Louisville, Kentucky: Let your bourbon tasting trip begin!

Susan Beaver
Susan Beaver
Louisville, Kentucky:  Let your bourbon tasting trip begin!

Today, June 14, is National Bourbon Day, and what better place to celebrate it than Louisville, Kentucky, the center of the bourbon industry. With mixologists crafting all sorts of new bourbon-based cocktails, the move to create artisan foods made of bourbon or in bourbon-aged barrels is also exploding. Louisville’s Bourbon culture is a result of its deep Bourbon history and the recent influx of downtown Louisville distilleries. And, of course, bourbon plays a big role in Louisville's restaurants, bars and music. It's a booming $8.5 billion industry in Kentucky, generating 17,500 jobs with an annual payroll of $800 million. 

Kentucky is the birthplace of Bourbon, responsible for 95 percent of the world’s supply. The Bluegrass State has the perfect natural mix of climate, conditions and pure limestone water necessary for producing the world’s greatest Bourbon. As declared by the U.S. Congress in 1964, Bourbon is in fact America’s only native spirit. It must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn, aged in charred new oak barrels, stored at no more than 125 proof and bottled no less than 80 proof.

There's so much bourbon coming out of Kentucky right now that the number of barrels produced (4.7 million) exceeds the state's population of 4.3 million people. According to Fortune magazine, in 2016, American whiskeys, including bourbon, outpaced the overall liquor industry with a 7.8% growth from the previous year. 

Bourbon tourism is booming

For years now, Greg Fischer, a successful businessman and the mayor of Louisville, has been a big proponent of turning Louisville into the bourbon capital of the world (though folks in nearby Bardstown also claim the title). Over the last five years, Bourbon tourism has skyrocketed with about 2.5 million visitors to Kentucky a year from all 50 states and 25 countries.

In 2013, Fischer created the Louisville Metro Bourbon and Local Food Work Group. It's comprised of local chefs and restaurateurs, local distillers and bourbon aficionados, and tourism officials. The group's goal is is to make Louisville the world’s top culinary and spirits city. Fischer wants to take advantage of the fact that more leisure travelers are visiting Louisville specifically for its restaurants and bourbons. Zagat’s has named Louisville a Top 8 global food destination.

Fischer remarks: “People think of Napa Valley for wine. We want them to think of Louisville for bourbon.” A primary aim of their efforts is to attract travelers to Louisville's internationally-acclaimed food scene and to become a gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

On the bourbon trail

Louisville, Kentucky:  Let your bourbon tasting trip begin!

In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour "to give visitors a firsthand look at the art and science of crafting Bourbon, and to educate them about the rich history and proud tradition of our signature spirit." Bourbon really began with the first settlers in Kentucky in the 1700s. They found that getting crops to market over the trails and mountains was difficult, so they began converting corn and other grains to whiskey to be able to transport them easier and prevent the excess grain from rotting. Since that time, generations of Kentuckians have continued the tradition of making Bourbon, pretty much unchanged from the process used in bourbon's infancy. (For you history buffs, Bourbon is named after Bourbon County, which was established in 1785 when Kentucky was still part of Virginia.)

There's a lot to check out on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® website. Visitors can look at and download a map that shows all of the well known bourbon distilleries like Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Wild Turkey and Markers Mark, as well as new bourbon distillers like Bardstown Bourbon Co.. Angel's Envy, Derby City Spirits, and Old Forester. There is even a Kentucky Bourbon Trail app you can download to plan your bourbon tasting trip.

"Eat Your Bourbon"

While blogging for the first ever Vegas Food Expo this past March, I met a number of impressive artisan food companies. One of the standouts is Bourbon Barrel Foods out of Louisville. They have a retail specialty store in the heart of Crescent Hill at 2710 Frankfort Avenue. Their retail hours are Monday-Saturday, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm and Sunday 10:00 am - 4:00 pm. Developer Andy Blieden acquired the former Jerry Heston Salon property because he thought it was the perfect spot for food entrepreneur Matt Jamie to start a retail business.

Louisville, Kentucky:  Let your bourbon tasting trip begin!

Matt Jamie started Bourbon Barrel Foods by aging soybean mash in bourbon barrels to produce his distinctive Bluegrass Soy Sauce. As Jamie says: “soy sauce is the oldest, most widely used condiment in the world, but people here understand why mine is special because it’s made in Kentucky and in bourbon barrels." Jamie then moved to create another Bourbon Barrel best seller, their Worcestershire sauce, sweetened with sorghum and blended with pure Kentucky limestone spring water. Bourbon Barrel Aged Worcestershire Sauce tastes great on eggs, in a bloody Mary and especially on burgers.

Jamie is credited with being the first to use old bourbon barrels to make artisan food products, kicking off such a craze in the food industry that the barrels Jamie used to get for free now cost him an arm and a leg. Some of the company's newer offerings include the "Eat Your Bourbon" Gourmet Grilling Gift Set, Baking Gift Set, Snack Gift Set, and Bourbon smoked pecans. To get a feel for what you can do with bourbon-based products, check out this extensive bourbon recipe collection.

Rufus Teague, another artisan food company that exhibited at the 2017 Vegas Food Expo, also uses whiskey to make some of its food products. Located in Kansas City, Rufus Teague is known for its signature Whiskey Maple BBQ sauce. As the story goes: "Old Rufus liked his whiskey. One day he got all roostered-up and decided to add a little hooch to his sauce. He then threw in a little maple syrup to 'sweeten the deal'. It was no big surprise to anyone that he liked it enough to keep on makin' it. The result is something that even a teetotaler can't get enough of."

You'll also find bourbon being used to season other food products like pickles, vanilla, hot sauce, tea, and maple syrup.

So, the next time you're thinking about wine and Napa Valley, think Louisville and bourbon. And when you're in Louisville, don't miss visiting some of the city's most popular spots for bourbon-inspired dining, such as Bourbon Bistro at 2255 Frankfort Avenue, Charr'd Bourbon Kitchen and Lounge at 1903 Embassy Square Blvd. in the Louisville Marriott East, and Down One Bourbon Bar at 321 West Main Street. Happy tasting!