Friday, 8 August 2008 12:00 AM
Whether you fancy it straight up, on the rocks, with water, in a whiskey sour, a Manhattan, an Old Fashioned or in the traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby - the Mint Julep - Kentucky bourbon is the drink of gentlemen (and women).
A new bourbon trail tasting coach tour from Louisville has just been launched, covering seven historic distilleries nestled in the rolling Kentucky hills over two days.
This is a far cry from the hey day of whiskey distilling in the 19th-century Kentucky corn belt, when it is estimated there were at least 2,000 distillers operating.
Born out the glut of corn production in the frontier settlements and the British blockade during the war of independence, nearly every farm had a whiskey distillery.
This December 5th Kentucky marks the 75th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, with events planned to examine how this period of history impacted production of the finest "American spirit".
You can also hire a car and follow the trail independently to see the art of bourbon making being practiced much as it was two centuries ago.
Distillers remain faithful to a recipe allegedly concocted by the Reverend Elijah Craig, using corn, rye and barley malt mixed with limestone-rich spring water.
As with champagne, there are strict laws governing what makes whiskey bourbon: 51 per cent of the grain used must be corn; it must be aged a minimum of two years in new, white oak, charred barrels; and nothing can be added to enhance the flavour or alter the colour.
But each distillery's bourbon has a distinctive flavour, due to subtle variations in the process developed by generations of master distillers.
The Wild Turkey distillery in Lawrenceburg originally opened in 1855 as a grocery store and gained its name in 1940 when distillery executive Thomas McCarthy brought a private supply the spirit along to enjoy with his friends on their annual wild turkey hunt.
They liked it so much that the following year, they requested that he bring along some of that "wild turkey" bourbon.
Buffalo Trace is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States, with a working distillery on the grounds since 1787 and using only five whiskey recipes.
The Four Roses distillery has a romantic legend attached to it. Founder Paul Jones Jr asked a beautiful Southern belle to marry him and she told him she would wear a corsage the night of the grand ball if her answer was yes.
On the appointed evening, the young woman showed up wearing a corsage of four perfect red roses. The prospective bridegroom was so delighted that he named his bourbon Four Roses.
The Spanish-mission style house was built in 1911 on the banks of the Salt River.
Heaven Hill Distilleries is the second largest holder of aging bourbon whiskey in the US with an inventory of over 675,000 barrels.
Bourbon has been produced at the Jim Beam American Outpost, and by the Beam family, since 1795.
As well as the tasting tour here, visit the Jeremiah Beam House - another registered historic place - and see the oldest moonshine still in the country.
Maker's Mark is the oldest working bourbon distillery in the country and a beautifully restored national historic landmark, all polished copper and rustic wood.
In 1805 it was built as a gristmill distillery and is now one of the smallest distilleries - crafting bourbon in batches of less than 19 barrels.
It is believed to be the only bourbon distillery to exclusively use pure, iron-free limestone spring water, rather than city, well or river water.
Woodford Reserve Distillery makes super-premium, small batch bourbon amid the rolling pastures of Kentucky's Woodford County thoroughbred horse farms. The distillery still uses copper pot stills and matures its bourbon in a unique limestone warehouse.
Six distilleries on the Kentucky bourbon trail run free tours, while the seventh - Woodford Reserve - charges a mere $5 (Â£2.50).
No exploration of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail would be complete without a visit to the Oscar Getz Museum of whiskey history in Bardstown.
With a collection of whiskey-related artefacts spanning 225 years, the museum even features a confiscated copper still that once belonged to George Washington.
After his stint as president, Washington became one of the biggest whiskey distillers in the US.
The museum also has an 1854 EC Booz bottle - the brand from which the word "booze" originated.
Bardstown is the self-styled "bourbon capital of the world" and the Bourbon Heritage Centre at Heaven Hill Distilleries is another must-see on the trail.
And if the Kentucky bourbon trail has left you thirsting for more, there is an 'Urban Bourbon Trail' in Louisville and the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival is held over the third weekend of September (from the 16th to the 21st in 2008).
How to get to Kentucky
Delta Airlines flies from London Gatwick to Cincinnati, from where you drive to Louisville or get a 20-minute connecting domestic flight.
Where to stay in Kentucky
For information on places to stay in Kentucky, including hotels, bed and breakfasts, cabins and lodges and camping see the Kentucky Tourism website.
Natasha von Geldern