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Southern spirits

Throughout the years, wineries, breweries and distilleries — many of them family affairs — have grown and prospered in the South, even in hard economic times.  Virginia now has nearly 200 wineries, and towns such as Asheville, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., have designed entire tours around
sipping spirits.

In Kentucky, you are handed a passport that will be stamped at many of its world-renowned distilleries.

What these venues all have in common is that they offer visitors the opportunity to not only taste and purchase their products, but also spend time in beautiful surroundings.

From century-old limestone buildings amidst the Kentucky bluegrass to a family homestead in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, guests are invited to smell the irresistible aromas, be charmed by the history and passion of making these nectars of the Gods, and often enjoy a delectable meal.

Greenville, S.C.
Set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Greenville’s Wine, Shine and Brew Tour offers groups tastes of a variety of beverages, all in scenic settings.

“The tour begins in downtown Greenville at Northampton Wines, located in a circa-1891 brick building known as Trolley Barn,” said Jennifer Stilwell, chief marketing officer for the Greenville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The founder of Northampton introduces the group to Wines 101: How to Taste, and participants sample seven wines along with cheese and bread.”

Moonshine is on the menu at the next stop, the Dark Corner Distillery, a micro distillery that produces South Carolina’s first legal moonshine. The owner also talks to groups about his business and its history, and of course, a sample or two of these tasty spirits are offered.

“The tour winds up at Blue Ridge Brewing Company, our brew-pub known for award-winning signature beers and an ever-changing seasonal brew lineup. The brew master discusses the art of brewing, and visitors sample some of the seasonal beers,” said Stilwell.

Nearby, Victoria Valley Vineyards offers tours and tastings of six of its house, select and signature wines, as well as seasonal events like an oyster roast and low-country boil. Groups can enjoy Friday night tunes on the terrace and a turkey-and-cheddar panini, greek salad and some cheesecake while surrounded by lush forests.

“In addition, Thomas Creek Brewery, with eight standard beers and seasonal brews as well, is another tasting opportunity for groups,” said Stilwell.

Groups should plan ahead to attend Greenville’s Euphoria. This wine and food weekend festival in September features tasting events, cooking demonstrations, wine seminars, multicourse dinners and live music.

Ask any tourism professional in the Bluegrass State, and they will tell you that bourbon is one of their state’s top attractions. “It’s not because we produce 95 percent of the world’s production, and it’s not because we’ve been known to consume a little bit of bourbon ourselves,” said Stacey Yates, vice president of communications for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It’s because we offer a vacation experience that showcases the bourbon lifestyle. When you experience one or more of our bourbon distilleries, you’re experiencing American history and an authentic American culture — it’s truly an American native experience.”

Yates explained that all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. “Bourbon is a special class of whiskey that must be aged in a new, charred oak barrel. In fact, we ship many of those now distinct bourbon barrels to Ireland and Scotland, where they age their whiskey,” she said.

There are 12 working distilleries in Kentucky. Eight, located in the Bardstown area and around Frankfort and Woodford County, offer public tours. Six — featuring Heaven Hill, Makers Mark, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam bourbons — are part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

“For those venturing out on the Bourbon Trail, each is given a passport and T-shirt. There are wonderful maps available, and I recommend visiting two or three for a great experience,” said Yates. “The two not on the Trail — Buffalo Trace in Frankfort and the 1792 Distillery in Bardstown — are terrific on their own.

“Each is located in a gorgeous setting with the most aromatic atmosphere. And one need not love to imbibe these brown spirits straight up to enjoy a bourbon tour. My mother loves to visit the distilleries just to learn ways to improve her bourbon-braised pork roast,” Yates said.

Offering top-notch bourbon experiences are restaurants in the Louisville and Lexington areas that are members of the Urban Bourbon Trail. “To be on this prestigious list, you have to have 50 bourbons in the bar, offer a signature bourbon cocktail and be cooking with bourbon on the menu,” Yates said.

Group leaders are advised to begin their bourbon journey at the Louisville Visitor’s Center, the place to get all information, including maps and passports, for the bourbon trails.