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A Trip to Kentucky: Whiskey Tour of a Lifetime

A Trip to Kentucky: Whiskey Tour of a Lifetime

What do you do when you want to learn the history of Bourbon? Drive 12 hours down to Kentucky, of course! And that’s exactly what some of our team did from May 8th to May 14th as they embarked on a whiskey tour of a lifetime.


From left to right: John, Sara, Leslie, Zack, Dylan


But why Kentucky?

Kentucky is the “Bourbon Capital” of America—an impressive claim to an already highly situated spirit. American straight whiskey (different from Canadian, Scottish, or Irish “whisky”) or “Bourbon” can only legally be made in America. Bourbon has been called the “quintessential American spirit” but has only remained so due to an outstanding commitment to its traditions and history on the parts of its makers and enthusiasts.

In 1909, President William Howard Taft defined “whiskey.” Among other specifications, the definition dictated its process, grain content percentage, maximum ABV (Alcohol by Volume), and even the type of barrel in which it’s aged. Angel’s Envy (a whiskey and rye distillery in Louisville, KY) breaks down the nuance and history of the definition here.

This definition is the result of a history as rich as the spirit itself and, much like the country it represents, full of moments of adversity. Distilling was brought to America with the first settlers. Whiskey was found to be a superior alternative to beer as it lasted longer and was easier to transport. As whiskey evolved, so did its makers. Distilleries like Old Crow and Old Forester founded practices like using sweet mash (entirely new ingredients) instead of sour mash (old mash, standard practice), charring barrels for additional flavour and colour, and bottling Bourbon for the first time ever in response to barrel tampering.

Since a market like this one sinks and swims with its consumers, the world wars, the subsequent Prohibition Act passed in 1920, and then the Vietnam war, time and time again drove the whiskey industry to the brink of collapse. Even when Bourbon had begun its slow crawl back to popularity, by then Canadian/Scottish/Irish “whisky” had filled the gap left by its absence. It was only fairly recently (considering its lengthy history) that Bourbon made its comeback, and with so much care taken to protect its legacy and traditions, it’s about time.

That is what our team hoped to understand by visiting some of the brightest, oldest, and most established Bourbon distilleries in America and thus, the world.



But let’s get to the itinerary, shall we?

What better place to start a Bourbon tour than with Vendome Copper & Brass Works, the most renowned still maker in the world? For over a hundred years, Vendome Copper and Brass Works has been fabricating stills for all major Bourbon makers and rum distillers.

Next on their list was Rabbit Hole Distillery, a modern, large-scale distillery that began with a dream to connect Bourbon’s tradition to their pursuit of originality.

Which brought them to Maker’s Mark: creator of the world’s first premium Bourbon. Bill Samuel Jr. (an 8th gen distiller) is marrying tradition to innovation by developing new ways to create bourbon by inserting staves (vertical planks used to create barrels) post-maturity.

Maker's mark offered a tasting of their delicious whiskey.


Heaven Hill Distillery, their next stop, also has strong ties to legacy as the world’s largest independent, family-owned Bourbon distillery. Their resilience was tested back in ‘96 when they lost 92,000 barrels in a fire—but they were up and running again the next day.

Which brought the team to the Woodford Reserve Distillery, a National Historic Landmark and creator of elegant and flavourful Bourbon worthy of its global renown.

This stop was followed by Buffalo Trace Distillery, the oldest continuously operating distillery in America (they’ve been making Bourbon for 200 years!). Even during the Prohibition Act passed in 1920 that forced many distilleries to shut down, Buffalo Trace was permitted to remain open so long as they made whiskey for “medicinal purposes.”

Then they took a tour of Bulleit Distilling, one of the fastest-growing whiskeys in America, which celebrated its 30th anniversary back in 2017.

The tenth stop on the journey was Jeptha Creed. What is distinct about their Bourbon is their use of locally sourced Bloody Butcher Corn, an heirloom variety of corn named for its curious change in colour from white to red weeks after it’s picked.

Their trip up until now certainly taught them things they never would have learned otherwise, but by their eleventh stop it was time to hit the books. Moonshine University offers technical training for start-ups, industry professionals, and those looking for careers in the spirits industry. Our team engaged in 8 hours of extensive training under the Stave & Thief Society to understand the history and laws of making Bourbon, as well as to learn about the major whisk(e)y makers in the world and the Grain to Bottle process. The training was followed by an exam for certification, making four of our team members “Executive Bourbon Stewards.”

Which brought our team to their last stop and where most often end up anyway: the Hard Truth… or Hard Truth Distilling Co. anyway. They will be celebrating their 10th anniversary next year as they continue to innovate sweet mash distilling.

Then, it was time for us to bring them back home. The experience was unforgettable and invaluable as it allowed them not only to better understand the histories and traditions behind some of the oldest names in Bourbon but also to feel the weight of those histories—to connect what we do here at Top Shelf in some way to that legacy—as well as to inspire new innovations, drawing from deep wells of traditional techniques to continue creating magic here at Top Shelf.

Some questions for the team: 

QUESTION: What was your biggest takeaway from the trip?
ZACK: I know for me personally I have plans to enrich the whisky tours and have more knowledge on how to deliver tastings, as well as some new practices to perfect our mash bill to make the best whiskey possible.

QUESTION: What was your favourite place and why?
LESLIE: I loved visiting Kelvin Cooperage. The detail and care that go into making barrels is remarkable and I think people would be surprised to see how much work it takes. I liked that they honour their history by continuing to char the barrels before they toast them—this is an old tradition that most cooperages have abandoned.

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