Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Town Branch Distillery

I’ll admit it. I had a bad taste in my mouth when I visited Town Branch. I couldn’t quite figure out why they were part of the main Kentucky Bourbon Trail when they just started making whiskey. In my mind, they should have been part of the Craft Tour. Small shop, limited distribution, product that wasn’t quite there as far as I was concerned. But they are part of a much bigger company, so what do I know?

I’d tried the Town Branch Bourbon when I was at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival last. It was the year after they became part of the Trail. I figured that if they were part of this collective marketing alliance, they must be ok. I mean, if you’re the new guy, and you put yourself among all those logos, you’re borrowing their goodwill. And, if—by extention—you suck, you are using up a bit of that goodwill. Spending it and it can never be recovered. So I figured it must be, at least, ok. I tried it…it wasn’t. It was terrible. It became the first bourbon that I actually disliked. I couldn’t find one nice thing to say about it.

I do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport program because I like getting the T-shirt and because I would probably be stopping at most of these places anyway as I travel through Kentucky. I like T-shirts. It was because I want to get the T-shirt again that I decided that I needed to give Town Branch another chance. Plus, my wife likes their beer. And I was starting to belive that the sample I’d had a year and a half previously must have had something wrong with it. Or maybe the food I’d been eating screwed up my palate. In any case, it was time to try again.

So I walk in and pay the $7 each to take the tour. As part of the tour, you get 4 tasting tickets. Each ticket is worth one sample. You’ll need to employ a little strategy here. You will only get to try half of the items they offer for sample. They have 5 beers and 3 spirits. I used three of mine on the beers and one on the spirits. My wife did two and two.

As we waited for the tour we stood in the gift shop. It’s a very pretty shop. They made it up to look like a Dublin street scene. While we waited, I heard the guy working behind the counter council a few other soon-to-be tour takers to give Wild Turkey and Four Roses a miss. I was shocked, but seeing as the secret that is Four Roses has been leaked, I’m ok that there won’t be four more people in the competition to get their hands on some.

Soon enough the tour starts and as is standard in a Bourbon Trail tour, we watched a video. After the video we were led across the road to see the brewery portion of the tour. One thing I liked about the tour is that this is both a working brewery and a working distillery that makes both bourbon and malt whiskey. In the brewery portion, you get to learn about the beer making process from start to finish, including the ancient bottling machine (which was pretty cool to see). The other thing you get to learn about is the pre-distilling portion of the malt whiskey process. It uses basically the same ingredients and the same equipment. It just gets piped across the street to the still instead of being hopped and bottled. Then it’s on to the samples. I tried the Kentucky Ale, the Kentucky Kölsch, and the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout. 

After the brewery, we walk back across the street into the distillery portion. The first thing you see is a large stack of Woodford Reserve barrels. I thought this a bit odd at first until I realized that one of this company’s most famous products is a bourbon barrel-aged beer. All of a sudden, it made sense. They’ve been making the beer a lot longer than they’ve been making whisky. After the tour guide shows us around the bottling area we moved into the bourbon fermenting area and still room.

The bourbon fermenting area and still room has been written about a lot. And with good reason. This is a beautiful room. Rough stone, floor to ceiling glass walls and stills displayed as the showpieces they are. It really is a pretty space. 

Then came the spirit tasting. I gave the bourbon another try while my wife tried the Pierce Lyons Reserve and the Bluegrass Sundown. Pierce Lyons Reserve is a malt whiskey and the Bluegrass Sundown is a coffee liqueur made using bourbon. I can’t really say how good the PLR was as I don’t have much to compare it to. But it didn’t make me want to dump it out. The coffee liqueur was served by making it into a miniature Irish Coffee style drink. Quite tasty. The Town Branch bourbon…well this is normally where I would do tasting notes. I’m not doing that because I couldn’t bring myself to buy an entire bottle for one tasting. I knew I’d have to figure out what to do with it later since I wouldn’t want to drink it. In place of a formal tasting note, I’ll quote a tweet that I published after giving it another try:

I disliked the bourbon as you can see. My thoughts on their bourbon aside, you should probably give this place a look. I liked the tour quite a bit. Some of the beer is quite good. I picked up a four-pack of the barrel-aged stout to bring home with me after I visited. People, including my wife, seem to love the barrel-aged ale (I find it too sweet). The Kölsch is tasty enough. The coffee liqueur is pretty good too. The tour guide was entertaining. And it really is a show-piece of a stop. And if all that doesn’t get you, there’s always the free T-shirt it will help you earn.