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The happy harbingers of spring that I look forward to this time each year are as follows: longer, warmer days as the sun stretches and yawns its way into daylight savings; scrappy bulbs defiantly fighting their way through the soil into the still-chilly air; and mint juleps served on the lawn at a dear friend's annual Kentucky Derby party. Just as the race itself is steeped in rich tradition, so is the glorious, amber-colored liquid that goes in those tall glasses with crushed ice and fresh mint. But despite the fact that the states of Virginia and Kentucky both claim the julep as their own invention, one thing remains constant in the drink of the Derby: The main ingredient is American whiskey. So when the opportunity arose to travel to President George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, the starting point of the American Whiskey Trail (www.americanwhiskeytrail.com), a three-state distillery journey into the history of whiskey and whiskey-making in the U.S., I couldn't resist heading south to learn what, exactly, puts the key in American whiskey?

The linking together of seven distilleries and half a dozen historical sites is in large part the brainchild of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), a trade organization representing distilled spirits producers across the country to promote the historical, economical, and cultural importance of spirits in the U.S. -- a $95 billion national industry.

The lucrative economics of liquor were a fact our first president wisely suspected, and the impetus for him to set aside a portion of his 200-acre Mount Vernon Estate (www.mountvernon.org) in 1797 to build his own whiskey and rum-producing facility. Within a year, it was the second largest in the mid-Atlantic, touting a pleasant $7,500 profit from the 11,000 gallons of whiskey churned out of the 75-by-30 foot building (not bad for a retired 18th century general). The death of Washington only two years later, though, put the slow kibosh on the distillery, until it was dismantled and nearly forgotten.

Until now. Nearly 200 years later, Washington's still house is being faithfully rebuilt by the estate's nonprofit foundation, Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens. I was lucky enough to arrive at Mount Vernon on the day the cornerstone (an original sandstone block from the nation's first Capitol building circa 1793) was being laid for the re-building of Washington's grainy little cash cow, whose five copper pot stills and 50 mash tubs will become part of a new museum open to the public in April 2007. Some of the greatest Master Distillers in the U.S. dressed in Colonial-days period garb were on hand making whiskey and rum--Martha Washington's favorite--the old-fashioned way, in an ancient copper still modeled after an original housed in the Smithsonian Institute.

As I sipped a glass of rum punch made from Martha's own recipe, I peered at the clear liquid slowly trickling from the still's spigot into a small silver pitcher (the color doesn't appear in whiskey or rum until after it's aged, which in the case of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, must by law occur in new charred oak barrels, and also must contain at 51 percent corn in the mash). Gary Nelthroepp wandered over, the Master Distiller from Cruzan rum in St. Croix, one of the oldest American distilleries and, apparently, a favorite of Washington's.

"That's the first run," he informed me. "Here, take a whiff."

He picked up the pitcher and motioned for me to smell and dip a pinky in too, if I liked. The aroma was something between sake and molasses, and the taste? Pure alcohol. Or, about 60 proof fusel alcohol to be exact, as Gary informed me, a less refined initial version of what will become the final product Martha was so fond of after about three or four years of barrel aging.

"The crazy thing is a week's worth of distilling rum or whiskey this way," he said, gesturing to the ancient copper still, which holds about 15 to 16 gallons, "yields just one barrel. But it's fun. When else are you going to get a group of master distillers together in one place to for something like this?"

Following the cornerstone ceremony, I took the opportunity to take a guided tour of the grounds, an hour-long trek through history that meanders among Washington's beloved gardens filled with herbs, fruit trees, and flowers, stables, a gristmill, and pathways, and ends on the sweeping lawn in front of the main house overlooking the majestic Potomac.

"You can just imagine Washington's men floating barrels up the river," my guide said, as we stood in the dappled sunlight gazing at the rambling river far below.

It was a good note to end on, as my mind was already down river heading toward the second stop of the Whiskey Trail--Kentucky.

Golden Grain and Blue Grass

As well known as Kentucky is for breeding champion horses, so it is for its outstanding bourbon--and both claims to fame are taken very seriously around these parts. As far as whiskey is concerned, every distiller I met credited one thing in particular to the reason Kentucky has the market cornered on Bourbon: the calcium-rich limestone rock through which the natural spring waters that go into it flow. My stops along this stretch of the American Whiskey Trail included four of Kentucky's finest: Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve -- distilleries as unique to one another as the closely guarded yeast strains they use in their whiskey-making processes. And although I enjoyed each tour and the unique aspects akin to each distillery, there were a few that have remained in my mind -- and that I can't wait to go back and visit again.

I checked into A Rosemark Haven (714 N. Third Street, Bardstown; tel. 888/420-9703; www.arosemarkhaven.com; standard double room $155-189), a stunning 1800s federal-style brick bed and breakfast in Bardstown. With oversized Jacuzzi tubs in several of the rooms, WiFi access, and antique shop on the premises, it was a great place to settle in with my laptop for the next couple of days. Around town, checked out the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History (114 North 5th Street, Bardstown; tel. 502/348-2999; free, donations are appreciated), a small but thorough tribute to bourbon's past (I particularly liked the posters saved from Prohibition, with sayings like "Booze stands between a world of misery and a world of happiness!"), and Toddy's Liquor's (110 South 4th Street, Bardstown; tel. 502/348-1444), which, seeing as the original owner was Walter "Toddy" Beam (yes, one of those Beams), had just about the best selection of Bourbon I've ever seen in one place.

