Driving through the verdant Kentucky countryside on a long weekend getaway, my family passed a surprising number of prisons. The large multi-story buildings with tiny, barred windows set back behind barbed wire fences were disconcerting. Our concern was for naught, though. We later learned the buildings were actually rick houses, barrel storage facilities where bourbon ages in charred oak casks, typically for 2-7 years.
It was the first of many lessons we would learn on our quick trip to Louisville where we were able to check out how Louisville Slugger makes its bats, Louisville Glassworks creates artistic pieces of glass and Maker’s Mark brews its bourbon during these three fun factory tours.
Louisville Slugger Factory Tour and Museum
Louisville Slugger baseball bats are as American as mom and apple pie. The Hillerich Family hand-carved their first bat in 1884 and the family has been making them ever since. The hand-crafting, however, gave way to mechanized production in 1980s. Still, the Slugger Factory Tour offers a glimpse into the 30-minute process of chipping a billet, or standardized wooden cylinder, into a smooth bat. This peek at the time-honored process makes it all the more amazing to watch automated lathes turn billets into bats in a mere 30 seconds.
The tour, which is included in the museum entrance fee, consisted of a lively guide and pre-recorded videotaped clips, all with quite a bit of factory buzz in the background. After finishing up with Q& A, each tour member received souvenir mini-bat.
After the tour, we check out the museum exhibits and then hit the onsite batting cages to get a feel for full-size Sluggers (10 balls for $1). For the young, but ambitious, they have a free area with a batting tee.
The informative tour and accompanying museum hit a home-run with us. A family with a deep love of baseball could easily spend most of the afternoon at this spot in downtown Louisville’s Museum Row.
Check the website to confirm bat production times before you schedule your visit. $10 for adults, $5 for kids 6-12, kids under 5 are free. Also click over for a 10% coupon for the gift shop. Located on Museum Row in Downtown Louisville
Moving from the industrial to the artisanal, Louisville Glassworks houses three types of glass studios- an architectural glass firm (think installations like grand chandeliers and ornate stained glass windows), flameworking, and a hot shop.
My tween boys and I were mesmerized watching the artisans in latter two shops heat, stretch, mold and blow the glass. We could have spent hours observing the team in the hot shop. And the gift shop? Oh. My. With a new appreciation of the effort that goes into each piece the high prices made sense. Consider yourself warned: keep rambunctious toddlers clear of the gift shop.
Hours: Call to schedule an hour long-tour or enjoy a free self-guided tours. If you time it right, you may participate in a walk-in workshop for a fee.
Maker’s Mark Distillery
Wanting more than a taste of Kentucky’s famed Bourbon Trail we headed out of town, roughly 1.5 hours away to the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto for a firsthand look at the bourbon-making process. The Jim Beam distillery and visitor’s center is closer to Louisville, but was undergoing renovation during our stay. Honestly, we were a bit leery about taking the long drive, but look back on the experience as one the highlights of our trip.
My tween boys were excited about the tour, even though they knew they wouldn’t get to try the finished product. Maker’s Mark has a strict rule forbidding anyone under 21 from the lounge-like tasting area. Of course, that didn’t stop a certain 11-year-old from asking for a sample. My disappointed 11-year-old roamed the attached gift shop while my 9-year-old played checkers with a boy of the same age whose parents imbibed with us. Interestingly, he met up with his new friend again at Louisville Glassworks .
Upon arriving at the visitor center, which looks like a 19th century homestead, we joined a free tour. But before the departure, we were treated to pink lemonade and fresh homemade bread; welcome snacks after our long drive. The house offered other surprises as well, like family photographs straight out of a Harry Potter flick. (They’re animated.)
Our enthusiastic tour guide taught our group- families and Bourbon devotees- everything we needed to know from sharing Maker’s Mark’s recipe of corn, winter wheat and barley to guiding us through the facilities to observe fermentation, distillation and bottling. The highlights included watching the undistilled sour mash poured into and bubble up in massive two-story fermentation tanks. Tour members over age 21 years were invited to stick our fingers in and sample the mash. The mash tasted a like warm beer, and if fact, the humid fermentation room had the yeasty, malty aroma of a brewery.
In the bottling area, we surveyed the animated factory line. The boys especially loved watching the workers dip each bottle of the finished bourbon in the brand’s signature red sealing wax.
The tour ended with a tasting at the gift shop, but we did most of our tasting at the Toll House Café where we were treated to bourbon chicken and bourbon cookies ($7-$10 per person) before heading back to Louisville.
Tours are offered Monday-Saturday year-round 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Sunday (seasonally) 1:30-3:30 p.m. on the half hour. Open holidays except Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Years. The tour might be a bit much for energetic children under 5. And children who are sensitive to loud sounds or smells might skip the bottling line or the fermentation room, respectively.