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A Tour and a Taste at Distilleries

Americans have been a spirited bunch ever since Colonial times, as in distilling spirits and consuming the products of their labor. Today, many distillers have added an extra step in the process — showing off how they make those products to visitors who drop in to see them.

Distillery tours are a major ingredient for many brands’ business recipes, and tour experiences vary considerably. Some are huge in scale, and some are practically artisan encounters. Some have truly intriguing backstories, and at least one offers a movie star’s humor and an escape room at the end of the tour.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Tennessee were pioneers in marketing tours, so much so that many people equate distillery tours only with whiskey. That’s not valid anymore because your groups can learn about brandy, vodka, gin and other tasty treats, too. 

Here are some distinctive distillery experiences to incorporate into your group trips.

Copper and Kings

Louisville, Kentucky

Copper and Kings in the Butchertown neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky, stands out in a state where a bourbon distillery seems to be around every curve in the road. That’s because Copper and Kings makes brandy — darn good brandy, if you go by the organizations that rate such things.

Even before you partake of a tour and a taste, you see that Copper and Kings has modern sensibilities. Oceanic shipping containers accent its architectural look, solar panels stand out, and the monarch butterfly garden is a special touch.

Kentucky’s primary distilling industry actually does play a role here because Copper and Kings uses the state’s abundance of used bourbon barrels for maturing its brandies. It adds extra touches with staff-curated music that brightens every tour.

One music connection is that its three pot-stills, which were manufactured in Louisville at Vendome Copper and Brass Works, are named for women on Bob Dylan’s “Desire” album. They are Isis (1,000 gallons), Magdalena (750 gallons) and Sara (50 gallons). 

Another music angle is “sonic aging,” the amplified music that bathes the aging barrels in the maturation cellar. You can’t say the brandy is serenaded because the sound system is quite serious. As Copper and Kings likes to say, “Aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels. Matured with rock ’n’ roll.”

Even though tours include a tasting, the Alexander’s rooftop bar and restaurant is the place to end a visit. Try a brandy Old Fashioned or the Copper and Kings version of a Sazerac while enjoying views of Louisville’s skyline.

Whiskey Acres

DeKalb, Illinois

You’ve heard of farm-to-table dining, but Whiskey Acres in DeKalb, Illinois, offers farm-to-bottle drinking.

This “seed to spirit” experience just 60 miles west of Chicago offers a solid education in agriculture, distilling, tasting and sometimes music appreciation. Co-founder Nick Nagele calls this region “the Napa Valley of corn.”

“Tours begin at the edge of a cornfield. At the right time of year, we show you various varieties in the field,” Nagele said, explaining that Whiskey Acres’ distillers can, over the course of seasons, tease out flavor profiles based on what corn is used. The farm spreads across 2,000 acres, and about 10% of that is dedicated to corn for distilling.

“We were taught to make whiskey,” Nagele said, recalling the impact of master distiller Dave Pickerell.

Pickerell, who was vital to the international growth of Maker’s Mark bourbon, later in his career was called the Johnny Appleseed of American whiskey for helping various small distilleries get started and for advocating for premium products. Whiskey Acres was one of his seed-scattering stops. 

Nagele, who sees himself as farmer more than a distiller, tips his hat to master distiller Robb Wallace. Wallace started his whiskey education from scratch and eventually earned a master’s degree in the craft from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland.

Tours at Whiskey Acres (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) include three tastings and often feature food trucks and live bands. Afterward, you can taste more beverages in the barn-inspired visitor center, where you can order cocktails such as a Barn Door, a Back 40 and a Roll in the Hay. Farm references run deep here.

Nearest Green Distillery

Shelbyville, Tennessee

One of America’s newest distilleries comes with one of distilling history’s greatest stories. It’s the tale of Nathan “Nearest” Green, the man who taught a fellow Tennessean how to make great whiskey. 

Nearest Green, often called Uncle Nearest, was a respected mid-1800s distiller in the hills and hollows of southern middle Tennessee. He never learned to read or write, and no photo of him is known to exist. However, he had worldwide impact because a young fellow named Jack Daniel was his student.

