On the Whiskey Trail | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

On the Whiskey Trail

Visiting the American Heartland to tour whiskey distilleries

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Booze tourism offers another dimension for enjoying one’s tipple.

The American Whiskey Trail, or AWT, is a tourism initiative and educational journey conceived and sponsored by the folks at the Distilled Spirits Council of the US (DISCUS), the national trade association representing the leading producers and marketers of distilled spirits in the United States. The AWT is a cool and deliciously interactive way of exploring, as DISCUS puts it, “the cultural heritage and history of spirits in America.”

The “trail” in this instance is perhaps more conceptual than, as there isn’t exactly a clear path from A to B. What largely connects the distilleries on the trail is, first, their membership in DISCUS, and, second, the fact that they are all part of the same cultural landscape of American whiskey production. As the marketing copy on the AWT website succinctly puts it, “From the colonial era, where whiskey had an important economic and social function in the fabric of the community, to the Whiskey Rebellion, through Prohibition and into modern times, spirits have played a sometimes controversial but always fascinating role in our nation’s history.”

The trail highlights not just many of the most famous domestic distilleries still in operation, but also some sites of strictly historic interest that tell part of the story of domestic production of distilled spirits. My own recent trip, sponsored by DISCUS, covered the wide range that the AWT has to offer, while also enjoying distinct local slices of Americana.

We began at the George Washington Distillery in Virginia, and then flew to Nashville, Tennessee, to visit the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg. Jack Daniel’s is still the top-selling American whiskey globally. After a fabulous tour of the facilities there, we enjoyed a tutored tasting with Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, and learned about the past, present, and projected future of Jack Daniel’s.

 

Arnett explained, for example, that while they remain terribly concerned about the effects of President Trump’s trade war, they have planned for the worst and have already exported enough products to their distribution networks overseas to hopefully ride out much of the feared tariff battle without having to raise customer costs for a significant period of time. Most other producers do not play with sufficient volumes or wield enough market clout to do likewise.

We next ventured on to the comparatively tiny George Dickel Distillery in Tullahoma, TN, and enjoyed a fine chat with Master Distiller Nicole Austin. It was hot as blazes and nearly as humid as a steam-room, but the tour and tasting were still well worth the effort.

I later enjoyed a fun but exhausting night in downtown Nashville, checking out one Honky Tonk joint after another. While I have a somewhat eclectic range of musical interests, my tastes definitely run more to Klezmer than to anything like Honly Tonk. The locals couldn’t have been nicer, yet I felt very far from my native Jewish habitat. I also felt very old—Vanderbilt University is minutes away and the student vibe dominates.

From there we ventured to Kentucky, the heartland of the bourbon industry. Besides traipsing through a series of very fine and well-known bourbon distilleries, we also visited places that appeal to my inner nerd: the Brown Foreman Cooperage (where they make bourbon barrels), and Vendome Copper and Stills, the foremost domestic producer of copper and steel stills and distillation equipment. Vendome is veritable whiskey geek’s candy-store stop.

 

One highlight of the Kentucky portion of AWT was our tour and tasting at the newly opened urban Old Forester Distillery—which was easily one of the best tours around. The new 70,000-square-foot, $45 million distillery was built in the exact location where the original Old Forester distillery stood from 1882 until 1919, when Prohibition closed its doors.  Its stretch of Main Street was once home to 89 bourbon companies, though now Old Forester alone stands testament to the old “Whiskey Row” nickname.

 

The distillery produces about 14 barrels of spirit a day, with every step of the process on full display to visitors, offering a rather unique tour experience (the rest of the brand’s whiskey is produced at parent company Brown-Forman’s other distilleries). The distillery features a compact but fully operational cooperage operation, allowing visitors to see up-close how barrels are fashioned, charred, and filled with spirit. There is even a modern 900-barrel capacity black-steel-set-against-exposed-brick “rick house” or warehouse on premise, allowing guests to learn about every stage of the whiskey’s maturation in a fittingly contemporary, urban vibe background. Throughout the distillery, are cool design features that provide whiskey production information and showcase brand heritage memorabilia such as old bottles, posters, labels, decanters, vintage company photos, and period advertisements. Indeed, I can’t recall the last time I’ve experienced such a well-conceived and executed modern distillery tour for a general audience.

Those interested in a little booze tourism should definitely check out the American Whiskey Trail, and learn and experience first-hand about this slice of Americana. It’s fun, educational, and mighty tasty. L’Chaim!

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