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Some of the thousands of oak barrels filled with whiskies of various ages at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Buffalo Trace
Cheers! North CountyColumns

Cheers! North County: The distillery tour we never went on

The sky is blue. The wind is rustling the leaves. The birds are chirping, and the whiskey is flowing. Not just outside and inside my apartment where I have been social distancing for what seems like forever, but on my laptop where I have just clicked the buffalo head icon to enter the Buffalo Trace Distillery Virtual Tour.

One of my favorite things to do is explore new breweries and distilleries. With every new venue, I visit I gain a new appreciation for the liquids I’m drinking and learn a little more about the community they are in.

The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily put a halt to my real-world drinking adventures, but I thought maybe, just maybe, I could re-create the ambiance, experience and connection with other passionate imbibers from the comfort of my own home.

Virtual tours are informative, but they can’t quite substitute for being there. Photo courtesy Buffalo Trace

I’ll save you the suspense. I couldn’t. Not really, and not for a lack of trying or whiskey. Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, has an entirely virtual tour app that offers three tours.

A lovely voiced Southern gentleman narrates a point of view walking tour. Imagine Wilford Brimley narrating a late 1990s video game like the groundbreaking James Bond game Goldeneye but at a much more leisurely pace.

You’ll virtually see the barrel warehouses with tens of thousands of oak barrels filled with whiskeys of various ages. You will pass Stony Point, the home where Col. Albert Bacon Blanton lived with his family; the Blanton Bottling Hall; and the Still House with the 60,000-gallon beer still.

Through the trees, you’ll see the Kentucky River flowing past. If you see something interesting off the guided tour you can just leave the path with the aid of an awkward mouse-connected joystick to click on informational pop-ups or collect bottles of bourbon that have been laid out at random like an adult Easter egg hunt that I absolutely want to re-create someday.

The Buffalo Trace tour is one of the only true virtual tours for any distillery or brewery I could find online, and it had a lot of the visuals and information a traditional tour offers. I even had whiskey in my hand, but it didn’t have the off-the-cuff stories, the smells, and the magic of worn wood and brick.

I couldn’t feel the essence that I was sharing in more than a century of American whiskey-making history.

What it did accomplish was to inspire me to dream about a visit to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and for that I was grateful. It also inspired me to start looking for other online tours. I watched a 360-degree virtual tour of Allagash Brewing in Portland, Maine, and then fell down the rabbit hole that is The Craft Beer Channel on YouTube where I went to The Alchemist Brewery in Vermont.

I followed it up with a trip to The Left Handed Giant Brewery in England, and joined Conan O’Brien on a tour of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, Ireland. It wasn’t long before I fully engaged my wanderlust by looking at the calendar, extrapolating the impact of this pandemic and even, just for fun, searching for flights.

Originally, I invited several friends to join me on the tour via video chat. Some technical difficulties getting the tour to work within the chat software prevented it, but ultimately I ended up on the screen with those friends anyway. We shared a beer, a whiskey or both. At first, we talked about all things coronavirus like sheltering in place, whose kids were driving them crazy, about enjoying good days and surviving the bad days.

Despite the pandemic’s looming presence, we eventually moved past it. We retold stories about past brewery tours and past drinking adventures.

We filled each other in about dumb things we and our spouses have said or done in the past few weeks. We saw each other smile, and laugh, and it was good.

We never made it on the tour together, at least not yet. We made plans to talk about making plans in the future, and for another video chat sooner than later.

In that way, the tour we never went on together was a success. Its mere existence brought us together. It tightened our bond. It added strength to the foundation of this community we’ve built of people who love fine beverages, and the stories they inspire.