Tradition, limestone and a little bit of magic. These are the key ingredients needed for good Kentucky bourbon and Kentucky, being the place where 97 percent of the world’s bourbon is made, has lots of good Kentucky bourbon.

They’ve been at it a long time – more than 200 years – the Master Distiller and Mother Nature working together to produce this liquid gold.

And they give away all the secrets, mostly for free, on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail®, a bucket list adventure that wends its way through the rolling landscape of central Kentucky, rewarding those who tour with tutored tastings and more. Completing the Trail comes not only with bragging rights, but an official t-shirt.

“So many bourbons, so little time,” the t-shirt proclaims. And bourbon aficionados, both those familiar with the country’s only Native spirit and those new to its delights, wholeheartedly agree.

Welcome to Kentucky Bourbon Country

At any given time, Kentucky has more barrels of bourbon aging than people – some 5 million to its 4.2 million population. It’s not called Kentucky Bourbon Country for nothing. And the distilleries’ towering rickhouses announce their whereabouts on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail even before the aroma wafts into the olfactory cells.

Trailblazers learn how limestone acts as a natural filtration system for the water that goes into making bourbon and the ratio of corn to rye to barley. They see the enormous mash tubs at work as the yeast converts the sugar to alcohol and the new distillate, called white dog, that goes into the signature charred barrels. And inhale the mellow caramel and oaky aromas in the rickhouses as countless barrels age to liquid perfection.

“It takes three days to make and then you sit back three to 10 years to wait until it’s ready,” said Alan “Big Al” Tenniswood, a tour guide with Wild Turkey.

“There’s a part of the process that will always be magic,” noted Bill Gaunce, who leads tours at Woodford Reserve.

With three of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries located in the Bardstown area, it makes sense to begin the journey here, the “Bourbon Capital of the World.” You’ll need to pick up a passport at the first distillery you tour and have it stamped at each stop.

Jim Beam: A new visitors center and gift shop opens in September. The walking tour and the general American Stillhouse experience will still be free with guests exploring how Jim Beam is made and experiencing the portfolio at the new tasting bars. Available for purchase will be commemorative bottles and limited expressions – only on the distillery grounds – and on rare occasions bottles may be signed by the master distiller himself.

Heaven Hill: The Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center presents the history of Kentucky bourbon in a detailed exhibit just steps from the barrel-shaped tasting room. Smell bourbon at different cycles in the aging process and shop at one of the finest bourbon-centric gift shops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Board the Heaven Hill Trolley, which departs Bardstown’s historic Courthouse Square for a narrated tour en route to the distillery.

Maker’s Mark: Yes, it’s where you can hand-dip your own souvenir bottle to create the iconic red wax seal. Step into one of three glass-enclosed tasting rooms and sample a bourbon flight: Maker’s White – the white dog, although, according to tour guide Jacklyn Evans, it is still sweet and can be purchased in the gift shop; the fully mature Maker’s – what you find in the stores; the over-mature Maker’s, available only on tour and tasted for educational purposes; and Maker’s 46, beautifully finished with French oak staves.

The other three distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are clustered together in the Frankfort/Lexington area.

Four Roses: Distinctive because of its Spanish Mission-style architecture, this distillery earned the number three spot on Paul Pacult’s list of the 140 Top Five-Star Spirits in the World for 2012 for its 2012 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon.

Wild Turkey: Bourbon maestro Jimmy Russell has been at the distillery since 1954, as master distiller since 1966. Son Eddie joined over 30 years ago as associate distiller. Their slogan, “Give ‘em the bird,” is a not-too-subtle hint of the fun within. The general store-type visitors center leads to a small tasting room where you can try American Honey in addition to Wild Turkey’s straight bourbon whiskeys and ryes.

Woodford Reserve: Located in the heart of horse country, at the end of a lazy country road meandering along horse farms, Woodford Reserve is known for its copper pot still and triple distillation process. Kentucky’s oldest and smallest distillery has stone rickhouses and traces its origins to 1797 when Elijah Pepper began distilling in Woodford County. (You may encounter the reigning Elijah Pepper, the resident “chief feline officer.”)

Bourbon, bourbon everywhere

One you’re in Kentucky Bourbon Country, you’ll notice it’s more than a bit obsessed with all things bourbon. In Lebanon, check out the oak barrel charring process on a Kentucky Cooperage tour with the Independent Stave Company. You’ll learn why bourbon loves it and see how staves are shaped and hoops put in place.

Lebanon’s new Limestone Distillery makes a traditional bourbon made with rye; the recipe belonged to Minor Case Beam, the great-grandfather of owners Steve and Paul Beam.

“We expect to have a young bourbon from five-gallon barrels out in just over a year,” said Steve Beam, adding that there will be more mature bourbons from different sized barrels from then on.

In Bardstown, follow bourbon’s timeline at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, where you’ll learn that Abraham Lincoln himself once owned a tavern; his 1833 liquor license and a replica tavern are in the museum. Order from more than 100 bourbons at the new Rickhouse Restaurant. The can’t-miss go-with? The meatloaf open-face served with mashed potatoes, fried onion topping and Henry Baines sauce – a steak sauce with a bite beloved by Kentuckians.

Kreso’s Restaurant throws down a challenge with 140 bourbons at its Bourbon Bar, including Pappy Van Winkle 23-year bourbon and Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig 18-year bourbon. Barton 1792 – named for the year Kentucky achieved statehood – offers free tours followed by a tasting in its new Tasting Room. And Willett’s Distillery, one of Kentucky’s smallest family-owned and independently operated distilleries, was recently restored and reopened for touring.

Of course, the coup de grace of all things bourbon is the Annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, a six-day event celebrating America’s Native Spirit with events, including the Kentucky Bourbon All-Star Sampler™ with an opportunity to meet the master distillers of the bourbon industry and the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay™. This year, the festival takes place September 11-16.

But you’ll still have to taste your way along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to earn the t-shirt.

IF YOU GO

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail® is a series of Bourbon distillery tours that the Kentucky Distillers Association created in 1999 to showcase the industry’s rich history and heritage. You can download a map from the website: www.KyBourbonTrail.com.

Pick up your official Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport at any of the six distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve. Once you have visited all six distilleries and have had your passport stamped, mail the completed passport in and – viola! – four to six weeks later you’ll have the t-shirt, available only to those who complete the journey, to commemorate your trip.

Most of the distillery tours are free; however, there is a charge for Woodford Reserve ($7) and Heaven Hill ($5). Beginning Oct. 3, 2012, Jim Beam will offer a new, full-immersion tour (guests may take part in filling a barrel, hammering in a bung, filling a bottle and watching it trail along the bottle line) for $8. A self-guided tour that includes Jim Beam’s replica stillhouse and cooperage, remains free-of-charge. All six distilleries offer a tasting at tour’s end.

For more information about the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, visit www.KyBourbonTrail.com. To see all the signature events of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival – including Bourbon, Cigars and Jazz™, Culinary Art: Bourbon-Style Cooking School™ and the black tie The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala™ – celebrating its 21st year in 2012, visit www.KyBourbonFestival.com.

At the epicenter of all things bourbon is Bardstown, recently voted the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America,” in the Rand McNally/USA Today “Best of the Road” contest. It makes a perfect home-base for exploring Kentucky Bourbon Country – and enjoying one of the 18 or so bed and breakfast inns in the area. Visit www.SampleOurSpirit.com for lodging and restaurant suggestions.