My first stop was the Jim Beam American Outpost (149 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont; tel. 502/543-9877; www.jimbeam.com; free), set among the verdant knobs of the Ohio Hill Valley in Clermont, about 25 miles from Louisville. Of all the spots I visited, Jim Beam may have been the most impressive in terms of combining fun and function: welcoming tourist facility, where a sweet brown Labrador named Long Bark roams around the forest green buildings and expansive open spaces, and the largest bourbon distillery in the country -- one that employs about 420 of the locals to produce the Beam line, which includes the namesake whiskeys, as well the high-end small batch versions--Knob Creek, Booker's, Baker's, and Basil Hayden (all named after members of the Beam family).

Master Distiller, Jerry Dalton, was my guide for the afternoon. Tall, gray-haired, and bespectacled, Jerry is as quick to quote Chinese philosophy (he's written a book about the Tao Te Ching) as he is to fling a local colloquialism into the air.

"Even a blind hog can find an acre," he said in explanation for how he became a Beam MD after moving into the house next door to Booker Noe, the great-great-great grandson of Jim Beam founder, Jacob Beam, who started the family in the bourbon business back in 1795. "We used to drink a little mash and talk a little trash," Jerry said of his old boss, who passed away in February of 2005.

After Jerry gave me and my group a run-down of what's in the mix (corn, barley, and rye) and toured us through Beam's myriad vast facilities, like the bottling room that resembles the opener from Laverne & Shirley pumping out 400 750 ml bottles of bourbon a minute, fermenting rooms where individual silver tanks hold 42,000 gallons of mash, which more closely resembled butterscotch pudding than the beginnings of bourbon, and sky-high barrel houses where the final product sits in wait to age (or, as Jerry calls them, the "Honey Barrels"), we strolled to the genteel T. Jeremiah Beam home for our tasting appointment of Beam's Black Label, Knob Creek, and Bookers in Riedl whiskey glasses designed by Jerry himself.

Next up: Maker's Mark.

Red Marks the Spot

About a half an hour's drive from Bardstown, Makers Mark (3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto; tel. 270/865-2099; www.makersmark.com; free) feels more like a tranquil retreat in time than a functioning distillery. That may be because a portion of its nearly 619 acres is an arboretum and nature preserve, where tulip, walnut, white oak, and Kentucky coffee trees sway in the gentle southern breeze among the espresso-brown buildings trimmed in red. And then there are the little pieces of history dotting the distilleries grounds: the old Toll House near the entrance where fees were once collected for use of the Loretto roads, the old fire house with antique fire truck, and the circa 1800 barrel houses where the whiskey rests until it's time for bottling.

"You're stealing from the angels when you breathe in here," Makers' Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, a wealth of agricultural knowledge and former West Point football player and professor, said to me as I marveled at the beautiful surroundings, a national landmark of note as, established in 1805, it is the oldest registered working distillery on record (although it wasn't always called Maker's Mark; Jack Daniels is the oldest registered distillery operating continuously under the same name).

The best thing about touring the Makers Mark grounds is the great sense of craftsmanship that's such a big part of the process here. Or, as Dave said, "To make modern bourbon, we had to be old-fashioned." This I saw in the ancient roller mill used to crush the grains (Makers Mark uses corn, barley, and wheat as opposed to rye, which gives it a mellow, softly sweet taste), the smaller-sized cypress fermenting vats, and bottlers hand-dipping each bottle in the trademark red wax. "We're a one-trick pony," Dave said of the distillery's sole product, "so we have to do our trick really well and really often!"

I didn't do as well when I had the opportunity to dip my own bottle in wax at the Master Distiller's House, which now serves as the visitor's center -- sipping bourbon, however, I was starting to find I had a great talent for.

Tastin' Tennesee

On my way out of Kentucky, I made a fortifying pit-stop at Kavanaugh's Tea Room (241 East Woodford Street, Lawrenceburg; tel. 502/839-9880; buffet lunch $9.95; rooms $95 for a double; $85 for a single), the restaurant and tea room that was once a boarding school known as "Little Annapolis" for the 150 future Navy officers it produced. I scooped super tender braised beef brisket, shaved potatoes with cheese, corn pudding, and coleslaw onto my plate from their buffet lunch (well, maybe it was a little more than fortifying). I also slipped in a visit to Wild Turkey (1525 Tyrone Road, Lawrenceburg; tel. 502/839-4544; www.wildturkeybourbon.com; free), where I was lucky enough to have an audience with kindly, white-haired Jimmy Rodgers, the legendary Master Distiller who has spent 52 years working for Wild Turkey (I particularly liked his 10-year-aged Russell's Reserve), and made a quick stop at Woodford Reserve (7855 McCracken Turnpike, Versaille; tel. 859/879-1812; www.woodfordreserve.com; $5 for adults 18 and older), the small-batch producer whose pristine, high-ceilinged facilities feel more like a cross between California winery and Amish barn than a small-batch bourbon distiller (although large, their shiny copper stills give away their true allegiance).

