Distillery Crawl

The whiskey trails of Kentucky and Tennessee give "spirit of place" a new twist.

The Still House at Maker's Mark

Credit: Wayne Curtis
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At Whiskey Distilleries, you'll often see a black fungus where alcohol vapors vent. Called torula fungus, it afflicts buildings with a sort of disreputable five-o'clock shadow, like the soot that ornaments the back of a diesel bus. But after the third distillery or so that I toured in Kentucky and Tennessee last fall, something happened: I started to appreciate the fungus as a patina.

At the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Ky., torula lent imposing brick storehouses a pleasingly Dickensian air. I admired the untidy fungus on tree trunks outside the charcoal filtration building at the Jack Daniel distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. Streaks of attenuated gray-black mold produced the effect of a Helen Frankenthaler canvas on spare, Shaker-like warehouses filled with aging bourbon spread across a hilltop at Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Ky. Torula isn't a fungus I would describe as beautiful, but during my four-day visit, it perfectly linked the natural and the manmade, product and place.

Although whiskey distilleries hereabouts once greeted tourists with the same warmth moonshiners reserved for revenuers, I was met only with open arms at my seven stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The state plotted the desultory course in and around bluegrass country after noting California's success in luring to its wine country well-heeled tourists interested in adult beverages. Laws were made more connoisseur-friendly, allowing distilleries to sell limited-run whiskeys on premises and even offer tastings. (Regrettably, only Jim Beam and Buffalo Trace rewarded my labors with free sips.) Two new visitors centers, at Heaven Hill and Four Roses, will open this year. I added a side trip to Jack Daniel's because Tennessee is considering an abbreviated whiskey trail that would connect the state's two distilleries. Making good whiskey involves fine-tuning a mere handful of variables, so you might expect a high degree of repetition on the tours. To the contrary, I found each distillery wedded to a unique time and place, and possessed of its own warp and woof.

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