From Virginia to Kentucky, the best of America’s whiskey distillers
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
You understood American whiskey has deep historical ties — but did you know that our first president had his hand in the business? In addition to learning about George Washington’s original mash bill (60 percent rye, 35 percent corn, and 5 percent malted barley for those counting,) visitors will learn other fun facts at the two-story distillery building in historic Mount Vernon, Va., where costumed interpreters lead visitors through 18th-century fermentation and distillation techniques tied to Washington’s own farm manager, James Anderson. Purportedly, Anderson encouraged Washington to build a whiskey distillery adjacent to his stone gristmill. It was the largest in America, producing some 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799. Today, the on-site distillers produce whiskey without electricity, chopping their own wood to heat the boilers.
Fun Fact: While there is no tasting room at George Washington, its small production labels fetch hefty prices at auction.
"Handmade the Hard Way" is this company’s slogan, and it’s easy to see why — there’s no cutting corners at the George Dickel distillery in Cascade Hollow, located near Tullahoma, Tenn. Handcrafted with many of the same processes that George Dickel first established in the late 1800s — including chilling the whiskey before it mellows — the gorgeous grounds and old timey environs ensure visitors get a taste of real Tennessee whiskey. This includes sneaking a peek at the Lincoln County Process, which involves charcoal mellowing prior to bottling the whiskey. The distillery uses hard sugar-maple trees to make its own charcoal, firing it "the old-fashioned way" in the great outdoors.
From George Dickel
Don’t Miss: A taste of George Dickel Barrel Select. Master Distiller John Lunn selects only 10 barrels of his favorite whiskey a year to produce this small-batch release. Aged between 10 and 12 years, the 86-proof release is surprisingly mellow with vanilla notes.
Providing a fascinating counterpoint to the homey George Dickel distillery is the whiskey mega-producer, Jack Daniel’s, which sold some 10.9 million cases of its green- and black-label whiskey globally last year. The visitors’ center in Lynchburg, Tenn., is an expansive operation, and with some 250,000 visitors touring the distillery and grounds each year, it can have a slightly corporate feel. Yet one peek at the site’s underground cave spring — the source of the iconic whiskey’s iron-free water — provides a rare glimpse into what makes its particular brand of whiskey so special. Registered in 1866 by Jack Daniel, it’s also the oldest registered distillery in the United States, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can even tour Jack Daniel’s original office, and see the safe that he famously kicked in — a move that ultimately led to his death (of gangrene infection) in 1911.
From Jack Daniel's
Don’t Miss: Grabbing a bottle of the special-edition release called "Sinatra Select" from the gift shop. Released in honor of the Old Blue Eyes connection to the whiskey brand — it’s rumored Sinatra was buried with a flask of the good stuff — the bottling features strong vanilla and toasted oak notes, along with hints of banana..
Jim Beam Stillhouse
Opened to the public in the fall of 2012, the distillery’s main building — the point of entry for visitors — is a 1940s replica featuring the actual staircase from the original Jim Beam stillhouse. The company manages to bridge the gap between craft distilling and mass production, and a tour of Jim Beam is a fun, eye-opening experience. And unlike many of the other distilleries on the American Whiskey Trail, it’s hands-on, to boot. Visitors can immerse their hands in grain, fill a barrel with bourbon, and even clean a few bottles on the bottling line. At the conclusion of the tour, you can taste any two Jim Beam products, like Devil’s Cut and Jacob’s Ghost, a white whiskey.
From Jim Beam
Don’t Miss: A swig of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. Aged for nine years and at 120 proof, it’s a robust release with unforgettable smoky and nutty notes.
Start your tour of Bourbon Country on the right foot at this pastoral distillery in Loretto, Ky. — it’s arguably the most scenic in Kentucky. Amid green rolling hills and historic buildings — including the "quart house," one of the oldest liquor sales buildings in the U.S. — visitors can get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how Maker’s is made. On tours, you’ll see fermentation and distillation in the company’s copper stills, as well as see how the signature red wax-covered bottles are hand-dipped. (Visitors over 21 can dip their own bottles to take home.) Among the property’s most picture-worthy stops: The antique fire engine, original Burke family home, and wooden shutters complete with bourbon bottle cut outs.
From Maker's Mark
Don’t Miss: A taste of Maker’s 46: It’s original-recipe Maker’s Mark aged for an additional period in a barrel outfitted with 10 seared French oak staves for a slightly more complex, but still vanilla- and spice-laden bourbon.
The brand — with its signature wild turkey on the label — has always had a cult following, surely due in no small part to Jimmy Russell’s considerable influence. The affable master distiller is a legend in the bourbon world, and visitors who catch a glimpse often stop him for a photo. While most of the facility has an industrial feel (more than 500,000 barrels of bourbon are currently aging), plans are in the works to unveil a sleek new visitor’s center this summer which expects to welcome more than 70,000 visitors each year. The design of the two-story building, featuring extensive woodwork, is supposed to evoke the staves the comprise bourbon barrels. Further adding to the appeal of the new visitors center are plans for an expansive terrace, a place for picnics and musical performances.
From Wild Turkey
Don’t Miss: Picking up a bottle of Wild Turkey Rye 81. Using the brand’s famously high-in-rye mash bill, the release has a spicy kick, primarily from extra aging in "alligator" charred barrels (the inside of the barrels are toasted until the wood resembles alligator skin).
It may be the oldest and smallest working bourbon distillery and a National Historic Landmark, but Woodford Reserve is also one of the most scenic. Visitors can explore the gorgeous stone buildings and pretty grounds on one of several tours, including the Bourbon Discovery Tour for $7, which includes a taste of craft Bourbons in the Visitor Center at the tour’s conclusion, or spring for the $25 National Historic Landmark Tour, a two-hour session that covers the unique evolution of the property. In addition to tasting the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, visitors can have a picnic overlooking nearby Glenn’s Creek or relax in rocking chairs on the expansive porch.
From Woodford Reserve
Don’t Miss: Grabbing a bottle of Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. The premium product is twice barreled in white oak, resulting in a smooth but complex spirit with a vanilla, toffee, and nutty flavor profile.