Kentucky craft bourbon distilleries get tourist trail

Jim Beam's new visitors center in Clermont, Ky.

Jim Beam's new visitors center in Clermont, Ky. (Oct. 3, 2012) (Credit: AP)

LEXINGTON, Ky. - They may not be household names like Jim Beam or Wild Turkey, but Kentucky's craft bourbon distilleries now have their own tourist trail.

Seven artisan distilleries stretching from Marshall County in the far west to Mason County in the north will join to form the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour.

The new tour spanning a large swath of the Bluegrass state was announced Friday. It's an outgrowth of the popular Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which attracted 2 million visitors in the last five years and a half-million in 2011 as the world's best-known bourbon makers offer inside looks at how their products are distilled, aged and bottled.

Volumes at the microdistilleries amount to drops in the bucket compared to their famous bourbon-making brethren. But state officials hope the craft tour will spread the allure of bourbon making beyond central Kentucky, where the famous distilleries are clustered.

"The more people that learn about it, the more people that taste it, the more economic growth is going to happen," Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said during the announcement at Barrel House Distillery, part of the new craft tour.

Beshear joined in a toast to celebrate the new tourism venture. Participants downed a small sample of a "white dog" whiskey made for the event. Each craft distillery contributed water and grains from their secret recipes to create the clear concoction.

The craft tour launches next Thursday. The seven distilleries on the tour are Barrel House Distillery in Lexington, Corsair Artisan Distillery in Bowling Green, Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, MB Roland Distillery in Pembroke, Old Pogue Distillery in Maysville, Silver Trail Distillery in Hardin and Willett Distillery in Bardstown.

They are modest operations with big aspirations to find niches in the spirits segment.

MB Roland Distillery is on track to produce two barrels of bourbon per month, amounting to some 100 gallons, said head distiller Paul Tomaszewski. The distillery is on a former Amish dairy farm in southwestern Kentucky near the Fort Campbell Army post.

Maybe within a decade or so, production might ramp up to a couple of barrels a week, he said.

"We're never going to be a huge powerhouse," he said. "But we hope to just continue to build respect for our brand as we grow."

Tomaszewski is a former Army officer who was drawn to the traditions of whiskey making. Asked how he learned his new trade, he said, "The Internet's a wonderful thing."

Another of his specialty products is a whiskey made out of corn that's smoked in a tobacco barn.

At Barrel House Distillery, bourbon was aging in nearly a dozen barrels in the same room that contained the still and mash tubs.

Its products also include vodka, rum and a spirit named "Devil John Moonshine" in honor of a Civil War soldier and moonshiner from Kentucky.

The small distillery has put its own twist to bourbon making. It's aging its bourbon in 15-gallon barrels, much smaller than the barrels typically filled by Kentucky's famous distillers. The intent is for the bourbon to mature more quickly in the smaller containers, said Jeff Wiseman, co-owner of Barrel House Distilling Co.

He said the potential for craft distillers is "unbelievably huge." His distillery's goal is to tap bourbon markets in large U.S. cities, he said.

The comeback of craft distilling is a return to an early Kentucky tradition, said Chris Morris, master distiller of Woodford Reserve, a super-premium bourbon that's part of Brown-Forman Corp.'s spirits lineup. In 1810, there was one distillery for every 200 people in the commonwealth, he said.

"They were all craft distillers," Morris said. "That's our heritage, crafting distilling."

Now, making bourbon has become a huge international business.

Bourbon production has risen more than 115 percent since 1999, with the popularity of pricier small-batch and single-barrel brands leading the way along with growing global demand. Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon, and the state has more barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses than it does people.

Kentucky distilleries have invested about $225 million in equipment, aging warehouses, visitors' centers and other facilities in the last year or so.

"We've got a signature industry here in Kentucky that's not only so very old, it is growing as rapidly as any industry ... across this country," Beshear said.

Jimmy Russell, the longtime master distiller at Wild Turkey, said there's ample space in the market for an array of bourbon makers.

"Everybody does it a little different," he said. "If we all made it the same, to taste the same, we'd just need one."

KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL kybourbontrail.com

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