Six Kentucky distilleries give free tours, and they provide a fascinating inside look at the world of bourbon. Three are especially satisfying. Maker’s Mark (502-865-2099), in Loretto, south of Bardstown, offers a comprehensive forty-five-minute guided walk through every part of its lovely, meticulously kept National Historic Landmark operation. You can stick your finger in the bubbling liquid in the hundred-year-old cypress fermenting tanks to taste the changing flavor of the mash; only the bottling line looks modern. Wild Turkey (502-839-4544). oerched above the Kentucky River in Lawrenceburg, offers an even more thorough tour of a bigger, more roughhewn operation. You will leave there an expert on bourbon making, and in the gift store you may just run into Jimmy Russell, the long-time master distiller. Nearby in Versailles, at the gem-like Labrot & Graham distillery (606-879-1812), see the brand-new Scottish pot stills at work in the glisteningly refurbished oldest working distillery building in the state.
Jim Beam (502-543-9877), in Clermont, south of Louisville, has an attractive visitors’ center with displays on distilling and the intertwined history of Beam and bourbon and a short movie; also on the grounds are the nation’s oldest still, from 1779, and a restored 1875 cooperage. At Ancient Age (502-223-7641), in Frankfort, you’ll be shown through an industrial-scale operation with fermenters ten times the size of those at Maker’s. The Heaven Hill Distillery (502-348-3921), in Bardstown, suffered a devastating fire in 1996 in which, in Bill Samuels’s words, “4 percent of the world’s bourbon went up in one night.” The tour includes only the bottling operation, but it is a huge one, handling not just bourbon but, for instance, Two Fingers Tequila shipped from Mexico in concentrate and mixed with distilled water in the bottling.
In Tennessee both George Dickel (931-857-3124), in Tullahoma, and Jack Daniel (931759-4221), in Lynchburg, offer extremely popular, thorough tours. Be sure to call ahead. Distilleries close down for a while in late July or August when it gets too hot to make bourbon properly.