After my final look into the vanilla-scented world of bourbon, it was time to head even further south to check out Tennessee's sole whiskey producers. I checked into Nashville's Loews Vanderbilt Hotel (2100 West End Avenue, Nashville; tel. 615/320-1700; www.loewshotels.com/hotels/nashville; standard double room $190), one of the best bets going in town in terms of service, location, and amenities, like plush down comforters, locally made Colt's chocolates in the rooms, and to-go Starbucks in the lobby. Although after a stroll by the Union Station Hotel (1001 Broadway, Nashville; tel. 615/726-1001; www.wyndham.com/hotels/BNAUS/main.wnt; standard double room $179), whose rooms were undergoing a re-vamp, I took note to check it out on my next visit. Built in 1900 and restored in 1998, the fa¿ade of this former railroad station-cum-hotel is a awe-inspiring mass of Tiffany glass windows, ornate carved stone, and swirling wrought-iron work.

A few days in Nashville was all I needed to know that this was on my list of favorite American cities -- and a very easy place to empty out my wallet. Within an hour after getting off the plane, I found myself wandering up Broadway where the famous honky tonks of yore still manage to attract a mind-boggling amount of talented musicians to this day. My favorite stop though was Hatch Show Print (316 Broadway, Nashville; tel. 615/256-2805). Part print museum, part vintage poster seller, Hatch is a must-stop, if only for a look into Nashville's musical history. I walked out with a reprint that advertised a show for a very young looking Johnny Cash, and headed over to Judge Beans (123 12th Avenue N., Nashville; tel. 615/244-8884; www.judgebeans.com; sampler platter, which includes brisket and ribs: $12.50) for some smoky Texas-style beef brisket and live music to prime me and my companions for an old radio-show style evening at the original site of the Grand Ol' Opry, the Ryman Auditorium (116 5th Avenue North, Nashville; 615/889-3060) where I got to see Charlie Pride, Del McCoury, and Patty Loveless all perform on the same stage in one fiddle-laced evening.

I'd heard that the fried chicken at the Loveless Motel and Caf¿ (8400 Highway 100, Nashville; tel. 800/889-2432; www.lovelesscafe.com; breakfast platter with country ham, 2 eggs, red eye gravy, biscuits, and grits: $11.95) was not to be missed, so the next morning, my friends and I drove out of the city to check it out, as well as sample their thick, salty slabs of country ham, over-easy eggs, and soft, buttery biscuits to sop it all up with. After that, we set out for the hour-plus drive through the Tennessee countryside to check out the state's only two whiskey distilleries, Jack Daniels (280 Lynchburg Highway, Lynchburg; tel. 931/759-4221; www.jackdaniels.com; free) and George Dickel (1950 Cascade Hollow Road; tel. 931/857-3124; www.dickel.com; free).

Our first stop was a quick trip through George Dickel's 500 acres, with its ancient, tiny working post office on the premises, little foot bridges, and rolling hills in Cascade Hollow. Jack Daniels, though, required much more of a time allotment in order to thoroughly check out this producer's past and present.

Of course, the first question I had for my guide who took my friends and me through the pretty clapboard facilities of Jack Daniels was, "What's the difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?" The answer was simple: charcoal. Or, specifically, an extra step in the Tennessee whiskey process, by which the liquor undergoes a slow filtering process through charcoal made from burned pieces of sugar maple. And then there's the oddball fact that despite its famous whiskey-producing residents, Moore County, where both Jack Daniels and George Dickel are located, is dry.

As we walked past the limestone cave where the whiskey's spring water comes from, the sweet-sour aroma of the mash from the nearby still house (where 330,000 gallons of whiskey are produced each year) tickled my nose like the scent of a baker's rising dough. After checking out the barrel house and Mr. Jack's old office (where you can see the old safe that brought on Jack Daniel's demise after he kicked it in a fit of anger, resulting in an infected toe wound that eventually killed the tiny entrepreneur), we ate a genteel southern lunch of fried okra, country ham, baked apples, and cornbread from Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House (295 Main Street, Lynchburg; tel. 931/759-7394; $15 reservation only, open Monday - Saturday) in the Jack Daniels dining hall, as the kitchen in the actual Miss Mary's restaurant was undergoing a renovation at the time.

Later on, we took one last sleepy, satiated stroll around the birch-tree dotted grounds. After all this sipping and walking and sight-seeing, whiskey, it seemed to me, took on more than just a depth of color from the charred barrels it sits in -- it was steeped in the history and personalities of its makers, too.

When to Go

While the distilleries mentioned here offer tours year round, some for a fee, Maker's Mark is closed December 24, 25, and January 1. The first two Saturdays in December they offer candlelight early-evening tours of the facilities; closed Sundays in January and February. Wild Turkey is closed on December 26, call for holiday schedules. Woodford Reserve does not offer tours on Mondays, and offers Sunday tours from April through October. George Dickel offers tours Tuesday through Saturday, and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day. Jack Daniels is closes for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

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