown’s events being a bit more lighthearted than the usual Highland Games fare. Children can compete in a mini caber toss using carpet roll cores, while men can enter the Bonniest Knees competition, where blindfolded women decide which male has the sexiest legs under their kilt.

And of course, there’s the haggis toss. It is said the event idea originated from a time when Scottish wives could bring their husbands lunch in the fields and peat bogs. Because they couldn’t easily cross the rivers, the women would toss the haggis to the men, who would catch it in their kilts. For those who think they may vomit from the thought of being covered in sheep guts, don’t worry. Bardstown uses mock haggis, either a beanbag or cornhole. Participants toss the object while standing atop a whiskey barrel.

“We miss out on some of the authenticity by not having an actual haggis,” said Overfelt, “but at the same time, we don’t have to worry about the haggis bursting open.”

[Image via Asta]