A while back my wife and I were discussing plans for the celebration of her birthday – one of those momentous birthdays that need commemoration in a big way. Before the pandemic we had spoken often of a return to Italy, our favorite spot in all our travels. Now, that was out of the question. After some brainstorming my wife suggested a trek on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. I was astonished, as this sounded like a way I’d choose to celebrate my birthday. But, she insisted it was something she’d enjoy – with a visit to some horse farms and Churchill Downs thrown in the mix. So … with a bit of trepidation, we set out.

First, let me clarify – the Bourbon Trail is not like a wine crawl, where you zip happily along scenic roads to wineries conveniently located periodically along the way. No, for the most part you have to go in search of the distilleries, with miles of dirt and narrow gravel lanes to navigate. A lot of it has to do with the water source. Where there is good clear Kentucky spring water, filtered through ancient limestone, you will likely run across a distillery. It might just be in the middle of nowhere.

Now, about bourbon. This amber elixir is truly America’s contribution to the pantheon of spiritous beverages. In 1964, the U.S. Congress deemed bourbon as “a distinctive product of the United States,” but the liquor has been made for a couple of hundred years prior to that. It’s distinctive in large part because it is, and must be, primarily distilled from corn – at least 51% in fact. Distillers utilize other grains – barley, rye – in varying proportions to extract different flavor profiles. The other key ingredient is the barrel. And I say “ingredient” because in addition to being aged in new charred white oak barrels, a portion of the barrel makes its way into the bourbon.

As the bourbon, crystal clear initially as it enters the barrel, ages it seeps into the grain of the oak wood. As the temperature in the storage warehouses (called rick houses) cool and heat up the barrel expands and contracts. The bourbon takes on not only its color, but a great deal of its flavor, from the wood. Distillers char the barrels to different degrees to influence the bourbons flavor – a light char compared to a charcoal-like char produces a noticeably different taste.

That’s three of the four big components of making bourbon: the grain mixture, the limestone water and the char of the barrel. The final factor is the length of aging time. Most bourbons are aged at least two years, but many pricier ones are aged substantially longer. Aging mellows the flavors and enhances smoothness. The longer aging process also means that, due to evaporation, each year results in less bourbon in the barrel. The “angel’s share” that evaporates as those barrels contract and expand (as much as 5% per year) necessitates charging more for longer-aged products. It is not uncommon to find a barrel completely empty when opened after a lengthy period of aging. Lucky angels!

We visited Willett, Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Makers Mark, Barton and Angel’s Envy. Some were offering tours and tastings; some simply allowed you to browse their gift shops. We purchased bottles at each, usually choosing a version billed as being exclusively available at the distillery. On our drive home we felt much like the bootleggers of old with our trunk packed with bottles to the extent that our luggage was relegated to the back seat. Our dogs, when we retrieved them from the kennel, were not amused to be sharing space with suitcases and souvenirs.

As the holidays approach, one of the best uses for bourbon, other than simply drinking, is to make bourbon balls. Said to have been first created by Rebecca Hanley Booe of Kentucky’s famed Rebecca Ruth Candy in 1938, the recipes for this delicacy are legion. The kind folks at Woodford Reserve gave us this recipe.

Woodford Reserve Old-Fashioned Chocolate Bourbon Balls

2 Tbsp. Maker’s Mark Bourbon

1 cup bourbon-soaked chopped pecans

1 lb. confectioners’ sugar + 2 cups extra

1/4 lb. unsalted butter

8 oz. Hershey’s unsweetened baking chocolate

4 Tbsp. grated paraffin

Whole pecans for topping each bourbon ball

1. DO AHEAD: Place pecans in a jar – add Maker’s Mark to cover 1-inch over pecans, approx. 1-1/2 cups. Cover tightly with lid and let stand 7–10 days for pecans to absorb bourbon flavor.

2. Drain bourbon-soaked pecans thoroughly and set aside. Discard the whisky. It will be bitter and unusable now.

3. In a large bowl, cream the butter by using an electric mixer.

4. Add 1 lb. sugar and Maker’s Mark Bourbon alternately to the butter until blended.

5. Gently stir in pecans.

6. Refrigerate for 20 minutes to allow the mixture to stiffen.

7. Place 2 cups sugar in a small bowl. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

8. Remove mixture from refrigerator. Scoop tablespoon-sized portions from mixture. Drop into sugar and then roll 1-inch balls. Place on baking sheet.

9. Refrigerate 2 hours.

10. Melt chocolate and paraffin in a small double boiler or use a coffee mug in a pan of boiling water. Stir until the mixture is smooth.

11. Using a long toothpick, dip each ball into the chocolate and place back on the baking sheet. Immediately top with a whole pecan and allow to cool.

12. Serve at room temperature. Store in refrigerator covered for up to 2 weeks.

This makes me ready for the holidays just reading about it. Think what a great gift a dozen of these would make? In a nice canning jar with a gingham ribbon? (Sorry – Martha Stewart was on TV this morning)

If you’d rather drink your bourbon, or have a drink after all that chocolate dipping, this was one we tried at Angel’s Envy. This distillery, in downtown Louisville, was started by a father and son team – Lincoln and Wes Henderson. I tried – repeatedly – to convince the distillery security folks that I was a long-lost relative entitled to multiple tastings and discounts. I was unsuccessful. But they did consent to letting me purchase this delicious cocktail, named in honor of the Georgia branch of the family I’m fairly certain.

Angel Went Down to Georgia

1½ parts Angel’s Envy Bourbon

¾ part peach purée

¾ part simple syrup

¾ part lemon juice

¾ part Bonal Gentiane Amaro

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir well. Strain into a chilled Collins glass. Garnish with a peach slice and mint sprig.

Our bourbon adventures continued to Churchill Downs, a dinner with legendary Triple Crown trainer Bob Baffert, and too many mint juleps to count. More bourbon next time!