For an authentic grain-to-glass bourbon experience, head to Shelbyville, Kentucky. This vibrant community, located about an hour north of the state’s geographic center, has strong ties to bourbon history as well as modern distilleries throughout the state thanks to its agricultural roots.
Come taste the connection between crop and spirit at Jeptha Creed Distillery, a family-run operation located within the city limits of Shelbyville. To produce its award-winning spirits, the Nethery family uses locally-sourced ingredients, including heirloom “Bloody Butcher” corn grown on the family’s 400-acre farm.
Joyce Nethery, master distiller and among her family’s fifth generation of farmers to grow the heirloom “Bloody Butcher” corn, says, “We want Jeptha Creed to be about Kentucky soil and to honor our farming heritage.” Bloody Butcher corn has deep red kernels and has been cultivated in Shelby County since at least 1845.
“I don’t drink a lot, only excellent spirits, so I didn’t want to create any sort of copycat whiskey,” says Nethery. “We want to highlight the uniqueness of Bloody Butcher corn and show the differences.” Her grain-to-glass bourbon boasts remarkable smoothness and fruity essences. It’s a genuine taste of Shelbyville and visiting the distillery to see bourbon production from the cornfield through bottling then taste the delicious results is an experience for any bourbon lover’s must-do list.
Distillery tours are on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, but Jeptha Creed is offering 30-minute barrel tastings for $45 per person for up to ten people at a time. This unique experience journeys through the farmland then steps inside a barrel barn where you’ll learn the Jeptha Creed story and get to taste bourbon straight from the barrel. Another option is the free distillery tasting which pours samples of your choice of any four Jeptha Creed spirits: bourbon, vodka, moonshine, brandy, and other limited-edition creations. While visiting, be sure to head to the distillery bar to order a cocktail and the retail area to grab a bag of Bloody Butcher cornmeal and other products.
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Bloody Butcher corn is distinctive, but Shelbyville’s most iconic crop is yellow dent corn—the primary raw ingredient in many of the most iconic bourbons. This non-GMO corn has a long history in the region; it’s not an understatement to say that “Shelbyville grows bourbon.”
Yellow dent corn is one reason Bulleit Distilling Co. chose Shelbyville as the home for its state-of-the-art distillery, barreling, aging, and packaging facility. Bulleit sources all of its corn from Shelby County, including from Langley and Tucker farms. While employing the most modern equipment and techniques to create its products, Bulleit prides itself on the rustic, frontier vibe of its brand, an authentic representation of the region when you consider that Shelby County has a rich tradition of bourbon-making stretching back to at least the early 19th century. The Visitor Center at Bulleit showcases that rugged spirit through a tour and tasting option named “The Frontier Whiskey Experience.” Sign up for a tour to see the grounds and manufacturing facilities while learning about the distilling process from knowledgeable guides. Then hop on the shuttle bus back to the Visitors Center for a guided tasting of the company’s portfolio of fine whiskeys with particular attention paid to the sensory elements of aroma and taste.
Shelbyville is located about an hour north of Kentucky’s geographic center, which puts the quaint town smack in the center of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, popular pilgrimages that showcase dozens of distilleries across the state. Make Shelbyville your bourbon exploration hub and take daytrips to reach whichever bourbon venues pique your interest. More than half the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are less than an hour’s drive away, including Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey to the east, Jim Beam, Bardstown Bourbon Co., and Heaven Hill to the south, and the myriad of urban distillery outlets and whiskey bars in and around downtown Louisville to the west. Several of Shelbyville’s lodging hosts gladly assist bourbon fans with arranging transportation and tours, so don’t hesitate to ask for recommendations when planning your bourbon odyssey.
Of course, there are more reasons than just simple convenience to visit Shelbyville and use the town as your basecamp. It’s a charming destination in its own right, filled with delightful spots for shopping, dining and imbibing.
Lodging options in Shelbyville range from national chain hotels to quaint rural inns to modern downtown loft spaces. Among the options, several loft spaces that stretch along Main Street in downtown Shelbyville are available through Airbnb. These unique properties feature modern amenities and furnishings alongside a nod to history via exposed brick walls, vaulted ceilings, and recovered timbers. Particularly striking examples of lofts for rent include Urban Loft Downtown, a breathtaking high-end loft that comfortably sleeps up to 17 and boasts a theater room, game room, dream kitchen, a rooftop deck with a fireplace, plus a Big Green Egg. The Loft on Main is a one-bedroom loft with a large great room with two fireplaces and two 60-inch TVs. Saddlebred Suites is an upscale loft boutique with six bedrooms and baths. Reserve a cozy studio space, two-bedroom unit, or rent the entire place for up to 17 people.
Get ready for a full day of bourbon touring and tasting with a bracing cup of coffee at Sixth & Main Coffee House, known for its specialty roasts and espresso drinks, homemade scones and displays of work created by local artists.
Head to downtown Shelbyville to explore the neighborhood and shop at one-of-a-kind spots like the Wakefield-Scearce Galleries, where Matt Burnett operates the gallery his grandfather co-founded more than 70 years ago. The gallery is a delightful place filled with a remarkable collection of English antiques from furniture to fine crafted silver items to objets d’arte like paintings, candlesticks, chandeliers, and china. This being Bourbon Country, Wakefield-Scearce is also an excellent source for whiskey-related gifts and curios. While inventory changes frequently, you might be fortunate enough to discover a Tantalus decanter, colloquially known as a “whiskey safe.” These elegant bottles are designed to be locked inside ornate boxes, accessible only to the key-holder. Burnett jokes, “They’re kind of like old sugar boxes. You locked them up to keep people out of the good stuff!” Like the mythological Greek figure after whom the decanter sets are named, if you don’t have the key, you’ll always be tantalized by a drink just out of your reach.
Wakefield-Scearce is also a major supplier of personalized engraved julep cups crafted from pewter or sterling silver, available in the store as well as online. Silver was quite scarce during World War II when Burnett’s grandfather started crafting these lovely rolled-edge tankards, so he bought up scrap silver from locals to create his julep cups. In an homage to the ancient English “hallmark” system of stamping silver with the name of the monarch who reigned on the date of an object’s creation, Wakefield-Scearce marks the bottom of each cup with the initials of the current U.S. president, a tradition that stretches back to the Truman administration. The company also presents a congratulatory gift of an engraved julep cup to each incoming president, and the owners have received many thank you letters from recipients over the years. Some presidents even place their own repeat orders to use as presents for staff members or for gifts during their overseas travels.
Wakefield-Scearce is located in a former girl’s school known as Science Hill; other buildings in the 100-year-old complex house shops and boutiques that are great for browsing and buying. There are also two restaurants on the property, including a casual spot named The Red Lion, a Tudor-style pub with a remarkable selection of more than 50 bourbons. Can’t decide? Trust the recommendations of the well-trained staff.
Wind down after your day’s excursions with a cocktail before dinner at The Barrel Room, Shelbyville’s premier bourbon and beer bar with more than 50 varieties of whiskey on the menu plus a vast selection of craft beers and ciders on tap. An expansion of the Old Louisville Brewery, The Barrel Room features many of its parent company’s brews along with a selection of pub foods.
Choosing Shelbyville as your home base for a bourbon-themed getaway is a smart decision. After all, Shelby County has been growing grains and producing bourbon since it was founded in 1792. It’s a history worth tasting.
Plan your trip with help from the ShelbyKY Commission & Visitors Bureau at 502-633-6388 or VisitShelbyKY.com.