As we pedaled our bikes over the rolling hills of Kentucky, I could practically taste the bourbon.
There’d be a glass waiting for us at the end of the ride, of course — two fingers of whiskey, with a single ice cube. But being surrounded by the raw ingredients had the flavor tickling my tongue. Fields of corn beginning to brown in the August sun. Clear water trickling down limestone cliffs into a massive underground aquifer. The scent emanating from the distilleries themselves, that sweet corn mash being transformed into America’s favorite elixir.
Whiskey was once the de facto currency throughout much of the country in the late 1700s. Corn would rot if not used quickly enough, so farmers took their unsold crops and turned them into whiskey, which they could trade for other goods and services at their leisure. Bourbon is once again helping fuel Kentucky’s economy; it’s an $8.6 billion industry in the Bluegrass State, which produces 95% of the world’s bourbon. The state had about 70 distilleries as of last year — more than double the number a decade ago, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.
More ways to bike bourbon country
>> If you’d rather leave the planning and logistics to someone else, the active travel company Backroads offers a five-day guided bike trip, “The Legendary Bourbon Trail: Louisville to Lexington,” priced from $2,799 a person.
>> Or you can sign up for the three-day Bourbon Country Burn ride held annually in late September, which offers less opulent food and lodging but comes with a small price tag: $289.
While I’ve enjoyed my fair share of bourbon over the years, I never considered myself a true connoisseur. Wanting to learn more, I figured a trip biking on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail would be equal parts educational and entertaining.
The trail website suggests three cycling routes, depending on the number of days and distilleries you want to include. I opted for the three-day, 165-mile loop that started and ended in Louisville, hitting eight distilleries and tasting experiences along the way. A couple of friends agreed to come along for the ride, while my wife, Dee, would follow in our Roadtrek camper van.
Before this trip, I had no idea about all the rules, decrees, laws and regulations there are when it comes to bourbon. One of the central tenets is that it be aged in new, charred oak barrels — and it has to hang out there for at least two years to be designated “straight bourbon.” Bourbon must be made in the U.S., and the grain mixture has to be at least 51% corn.
These are some of the informational nuggets you pick up while touring bourbon country, where Louisville is a key stop. We arrived in the city early Friday afternoon and kicked things off at Angel’s Envy, a century-old elevator factory turned state-of-the-art distillery.
Angel’s Envy is unique in that it ages its whiskey an additional six months in a port wine barrel, giving it an extra element of complexity. Some purists argue that Angel’s Envy doesn’t qualify as true bourbon because of this additional flavoring.
My No. 1 requirement is that it tastes good, and it did.
At the end of our inaugural tour, Chris, our “distillery guardian,” led us to a table where four small samples — each less than the size of a shot — were lined up in a row. We were led through an elaborate tasting process we’d follow for the next three days. We held the sample to the light, observing the caramel coloring; the darker it is, the longer it’s been aged. (Bourbon gets most of its flavor and all of its color from the charred barrel, which is why aged bourbon typically tastes better.) We swirled the whiskey in our glass to see if the liquid’s legs stuck to the side. If they linger more than 15 seconds, Chris said, you’ve got yourself a premium spirit.
We let the bourbon play in our mouths for 10 seconds before swallowing. That lingering heat as it slides down your throat? It’s called the Kentucky hug. By taking my time, I was beginning to pick up some of the subtle tastes — a bit of vanilla and fruit, with just a hint of bitter chocolate.
I embraced the hug. For others at our table, it seemed like more of a slap. The liquor had barely touched his lips before one leathery gentleman wearing a Bama baseball cap began contorting his face so violently I thought he was having a seizure.
Leaving Angel’s Envy, we began our journey in earnest. Following a route that we downloaded to our bike computers, we cycled along rolling terrain that was challenging at times but doable for most casual riders. Only a few of the rollers were long or steep enough to warrant a break at the top to rest our weary legs.
While bourbon tours are becoming more popular — tourists made a record 1.4 million stops at Kentucky distilleries last year — cyclists riding the route are still seen as a bit of a novelty. Folks were always amused by our Spandex clothing and seemed genuinely impressed by how many miles we planned to ride.
We finished our first day of riding at Jeptha Creed, one of Kentucky’s newest craft distilleries, in Shelbyville. It specializes in “ground-to-glass” cocktails, with many of the ingredients that go into its drinks grown either on the Jeptha Creed property or within a few miles of it. As we pulled into the enormous distillery, hundreds of people were on the lawn listening to a band playing a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
Jeptha Creed’s 2-year-old “straight” bourbon wasn’t ready for sampling (it’s slated for release this year), so we tried the flavored moonshines and vodkas instead. I’m not typically a fan of clear spirits, but the coffee-flavored vodka was a revelation.
After a peaceful night’s sleep camping at Lake Shelby Park, we pedaled 40 miles to Bardstown, the self-declared “Bourbon Capital of the World.” Nine distilleries are within a short drive or ride from Bardstown; three of them opened in the last three years.
We narrowly beat a short rain burst to Bardstown Bourbon Co., where we had a late lunch at Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar. This being Kentucky, I felt compelled to try the fried chicken. If I live to be 100, I don’t know if I’ll ever have a better plate of chicken. I washed it down with a delicious Bardstown Mule, made with Bird Dog bourbon, kiwi, lime, ginger beer and Thai basil.
The highlight of the day may have been Heaven Hill Distillery, offering more than 100 types of bourbon. We sampled four, and I walked away with a bottle of Larceny Small Batch as a souvenir.
Distillery tours have become much more polished in the past few years. When visitors used to pop into Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont, they sat in an office and watched a video of the process. Today, tours take guests throughout the facility and give them a chance to wax-seal the top of a bottle of Jim Beam’s specialty Knob Creek bourbon. The experience ends in the tasting area, where they can sample up to four of the distillery’s whiskies. Of course, visitors exit through the gift shop.
By the time we reached Jim Beam on our third day, we realized we were fighting a losing battle. Our legs might have been strong, but our time-management skills were weak. We had to make a choice: ride the remaining 60 or so miles from Clermont back to Louisville, knowing we wouldn’t make our scheduled tour at Evan Williams, or hop in the van and drive.
As has often been the case in my life, bourbon won out over pride.