My friends from Nashville and I have talked about doing a bourbon weekend for years. Like most Kentuckians, I’ve visited a few distilleries throughout my life, becoming an Ambassador at Maker’s Mark and looking forward to the fun and creative Christmas gifts from them over the years. My cousin works at Woodford, so I’ve always had a soft spot for it, preferring it over other brands. When the bourbon renaissance began a while back, the hypothetical bourbon trip came up more and more often, especially after all of us had had a few; however, it wasn’t until this summer that it became a reality, and in the most unlikely of ways.
This spring, my friend Michelle found out she was expecting, and, like the true rockstar she is, offered to be our designated driver on the bourbon trail, swiftly eliminating the fly in the ointment. The stars shifted further into alignment when my parents purchased a Sprinter van to drive around in for their retirement (a whole other story altogether) and agreed to let us borrow it. The trip picked up new steam, and eight of us decided to head up to my homeland in August, with Michelle ferrying us around the trail in the giant van.
Beaumont Inn is the perfect home base
But where to stay? Between my sister’s and my parents’ houses in Danville, we could make room for eight people, but that didn’t seem like the ideal solution. Instead, we settled on historic Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, a place I’d frequented many times for meals but never actually stayed at. As a kid, Beaumont meant dressing up in church clothes, being careful not to knock anything over, and convincing my mom to let me order more corn cakes. As an adult, it’s been fun to rediscover Beaumont, which has been given new life under fifth-generation innkeeper Dixon Dedman, who opened the more casual Old Owl Tavern in 2004, and the Owl’s Nest, a cozy upstairs pub, in 2009.
Beaumont has always been a dining destination in the area, with food so simple, southern and straight up good it makes my mouth water just thinking about it, but now it’s a place you want to go every day, not just Sunday for brunch. Dixon has also established the Inn as a stop on the Bourbon Trail, offering private bourbon tastings and flights in the Tavern. (More on that in a minute.)
Once the entire crew was in town Saturday morning, we loaded up the Sprinter (affectionally called “Greyhound” by my parents), and took off for Maker’s, the first stop of the day.
Maker’s is Bourbon Disneyland
This was my third trip to Maker’s, but man, has it changed. A new visitor’s center adjacent to the Burks House opened five weeks ago to handle the large crowds that pour in daily. Tours take off starting at 9:30 a.m., with about thirty people a piece, a bachelor or bachelorette party always whooping somewhere on the property. As always, the grounds were gorgeous, the red, black, and white colors popping off one another and the lush green landscape in pristine fashion. I always joke that because Maker’s is the most recognizable bourbon brand and the most popular distillery to visit, it often comes off as Bourbon Disneyland, from the 1935 Chandler & Price printing press for each label to the bottling line where each bottle is hand-dipped in the signature red wax by a duo of ladies always happy to offer a smile for the camera. Almost too good to believe, right? (Hmm…)
It isn’t until you get into the new tasting building/gift shop that you realize just how much money this place is making. Whereas you used to get a shot of Maker’s at the end of tours back in the day, now visitors are privy to an entire tasting in Maker’s new tasting rooms, glass-enclosed, soundproof spaces in one of the distillery’s rack houses. The tour guide leads you through the tasting, which I’m sure always includes one clown who claims to like the “white dog,” aka moonshine, and someone the guide will dub “Shots McGee.” I’m not a huge Maker’s fan, but I did enjoy the Maker’s 46, and, of course, the bourbon ball at the very end.
Last year, Maker’s debuted “The Spirit of Maker’s,” a massive art installation by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. The display, which commemorates Maker’s 60th anniversary, is beyond impressive and greets visitors as they leave the tasting rooms for the gift shop, which is equally grand and stocked with every Maker’s item you could imagine. I’ll be honest, while Maker’s is nice, the real reason I brought my friends here was so they could dip their own bottle in the red wax, the ultimate souvenir for the liquor shelf.
With our bottles, shirts, and Maker’s Mark ornaments in hand, we loaded back up into Greyhound and got back on the trail.
