Its name is French but its spirit is all American. Richard Gilbert visits the land of bluegrass to taste its golden nectar

Ah, Kentucky. Home of bluegrass music, horses and Colonel Sanders. So what is this Bourbon Trail?

Kentucky produces more than 90 per cent of America's native spirit, as bourbon whiskey is called. Following the successful examples of Scotland's malt whisky distillery tours and Napa Valley's wine trips, Kentucky now has the self-guided Bourbon Trail. Follow the trail and you get free tours of seven bourbon distilleries in central Kentucky's countryside. You can enjoy the lush landscape of forested hills and small villages at the same time as seeing how bourbon is made. Some of the distilleries will offer you a sample of the spirit of America.

I thought bourbon was a rough, red-eye liquor for pot-bellied, good ol' boys in muddy boots and dungarees?

Forget it. That might have been true in the past when the whiskey was associated with moonshine or "white lightning". Today, the bourbon industry makes $3bn (£1.8bn) a year and is Kentucky's top export. Alongside the mass-market names, such as Wild Turkey, there are plenty of premium deluxe brands, which are increasingly popular with connoisseurs in chic bars and restaurants.

Can I find out more about bourbon before I go on the trail?

The ideal place to start is at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, known as the Bourbon Capital of the World. This is an attractive town, conveniently close to three of the distilleries on the trail. Over 50 years, Oscar Getz accumulated a vast collection of bourbon artefacts and documents, covering pre-colonial times through to the post-Prohibition years. You can see an authentic moonshine still, captured from the Kentucky hills, Abraham Lincoln's liquor licence from the days when he ran a tavern, an almost perfectly preserved 19th-century bar (sadly, there's no bourbon in it) and a room filled with antique whiskey bottles bearing the name E G Booz on their labels, from which the word "booze" is derived. There are even medical prescriptions for bourbon, which were legally available only to women during the Prohibition era.

You can find out how bourbon was created by accident in 1789. Elijah Craig somehow combined his day job as a Baptist minister with running a small distillery. He poured some of his clear, corn-based whiskey into barrels that had been accidentally scorched. The liquor that came out of the charred barrels was golden, rich and smooth tasting. It became instantly popular and was called bourbon after the Kentucky county which had taken its name to honour the French for their support during the Revolutionary War.

How different are the distilleries?

They are all in rural areas but they have individual styles. Four of the distilleries are near Lexington and three near Bardstown. To enjoy the contrasts, visit the distillery of an expensive, premium bourbon, such as Woodford Reserve in Versailles (pronounced Versales by locals), then go to Clermont, the site of Jim Beam, which sells the most bourbon in the world and also produces some luxury brands.

Woodford is made by the 200-year-old Labrot & Graham distillery, west of Lexington. The guided tour takes you through the traditional production process, starting with the arrival of the key ingredient, corn. By federal law, bourbon must be made from a "mash" of at least 51 per cent corn with smaller amounts of barley, wheat and rye. You see the "mash" vats where the mixed grains are cooked and end up as a thick, gooey liquid. This goes into a fermentation tank that looks like a huge hot tub filled with porridge. You might be invited to dip a finger into the sour mash as it slowly turns into alcohol, before moving on to see the copper pot stills where the distillation takes place. The sweetest aromas are in the ageing houses, packed from floor to ceiling with thousands of charred white-oak barrels filled with bourbon. Five to eight years of ageing in the barrel give the spirit its flavour and colour.

Did you get any tips on how to enjoy a fine bourbon?

You bet. Peggy Stevens, Kentucky's first female master bourbon taster, showed me how to get the best out of a glass of Woodford Reserve. First I held it up to the light to appreciate the mahogany colour. Then I was recommended to breathe in the flavours of the bouquet, which include cinnamon, cloves and a hint of butterscotch. Next I took a sip but did not swallow because, I was told, "a fine bourbon should wrap around your tongue like a silk ribbon". After that I was free to swallow and I drained the glass.

Is it true you can cook with bourbon?

Certainly. The best place to find it is at the Oak Room restaurant in the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in Louisville. F Scott Fitzgerald used the hotel as the backdrop for Tom and Daisy Buchanan's wedding in The Great Gatsby and Al Capone hung out here, too, playing poker and bootlegging. Jim Gerhardt, the award-winning chef, specialises in dishes made with bourbon. His five-course Bourbon Trail Menu includes a salad with Wild Turkey cream dressing, a fish course with tuna, lobster, foie gras and Buffalo Trace bourbon. The pièce de résistance is grilled Kentucky ostrich loin with a Booker's bourbon sauce. After dinner you can retreat to the hotel bar, which has a range of 44 bourbons.

Anything else I should see?

Plenty. Don't miss the largest restored Shaker village in America, Pleasant Hill, near Lexington. Racing fans should go to Churchill Downs near Louisville, where the Kentucky Derby is run every May. Visit the impressive Derby Museum, which is packed with interactive exhibits, including one where you can learn how to ride like a Derby jockey. Classy Keeneland near Lexington is a must for anyone who loves horses. It is an elegant track and the world centre of thoroughbred sales, where buyers spend up to $6m for a yearling at the auctions. On the way there you pass luxurious stud farms and see sleek horses grazing on rich pastures. The stallions, valued at millions of dollars, are kept very busy at the farms, servicing brood mares up to four times a day in the breeding sheds. This is a big business because a Derby winner can earn $200,000 for each successful mating.

As the horse expert, Scott Goodlett, told me: "A brilliant racehorse can win $10m prize money in five years of racing, but here we have horses that can make that much in five days of servicing. And I guarantee they have a lot more fun."

How do I get there?

The author travelled as a guest of US Airways and Visit Kentucky USA. US Airways (0845 600 3300; www.usairways.com) is currently offering a fare of around £410 return to Louisville from London Gatwick via Charlotte.

Delta Vacations (0870 900 5001; www.deltavacations.co.uk) offers a five-night, self-guided fly-drive Kentucky Bourbon Trail in June from £849 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights to Louisville, room-only accommodation, entrance fees and some activities.

For further information, contact Visit Kentucky USA (020-8994 0978; www.kentuckytourism.com).

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