Kentucky. Straight. Bourbon.

Three words that when said together are music to the ears of whiskey devotees.

Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky—a number of fine bourbons are made elsewhere in the United States—but just like sparkling wine made in the Champagne region has a special allure, bourbon from Kentucky holds a special place on the back bar. Champagne is more than an allure; it has to be made in Champagne or it is not Champagne.

If you believe even part of the legend, bourbon got its name and flavor by pure happenstance. Farmers in what is now Kentucky needed a cheap and convenient way to turn grain into a cash crop. It just so happened that early settlers in the region knew a thing or two about converting grain into alcohol. Wood barrels marked Bourbon County were filled with white lightning and loaded on packet boats for the journey down the Ohio River and then the Mississippi. By the time they arrived at the final destination, magic had happened.

At some point in the late 1700s or early 1800s, charred oak barrels came into use. One story credits a frugal Baptist minister and distillery operator, Elijah Craig, with the idea. It’s said a fire charred some barrels at his distillery, but he decided to use them. While others suggest some traders in the area, originally from France, brought with them the aging techniques used for cognac and decided this would appeal to customers in Memphis and New Orleans. However the idea came about, the result was a whiskey that is now an iconic American drink.

At some point, legends and stories are eclipsed by history and fact. In 1964, Congress officially recognized bourbon as a “distinctive product of the United States.” Bourbon must be made in the United States using a mash bill that is at least 51 percent corn. It cannot be distilled over 160 proof and aged at no higher than 125 proof. It has to be at least 80 proof when it is bottled. To be “straight” bourbon whiskey, it must be aged at least two years. Only new oak barrels charred by the cooperage can be used for aging. After this first use, the barrels are shipped off to make other whiskeys in places such as Canada or Scotland, or sent to be used to age other spirits. Some end up at breweries for making barrel-aged beer.

These rules and regulations help guarantee a consistency and level of quality when it comes to bourbon. There are certainly stylistic and flavor differences between labels, but the rules set some minimum standards for all distillers. What the rules fail to convey is the sense of history and pride you get from touring one of the bourbon distilleries in Kentucky.

The distillery where Woodford Reserve is crafted is a great example. Brought back from the dead in 1996 thanks to a renewed interest in quality bourbon, it is in Woodford County about an hour outside of Louisville. Nestled amidst major thoroughbred horse farms, the site was first used for a distillery in 1812 by Elijah Pepper. The facility changed hands several times before it became the Labrot & Graham Distillery. Brown-Forman acquired the company and in 1973, during a long slide in bourbon sales, abandoned the distillery. Twenty years later, Brown-Forman was looking for a location to house a new premium spirits brand, and the company reacquired the property. It’s now the Woodford Reserve Distillery.

Maker’s Mark Distillery is tucked away in the Kentucky countryside near Loretto, about 60 miles south of Louisville. Maker’s Mark is part of Beam Inc., which produces Jim Beam, Sauza Tequila and Cruzan Rum, but it is still heavily influenced by the Samuels family. Bill Samuels Sr. purchased the distillery in 1953 for $35,000. His wife, Margie, designed the iconic bottle using a papier-mâché  model and used her calligraphy skills to create the label. The first bottling of Maker’s Mark took place in May 1958. If you visit the distillery, you might even be lucky enough to get the chance to dip a bottle of Maker’s Mark in the iconic red wax—each bottle is still dipped by hand.

A trip to Kentucky’s bourbon country, whether you actually visit or do some armchair traveling is a step beyond beer.

What They Drink

Maker’s Mark master distiller Greg Davis drinks Maker’s with three ice cubes in the winter and six cubes in summer. When he is out on the town, he orders whatever signature drink the bartender makes with Maker’s Mark.

Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris is a fan of classic Manhattans (on the rocks or stirred), Old-Fashioned cocktails with very little muddled fruit and no club soda; and when they are in season—Mint Juleps. All made with Woodford Reserve, of course.

If You Go

In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which consists of stops at six distilleries—Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve—located south of Louisville and west of Lexington. The Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown is a great place to start, but unless you plan to visit each distillery on the trail, your itinerary is dictated by which brands are your favorites. Beyond this cooperative effort, other distillers, such as Buffalo Trace, offer tours and tastings.

While Louisville and Lexington offer more nightlife options and some beer hot spots, Bardstown is the epicenter for experiencing the bourbon culture. A great time to visit is during the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, to be held this year from Sept. 11-16. The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown will give you a taste for the history of whiskey in the region.

Louisville has two bars connected to hotels that are meccas for bourbon lovers. The Seelbach Hilton (500 Fourth St.) appeals to traditionalists, and the Old Seelbach Bar is recognized as one of the best places to enjoy bourbon. Proof on Main (702 W. Main St. at the 21C Museum Hotel) has a highly informed bar staff who are more than willing to make recommendations on small-batch whiskeys.