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Tasting Kentucky's creme de la creme

Bourbon's aristocrats - the upscale brands and single-barrel bottlings - grace a trip to the spirit's wellspring.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The proud folks of Kentucky have a way of crediting their abundance of limestone-filtered water for virtually all the state's best assets.

"Great bourbon, fast racehorses, and beautiful women," is usually how the saying goes. Though depending upon your neighbor's luck at the bar, there are some variations.

"Great bourbon, beautiful racehorses, and women who aren't fast enough," was the lament I heard from a new acquaintance at Bourbons Bistro, where I pulled up a chair in Louisville.

That bourbon's greatness remained unqualified was probably no surprise, considering the venue, a lively southern bistro in the whiskey-soaked heart of central Kentucky, where 95 percent of the world's bourbon is made. And Bourbons Bistro has what may be America's greatest collection of its namesake spirit - with as many as 135 different labels at any time, according to co-owner Jason Brauner.

The 2-year-old Bourbons has been an anchor to Louisville's thriving Restaurant Row on Frankfort Avenue, packing in sophisticated young crowds with updated Southern fare like shrimp and grits with redeye gravy, duck strudel with candied chiles, and fried chicken with bourbon demiglace. By 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night, when I arrived, however, the room was flowing with dark spirits arriving by the three-shot flight.

It was hard to know where to begin. I'd already tasted most of the standard upscale brands, from Woodford Reserve and Maker's Mark to Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam's seminal small-batch collection (Knob Creek, Booker's, Baker's and Basil Hayden's).

But the unknown choices before me at Bourbons were dizzying, from the clovey lime spice smack of Very Old Barton to a collection of extra-old Pappy Van Winkle's and a $15 shot of uncut, unfiltered, barrel-proof William Larue Weller.

"This is the ultimate," said Brauner, pouring me the last few drops of deep-amber elixir from the bottom of his last Weller bottle. It smelled of tooled leather and vanilla, roasted nuts and brown sugar, and dark dried fruit. It also singed my nose with 121.9-proof's worth of vapor heat.

"That's as close as you can get to drinking it straight from the barrel," nodded Michael Veetch, the mustachioed bourbon historian (an inductee in the Bourbon Hall of Fame), who agreed to be my drinking tutor for the evening.

The immense diversity of choices reflect the rapidly growing popularity of high-end bourbon, which has long stepped out from behind the shadows of the already well-sipped territory of single-malt Scotch.

And there is no better place to begin a crash course in this great American spirit than on the so-called "Bourbon Trail" between Lexington and Louisville.

A week here offered a fascinating opportunity to tour the stunning countryside and many distilleries, where I learned some of the basics of what makes Kentucky bourbon so distinct: that bourbons must be made of at least 51 percent corn and that they can only be aged in unused charred-oak casks (Scotch, conversely, is most commonly aged in old bourbon barrels.)

Those two points account for the fact that many Scotch drinkers find bourbon far too "sweet." But if you spend enough time drinking your way through Kentucky's better bars (and I did my best!), you'll find the Bluegrass whiskey universe is far too varied to be described in such monolithic terms.

To begin with, bourbons are made from a wide range of different recipes. The most common addition to the corn base is malted barley and rye, which Veetch says gives a whiskey an herby spice and notes of fruit. "Wheated" bourbons that replace rye with wheat, meanwhile, like Maker's Mark and Pappy Van Winkle's, tend to be sweeter, with nutty, cereal flavors that allow the barrel-aging to shine through.

Julian Van Winkle, the dapper third-generation whiskey man behind Pappy Van Winkle's, says his grandfather (the original "Pappy") believed wheated whiskies age more gracefully than rye. That may explain why most bourbons are bottled before 10 years and why the Winkle whiskeys, which achieve an almost ethereal grace of 15, 20, and 23 years, are such elegant (and expensive) exceptions to the rule.

But there are other factors, such as the location of the barrel in the warehouse - a point that has become relevant since the availability of bourbons bottled from a "single barrel." The "honey barrels" located near the top racks of a warehouse are exposed to greater fluctuations in heat (thus more sweetness and color), while barrels near the cooler bottom (sometimes 30 degrees cooler) face a more gentle aging.

The distinction between barrels is more than marketing mystique. At Bourbons Bistro, we tasted two whiskeys rarely seen outside Kentucky. The local distiller, the experimental Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, has a single-floor warehouse, which reduces heat variation. Their "small batch" bourbon, made from a blend of 38 different barrels, was pleasant enough, with a smooth profile of buttery caramel and apple fruit. The "single barrel," meanwhile, was a maverick of bold flavors - mint, licorice, fresh-baked bread, cocoa. Another barrel, though, might be different.

Many of the best bourbon venues, like Bourbons Bistro and stylish Proof on Main in Louisville, as well as the Horse & Barrel and Metropol in Lexington, offer tasting flights so you can sip three whiskies at a crack. And I did my darndest to be thorough, sipping my way through a good 30 or so.

Call it professional diligence, but it naturally led me to some of Kentucky's finer bourbon stores, including the cavernous Liquor Barn in Lexington, and the more intimate, but expertly serviced Old Town Wine & Spirits in Louisville, where I found another artisan gem - the 12- to 15-year-old Rowan's Creek - being sampled by Britt Chavanne, the granddaughter of the distillery's founder.

Rowan's Creek is a rarity outside Kentucky, as is Four Roses, though Four Roses plans to debut in select Manhattan stores this spring.

To my delight, however, Pennsylvania State Stores carry many of my favorite whiskeys from this trip. And in some cases, the state store prices are actually cheaper (Surprise!) than what I found in Kentucky.

I sure did love the visit. But I'd trade a drink of limestone-filtered water for a nice discount on 20-year Pappy any day.