Finding Bourbon: Don’t Skip on the Experiences

Story by Kevin Gibson


I have a confession to make: As I learn more about bourbon, I have discovered an emerging bias, one that is purely unintentional and which I should have seen coming but didn’t.

But first, some background: I’m a long-time beer guy, so whenever I go to a new city, I drop into at least one or two breweries, and more if there’s time. I love to try the products, sure, but there’s an added level of satisfaction that comes with visiting the brewery. You sometimes get to talk with the brewer and/or owner, you get the feel of the culture, you discover the uniqueness. In short, it helps you better understand the beer. It becomes an emotional response that can lead to a beer bias.

Now that I’ve been to a few distilleries, this bias is beginning to manifest in bourbon. For instance, I spent an afternoon at Wilderness Trail in Danville, Kentucky, for the Kentucky State BBQ Festival back in the summer, an event at which Bourbon+ was hosting bourbon tastings and seminars. I helped lead one of those presentations and, while I didn’t take a formal tour of the distillery while there, I did meet many of the people involved, including distillers.

What struck me was how the staff responded to me – when I explained what I needed to pull off the tasting, resolution came quickly and happily. To a fault, everyone representing Wilderness Trail was gracious, focused and welcoming. Without them, I would have been lost.

A few months later, I find myself recommending Wilderness Trail’s single barrel straight bourbon to out-of-towners in the Louisville, Kentucky, tasting shop where I work. People come from all over the world – literally, I’ve met people from Wisconsin to France – wanting something new, something they’ve never had before. Now that I’ve been there and experienced the culture as well as the whiskey, I feel comfortable making the recommendation; it’s a no-brainer.

A similar situation occurred when I sat down for a long interview with Caleb Kilburn, the mast distiller for Peerless Distilling Co., for a story that appeared in a recent issue of Bourbon+. I found Kilburn so genuine and friendly that it became a preferred distillery by default – and I hadn’t even had the liquid yet.

When I returned a few weeks later to take the official tour, I ran into Kilburn in the swag shop, and he greeted me with the same hospitality he had when I came to interview him about his climb in the bourbon industry. Guess what? When the fascinating tour ended, that bourbon we sampled at the end tasted quite good. Good enough that I purchased a bottle.

And so, yes, at the moment Peerless and Wilderness Trail are two of my pet distilleries. Does the bourbon really taste better somehow just because I had those experiences? No, it’s the same stuff. There isn’t anything scientific about this at all, nor does there need to be. I try plenty of good bourbon all the time from distilleries I may never get the chance to visit.

But at the same time, that emotional response shouldn’t be ignored. When I was a kid, my great-grandmother always had Pepsi in her old 1950s-era fridge – the tall, glass, returnable bottles of old, no less. It was such a treat when I, age 7 or 8, would get a whole bottle all to myself, and I would get to pluck it out of that space-age refrigerator. As a result, today I always choose Pepsi over Coke when a choice has to be made.

Similarly, if I’m going to drink a domestic light beer, I always choose Miller over Bud. Why? Well, I do think Miller tastes better, but that may be because Miller was typically the beer of choice for my dad when I was a kid. My first ever beer was a Miller High Life. Had it been a Budweiser, I likely would be a Bud man now.

Will I forever be a Peerless and Wilderness Trail guy? Well, there are way too many choices for that, and I know I will be visiting more distilleries. But I’ll always carry those early experiences with me, and when someone asks me to help them choose between Wilderness Trail and a comparable single barrel when it’s time to purchase a bottle or pour? Yeah, it’s easy to lean toward the Trail. (Note to Wilderness Trail: You’re welcome.)

Same for Peerless. I meet many people who’ve never been to Louisville and never heard of Peerless, and each time I share the story of Kilburn’s meteoric rise to becoming a master distiller and what a kind person he is. Each time, I suggest they visit the distillery, and each time they sure seem interested enough to put it on their itinerary or to at least try the bourbon.

All I’m saying is this: If you’re discovering bourbon and in the early stages of your journey like I am, make visiting distilleries part of your experience. Soak up the history and the personalities, because when you have a great experience, it helps that delicious amber beverage taste even better.

Kevin Gibson
Official Contributor

Kevin Gibson is a free-lance writer who writes for numerous publications, including Thrillist and Alcohol Professor. He also is author of Louisville Beer, Secret Louisville, and several other books. In his three decades as a professional writer, he has won numerous awards but doesn’t know where most of them are now (they're probably in the basement). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his dog, Atticus.