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Bourbon: Kentucky Kernels
Whiskey uses many grains, from rye to malted barley, but only one ingredient makes it bourbon. Share Groupon’s toast to the joys of the true American spirit.
A spirit distilled from malted grain, whiskey has been made in Europe for centuries—especially in Scotland, where Scotch whisky—no e––reportedly filled glasses as early as the 1400s. Around the 18th century, however, as the colonists across the Atlantic began to assert their independence, they needed a distinctly American spirit. Enter bourbon. Distilled at 160 proof or less, bourbon uses a mash bill—or mixture of fermented grains—that consists mostly of the true grain of patriots: corn. By law, at least 51% of a bourbon mash must be made of corn, and—just as importantly—the spirit must age for at least two years in new, white-oak barrels, their insides charred to enhance the whiskey’s brown, smoky flavor. Although any place in the United States can produce bourbon, most batches come from Kentucky, where an abundance of limestone in the water infuses the product with a consistently pure taste.
Since almost all straight bourbons involve the sour-mash method, in which whiskey from one batch jump-starts the next (much like using a starter for a yogurt culture), any given distillery produces a reliable product from year to year. However, flavors can vary in the bottling process: small-batch bourbons are aged in separate barrels but blended prior to bottling, whereas single-barrel bourbons travel straight from the barrel to the bottle, never interacting with their cousins, ensuring each bottle tastes slightly different.
Like any great invention, the origin of bourbon is disputed. The name derives from Bourbon County, in Kentucky’s central Bluegrass Region, though the first proper batch of bourbon was more likely whipped up in 1789 in nearby Scott County. Nevertheless, because barrels often traveled through Bourbon County on their way to the Ohio River, location and potation became one and the same, and the name stuck.