Woodford is booming
After a picturesque pitstop at Wallace Station for lunch, we arrived at Woodford Reserve, the most beautiful of the distilleries to this blogger. Smack dab in the middle of horse country, the drive alone is worth the trip. Unfortunately, all the tours were full, but we were able to get into one of the “porch presentations,” a new feature that allows visitors to sample a few bourbons while getting a short overview of the process and flavors.
Woodford just reopened its visitor’s center last year, and I was stunned by the transformation. It was always a pretty place, but now it is much more upscale, with large sitting areas with leather couches; a gorgeous, spacious tasting room; panoramic views from the limestone porch; and even a new cafe boasting farm to table fare. Even though we didn’t get the full tour, just hanging out in the visitor’s center was a treat in itself. Little did we know the best was yet to come.
The most interesting bourbon tasting in the Bluegrass
We got back to Beaumont Inn just in time for our private tasting with Dixon. The table was carefully laid out with five glasses each of Blade & Bow 22, Pappy Van Winkle 23, Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2014, Willett Family Estate 13, and the grandaddy of them all, George T. Stagg. I’ll admit, I’m not a bourbon aficionado, so the rarity of these bourbons was a bit lost on me, but I still enjoyed getting to taste them, especially with Dixon as our guide.
As the late afternoon sun filtered in through the inn’s windows, Dixon broke down each bourbon for us and explained the history behind each distillery and how they benefitted or changed after the bourbon boom. I won’t divulge all of Dixon’s insider secrets, but it was fascinating to learn the story behind each prominent brand. Most interesting to me was Willett, which, until recently, was essentially an extensive collection of other distilleries’ surplus that the family bought in the barrels and aged themselves until ready for purchase. Willett now has their own distillery, which I got to visit Friday and recommend, but any bourbon nut will tell you that the Family Estate Collection is famous because each bottle is a mystery. Is it old Maker’s? Woodford? Who knows, but trying to guess is half the fun.
The Willett was impressive, but I liked the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch the best, maybe because I tend to lean more towards fruity/spicier flavors rather than vanilla/caramel flavors. (The fact that I just wrote that sentence kind of stuns me, and speaks to what an excellent teacher Dixon was.)
Resurrecting another family business: Kentucky Owl Bourbon
Given Dixon’s extensive knowledge of bourbon, it’s no surprise that he started his family’s old distillery, Kentucky Owl, back up a few years back. The original Kentucky Owl distillery was founded on the banks of the Kentucky River in Mercer County in 1896 by Dixon’s family, but was shut down by teetotaling state authorities in 1916. After Prohibition was enacted a few years later, a mysterious fire leveled the warehouse, and the distillery became a wistful part of the Dedman family lore.
About eight years ago, Dixon decided to resurrect the old family distillery through a partnership with Mark and Sherri Carter, friends and fellow innkeepers from California that are also prestigious winemakers. Kentucky Owl was born again, and was bottled for the first time last summer. Since then, it’s already made noise, winning Garden & Gun‘s “Made in the South” award for Best Drink and selling out in a matter of weeks. If you missed the first release of Kentucky Owl, don’t worry; the second release is coming up later this month, but get ready to stand in line.
The good times kept rolling in March, when Dixon and Beaumont Inn were awarded the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classic Award. The building that serves as the main house at the Inn was built in 1845 and used as a women’s college before Glave Goddard and Annie Bell Goddard founded it as Beaumont Inn in 1917. Almost a century later, it’s good to see it’s still going strong.
A fitting end to a perfect weekend
After our tasting, we ate at Old Owl Tavern, introducing my non-Kentucky pals to the wonders of green beans done right (in ham/bacon, natch), corn pudding, country ham, and the best ranch dressing known to man. My friend Theresa proclaimed it the best meal she’s had in months while the rest of us practically licked our plates clean. We retired to the porch for a nightcap and slept soundly before rising early for one last meal before hitting the road back to Nashville.
A long time in the making and expectations high, the weekend did not disappoint. Even though these were things I’ve done a million times before — eat at Beaumont, watch a Kentucky sunset, taste bourbon, sit on the porch with my friends — it all felt new, and I couldn’t help but wonder why we had waited so long.