SIGHTS WORTH SEEING: Liquor and Lincoln

"Sights Worth Seeing" focuses on places that are not "typical" travel destinations but are largely undiscovered gems with much to offer.

The Maker’s Mark Distillery and the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln are both off the beaten path but worth the modest detour if you’re in or passing through central Kentucky.

Knob Creek Tavern at the Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park

Kentucky is known for its bourbon, and distilleries abound. Oddly, however, some are in “dry” counties, meaning the sale of alcohol is prohibited, so visitors can “look but not touch.” Not the case for Maker’s Mark. It’s located in Loretto, a town of about 700 people located in Marion County, so people who take the tour (limited to those 21 and older) can sample the wares, purchase a bottle or several to take home, and even dip them in the signature red wax themselves for a custom touch.

Entrance to the still house

Marker’s Mark dates back to 1953 when 6th generation distiller Bill Samuels, Sr. was working with his family's trusted, 170-year-old recipe for bourbon. Samuels wanted to make a bourbon that didn’t have the bite of bourbon made with traditional rye grain, so he replaced it with soft, red winter wheat that gives the finished product a delicate sweetness.

Creek through the distillery grounds

Pleased with his amended recipe, Samuels purchased the "Burks' Distillery," which appealed to him because it had already been a working distillery, and because of the limestone-filtered, 10-acre lake on the property. The source of that water is important because limestone filters out iron, which gives whiskey (which Maker’s prefers to spell “whisky”) some unpleasant flavor notes. Even today, nearly 70 years later, every drop of Maker’s Mark is distilled using water from that lake.

Production of Maker’s Mark began in 1954, and the first run was bottled in 1958 under the brand's dipped red wax seal, which was the brainchild of Bill’s wife and co-founder, Margie.

The flavor of Maker's Mark stood out from the crowd, so Margie wanted to ensure the bottle did the same on store shelves. The shape of the bottle, look of the label, signature red wax topper and even the name itself are all thanks to Margie. The bottles’ shape is even incorporated into the shutters on buildings located on the distillery property.

Bottle shape in the shutters

Tours of the distillery start with a tour of the still house, where the fermented sour mash is distilled twice in these copper stills, which our tour guide Chet explained removes more impurities for a more refined sipping whiskey.

Traditional and vertical stills in the still house

From the stills, guests are guided to the fermentation tanks. These large tanks, made of cypress wood, date back to Burk’s Distillery and are still used today. Cypress is ideal because it is flavor-neutral and has no effect on the flavor of the whiskey. Fermentation takes three days, after which this distillation begins.

100-year-old cypress fermenting tubs

Following distillation, the clear distillate (called by a number of names including my favorite, “White Dog”) is pumped into charred French oak barrels, and the aging process begins. Each of the 525-pound barrels spends at least three hot Kentucky summers on the top racks of the rackhouse, where the whiskey expands through the wood, gaining color and flavor. The distillery’s tasting panel determines when the whiskey is ready to move to a cooler section, keeping it from maturing too quickly.

Barrels full of aging whiskey

Unlike other liquors, Maker’s Mark does not “age by the clock.” Instead, the bourbon is aged to taste, and expert tasters determine when each barrel is ready to be bottled. Maker’s Mark is usually ready for bottling after spending between six and seven years in the barrel.

Speaking of those barrels, by law they can by law can be used only once for making bourbon. After that, they’re sold to distillers of other types of liquor, including scotch.

In recent years, Maker’s Mark has developed four additional products, though all of them start with the bourbon that comes from the original recipe. Maker’s 46 (94 proof) is basic Maker’s (90 proof), poured into barrels into which have been placed strips of oak charred to different degrees. Contact with those wood strips over the course of several weeks imparts the flavors that set Maker’s 46 apart from regular Maker’s.

Our guide Chet in the finishing room, where Maker's 46 is made

Other products include Maker's Mark 101 (101 proof), Private Selection and Cask Strength Whiskys (both between about 108 - 116 proof, depending on the cask). Tours wrap up with participants tasting each of the five in very small quantities, then heading to gift shop to buy (and perhaps dip) bottles of their favorite(s).

Post-tour tasting

Heading to and from the distillery will take you past the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, located along U.S. Highway 31E about three miles east of the town of Hodgenville. 

Recreation of Lincoln's boyhood cabin

The park includes recreations of the cabin where Lincoln was born and the Knob Creek Tavern, which is one of the places that played a role in Lincoln’s formative years. The plaza in the center of the highway’s roundabout in Hodgenville boasts statues of Lincoln as a boy and an adult, and has the text of The Gettysburg Address etched into its surface.

Statue of Lincoln in Hodgenville, KY traffic roundabout

Getting to these attractions requires a bit of dedication. After exiting I-65 at Sonora, Kentucky, drivers must negotiate another 35 miles of country roads where the speed is often limited to 35 miles an hour, so it is not a particularly fast trip. But if you’re interested in a bit of history and/or bourbon, it’s worth the effort and the $20 tour fee at the distillery (reserved on line and paid in advance).

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