FRANKFORT, Ky. - It can be hard to sell a pair of small children on the promise that one distillery tour - let alone half a dozen - is going to be the thrill of their vacation.
And yet, when we pulled into the gravel lot outside Buffalo Trace and opened the car doors, we smelled a heady, sweet perfume. It hovered luxuriously in the Southern spring air - a warm, yeasty aroma reminiscent of sweet corn bread and molasses in the oven - and it immediately seemed to soften their resolve.
That scent is called the "angel's share" - the smell of whiskey evaporating from charred oak barrels as it ages in a warehouse. And in the Bourbon Belt of central Kentucky, where warehouses dot the deep-green hills with their windows drawn open in the warmer months, that fragrance clings to the landscape like a heavenly aura.
This was our first stop on the Bourbon Trail, a cluster of seven distilleries and other whiskey landmarks - famous taprooms, bourbon-themed restaurants, and a museum - that lace the countryside between Lexington and Louisville.
Each one has its own character, but Buffalo Trace, set atop a grassy knoll here in the state capital, was an ideal place to start. Not only is it the site of one of Kentucky's first distilleries (the oldest building dates to 1792), but it is where a whiskey called Blanton's was bottled directly from a single barrel in 1984, helping launch the "small batch" craze.
The weathered old distillery exudes history, and it has changed names and owners over the years, from Old Fire Copper in 1870 to George T. Stagg in 1878 to Buffalo Trace in 1999.
"This is what those buffalo saw in the 1700s," said my tour guide, Freddy Johnson, gazing out from the distillery rooftop to where bison herds once trampled a path on their westward journey across the Kentucky River.
You need a good imagination to romanticize the industrial scene that lines this distillery's backside view of the Kentucky River these days - and distilleries will always play their romance to the hilt. But what really makes these tours so fascinating is the insider's view of the bourbon-making process itself, and in this regard, Johnson, a third-generation employee, was a guide extraordinaire.
Though the recipes (or "mash bills") vary widely in what some observers number as 250 kinds of bourbon on the market, the essential process is the same no matter which distillery you visit. Tours typically lead visitors from the granaries, where corn (by definition, at least 51 percent of the mix for bourbon), wheat, rye and malted barley are stored. The next stop is usually the tall mash tanks in which the ground-up cereal is blended with Kentucky's famous limestone-filtered water, sour starter mash, and yeast to begin a beerlike fermentation.
After five or six days in fermenting vats, the mash is piped into the still, which at Buffalo Trace is a classic, tall column still that evaporates the alcohol, then condenses it into a fiery clear liquid called "white dog."
"They call it 'white dog' 'cause it will bite you, and it will bite you bad," quipped Jeanne Browning, our tour guide at Maker's Mark in Loretto.
What ultimately gives bourbon its signature sweetness and deep, amber hue are the charred American oak barrels that will soften the white dog's bite over several years in the warehouse (or "rickhouse") racks.
By the time we entered the weathered brick rickhouse at Buffalo Trace, my kids were fidgeting for a run at the playground on the distillery's gorgeously manicured grounds. It's a feature that made Buffalo Trace the most family-friendly of our stops, and my wife, Elizabeth, also eager to move on to a more horse-centric attraction, was happy to indulge the kids.
But the old rickhouse, its intoxicatingly sweet air striped by daylight and shadows shifting between barrel rows, is where I sensed the bourbon's slow magic really happening. As temperatures shift throughout the day, the liquid gently expands and contracts through the caramelized char of the barrel walls, giving up sometimes 10 percent to the angel's share that first year. After 10 years, a decent spell for bourbon, more than half a barrel can be gone.
Most bourbons are aged less than that. Less expensive, mass-produced labels such as Jim Beam are bottled after four years. A handful of small-batch rarities go for 20 years or more, such as Pappy Van Winkle, an ultra-luxury brand distilled and aged at Buffalo Trace that gets culled from the slow-maturing barrels in the bottom racks. Rub a forefinger across some of the dark streaks you occasionally see leaking down the side of those barrels and take a taste. There's a good reason it's called "barrel candy."
While the basic information most tours provide can become slightly redundant, each distillery exudes a unique character. And many of these old institutions predate the modern highways, so merely finding them is a perfect excuse to tour some spectacular countryside.
The Wild Turkey distillery sits in the rustic hills surrounding the modest town of Lawrenceburg, which is also home to the Four Roses distillery. Four Roses is a local favorite built in the Spanish missionary style; its whiskey is rarely available outside the state.
Picturesque Maker's Mark, its black warehouses trimmed with fire-engine-red shutters, gives visitors a chance to dip the necks of their own souvenir bottles in a vat of the distillery's signature red sealing wax.
"We're told that seven wax drips down the neck is the ideal," says the employee helping us dip our bottles. "But," she pauses, counting mine, "I think five is pretty doggone good, too."
Bourbon giant Jim Beam, which helped pioneer the small-batch category with excellent products such as Knob Creek and Booker's, is probably the least interesting distillery for tourists, with little more than a film, some grounds to stroll, and a gift shop.
If you're interested in a more concise understanding without the distillery tour (not a bad option for uninterested kids), Heaven Hill's diorama-filled "heritage center" in Bardstown is an appealing option. It has historical displays, interactive exhibits, and one of the better company stores I've seen - including a free tasting counter for sample sips of excellent bourbons such as single-barrel Evan Williams and 18-year-old Elijah Craig.
Serious historians, though, won't want to miss the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in downtown Bardstown, where you can see everything from old moonshine stills to documents, bottles and artifacts dating to the early 1800s. If you really want to taste a bit of history, you can eat traditional Kentucky fare nearby at the Old Talbott Tavern, a fabled stagecoach stop where Abe Lincoln and Jesse James once stayed. It also happens to have a serious bourbon bar, with nearly 35 brands to choose from.
Few of our visits, though, put together the entire bourbon-country, tourist-friendly package as impressively as Woodford Reserve, the historic Labrot & Graham distillery (circa 1812) that was refurbished in 1996.
Set in stunning horse-farm country just 30 minutes west of Lexington, Woodford - more than other distilleries - seems to have been resurrected as a bourbon showplace for tourists. And more than 70,000 visit each year, seeing the throwback cypress fermenting tanks (as opposed to modern steel), the majestic Old World-style copper pot stills, and what look like miniature train tracks on which workers roll newly filled barrels the old-fashioned way (by gravity) down to the stone warehouses for aging.
Observing my family's divided interest, however, master distiller Chris Morris pointed out Woodford's intimate connection to the horse culture that surrounds it. Aside from sponsoring such races as the Kentucky Derby, the distillery owns a pair of racehorses, Angel's Share and Distill My Heart, who had given birth to a filly the day before.
Plant manager Dave Scheurich kindly took my family off the official tour path to the stables across the road for a visit. As the kids cooed at the foal and my wife fed the new mom some peppermints, Scheurich gave me a little wink.
Bourbon country had turned out to be a family affair after all.