In case you haven’t guessed already, Nearest Green was enslaved when Jack Daniel, himself a young farmhand, started learning the special touch of the Lincoln County Process that involves filtering spirits through hardwood charcoal. (The result is Tennessee Whiskey, which is distinct from bourbon.)

Jack Daniel sold Nearest Green’s whiskey to Civil War soldiers, and after the war, bought the distillery Nearest Green had operated. The two continued to work together, but Nearest Green retired when Jack Daniel moved the distillery. Although Nearest Green didn’t work in Jack Daniel’s Lynchburg operation, his sons and grandsons did. 

Nearest Green’s story got overwhelmed in the eventual international fame of the Jack Daniel’s brand, but his life, role and impact became the heart of a new business.

Entrepreneur Fawn Weaver brought Nearest Green back into the spotlight, creating the Nearest Green Distillery and introducing Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey in 2017. You can’t miss the distillery on U.S. 231 west of Shelbyville because its primary building originally was a massive Tennessee Walking Horse auction barn. 

It’s the centerpiece of a 323-acre, $50 million project led by an all-female executive team that includes a descendant of Nearest Green. That’s Victoria Eady Butler, Nearest Green’s great-great-granddaughter, who is the distillery’s master blender and the first known Black woman master whiskey blender anywhere.

Rock Town Distillery

Little Rock, Arkansas

There certainly were Arkansas distilleries between Prohibition’s end in 1933 and the early 2000s, but that era’s under-the-radar distillers wouldn’t give a stranger a tour. 

That changed in 2010 when Rock Town Distillery opened in downtown Little Rock as the first legal distillery in the state since the great temperance experiment ended. It was the dream of Little Rock native Phil Brandon, whose electrical engineering college education was worlds apart from making award-winning spirits.

Rock Town’s product range is extensive, and vodka is its biggest seller. It has won double gold awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for Rock Town Vodka, Single Barrel Arkansas Bourbon, Brandon’s Gin and Elderflower Liqueur. 

Brandon keeps the focus on Arkansas. All of the corn, wheat and rye he uses come from within 125 miles of Little Rock, aging barrels are from a Hot Springs cooperage, and even the packaging boxes are made in state.

In addition to basic tours, which show off the entire production process, there are cocktail classes and an in-depth bourbon and whiskey history tour. Tours include tastings of several products. A special one is a coffee liqueur using beans from Leivas Coffee, a shop owned by a Guatemalan immigrant who sources the beans from his family’s farm back in Guatemala.

Along with the distillery, Rock Town operates a traditional cocktail lounge that features Rock Town products, plus local craft beers and wines.

In a few short years, Rock Town has developed a significant profile. In fact, a recent Tripadvisor ranking of Little Rock attractions included it with big-name attractions such as the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, the Clinton Presidential Library and the Arkansas State Capitol.

Aviation American Gin Distillery

Portland, Oregon

While “Keep Portland Weird” is a popular slogan, “Keep Portland Laughing” may gain popularity along with the brand-new Aviation American Gin Distillery and Visitor Center. The attraction comes with a splash of laughter — and a taste of superior gin. 

That’s because the spirit of actor and distillery co-owner Ryan Reynolds permeates the nearly 33,000-square-foot facility — sort of like the essence of juniper and other botanicals permeates a good gin.

“If a grown-up theme park and a bartender fell in love and produced offspring, it would be this gin factory,” was Reynolds’ droll assessment when the distillery opened in September 2022. 

Tours are intimate (group maximum is 12 people) and show off the distillation process and the bottling line. Tours highlight Aviation American’s blend of botanicals — cardamom, coriander, French lavender, anise seed, sarsaparilla, juniper and two kinds of orange peels — and how the distillers determine where the “heart of the spirit” exists in the cutting process. That “heart cut” is at 142 proof before it is blended with pure water to reach the desired 84 proof for bottling.

Of course, tours include tastings, but there’s a bonus experience — visiting Reynolds’ office, which doubles as an escape room. There is more than one Reynolds puzzle to solve. 

The distillery’s bar offers more tastings. Its menu includes six draft cocktails that rotate seasonally, plus traditional cocktails such as an Aviation and (in keeping with the flying theme) an Amelia Earhart.