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The Beloved Bourbon Boat Written by Patti Nickell

What do you get when you mix a dollop of river adventure, a dash of history, a touch of commonwealth trivia, and a taste of bourbon?

You get a floating addition to the Bourbon Trail, and what is believed to be the country’s only bourbon boat tour.  A recent excursion on the Trace of Kentucky, a U.S. Coast Guard-inspected vessel, delivered all the above. 

Helmed by Captain Allison, with Captain Nathan as the informative narrator, guests (myself included) got the full experience of the one-hour-and-twenty-five-minute “Tour and Taste” excursion.

Taking off from Frankfort’s dock for a journey into the pool of the Kentucky River (no dams and locks to traverse on this one), we were accompanied for several miles by a majestic blue heron, dipping and soaring above the water.

After a heavy rainfall, the river, which provides one-sixth of the state with water, took on a mossy green hue instead of its usual brownish-gray. The blue heron made a striking contrast, but it was only one example of fauna seen along the route.

Green herons, osprey and turtles are other examples of wildlife that can be spotted along this route, and Nathan pointed out that freshwater eels have been found near the Frankfort Boat Club. The most exciting time to spot the native fauna is in April and May when bald eagles nest in the trees alongside pools two and three.

The heron finally disappeared, replaced by a line of houseboats moored along the bank serving as a reminder that Kentucky is one of America’s Top 10 houseboating destinations.

(Although our boat was confined to a pool of the river, with the opening of locks and dams one through four, the river is navigable for 82 miles from Frankfort to its mouth on the Ohio River.)

Among the sights easily seen from the boat is the 129-year-old Singing Bridge, a beloved Frankfort landmark. The bridge spans the Kentucky River at 405 feet long and features a metal grate girder, which makes a humming noise when cars drive across.

The tour features one site passengers can see – the impressive limestone cliffs that line the river and date back some 450 million years – and one they can’t – FishTrap Island.  Once used by Native Americans, it is now completely submerged beneath the river waters, but you can use your imagination.

Another site that requires imagination was once occupied by the old Frankfort Hotel where two remarkable women Ruth Booe, in partnership with Rebecca Gooch, came up with the concept of the bourbon ball.

This delectable bourbon-laced chocolate bonbon gained the ladies a lasting spot in commonwealth history.

Nathan explained that in the early 20th century, Ruth applied for a $50 loan at three local banks to expand her business.  All three turned her down.  Thankfully, an employee at the hotel had better business sense than the bankers and loaned her the money.  The rest, as they say, is history.

This was a good time for Nathan to segue to the history of bourbon and its historic connection to the Kentucky River.

As the boat passed the remains of the once imposing Hermitage Distillery built in 1868 and given its name presumably in a nod to Andrew Jackson’s Nashville estate, The Hermitage.

Passengers from out of state are often surprised to learn that 95 percent of the world’s bourbon comes from Kentucky’s nearly 100 distilleries, and that bourbon barrels for aging the spirit outnumber people five to one.

Nathan got a laugh when he explained that a few select distilleries were allowed to remain open during Prohibition as their product was used for medicinal purposes for ailments ranging from “old age” to a “broken heart.”

One of these distilleries is the last stop on the Bourbon Boat Tour.  Buffalo Trace, the oldest continuously operating distillery in America (1857) and the first to market single barrel bourbon commercially, is a National Historic Landmark.

Boat passengers disembark here for a bourbon tasting in the renovated Visitors’ Center.  They sample six of the distillery’s signature products, while learning about the giants of the industry – from Colonel E. H. Taylor and Albert Blanton to Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr.

The latter, Nathan told us, was known for saying “we make bourbon for a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.” 

With a shot glass of Pappy’s 23-year-old priced at up to $100 and a collector’s bottle selling for $5,000, it’s safe to say that they have never had to worry about selling it at a loss.

If you are looking for a new perspective on Kentucky’s most famous industry and the way it was influenced by the Kentucky River, the Bourbon Boat Tour (offered May through October) is ideal.