Although the legal requirement for where bourbon can be produced specifies anywhere in the United States, the strongest presence of the American spirit comes from the Bluegrass state, Kentucky. With its rolling green fields, gorgeous horse farms with their white stables and fences and laid back demeanor, Kentucky is truly a little slice of heaven on Earth. When you add in the long and storied history of whiskey making in the state (including the home of the world’s number 1 selling bourbon – Jim Beam) combined with premier restaurants and experiences, you’ll find that there are more than enough reasons to plan a dedicated trip to Kentucky.
But, any good trip should be rooted around a theme and, in Kentucky, there is no better theme than the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) is an organization dedicated to promoting bourbon or, as they call it, “America’s Official Native Spirit.” Founded originally in 1880, the KDA has worked to communicate with both consumers and legislators for the education and its protection of bourbon. The KDA closed for a time due to Prohibition but was brought back to life in 1935 to pick up where they had left off. To further their mission, in 1999 the KDA formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and ever since it’s been helping educate consumers on the history, process and experience of bourbon in Kentucky.
Nearly 2.5 million people have visited the Trail in the last five years from all across the U.S. as well as from abroad. I can count myself among that number, having traveled to the trail three times in as many years.
While the theory of the trail is simple, pick up your “Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport” at any member or distillery and hit all of them, getting stamps in your passport along the way, there can be some art to unlocking the best experience of the Trail, especially for those that have never been and, more so, those who are new to the world of Bourbon.
The KDA has expanded the Trail in recent years, coming to 9 tour stops arranged at distilleries in the Louisville, Lexington, Bardstown areas. Further, they’ve added the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, which is an entirely separate trail, that highlights the small, craft producers in the state.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail consists of:
- Four Roses
- Heaven Hill – Bourbon Heritage Center
- Jim Beam
- Maker’s Mark
- Town Branch
- Wild Turkey
- Woodford Reserve
- Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour consists of:
- Barrel House Distilling Co.
- Corsair Distillery
- Hartfield and Co.
- Limestone Branch Distillery
- MB Roland Distillery
- New Riff Distilling
- The Old Pogue Distillery
- Wilderness Trail Distillery
- Willett Distillery
This guide will focus mainly on the original Kentucky Bourbon Trail but will also include a couple of worthwhile stops from the Craft Tour as well.
Each distillery experience is unique and highlights different aspects of the hobby and passion of bourbon. My goal is to help craft an itinerary that a novice bourbon drinker can use to get the most out of their first experience. This doesn’t necessarily mean I suggest hitting all of the distilleries in a single trip, although that’s completely doable. This guide is intended to allow someone to initiate themselves into the Trail and have an enjoyable, informative vacation. This is not a class, and there is no test at the end!
This is a VACATION! Enjoy it!
My first experience was actually for my bachelor party back in 2013. My friends had planned the trip as a surprise for me. We came into Kentucky just as the sun was rising and I hadn’t yet put it together what the trip was going to be. I saw the sign for Bardstown in the early morning light and finally put two and two together.
The trip was phenomenal, surrounded by great friends, great bourbon, and gorgeous country, we had a weekend for the record books. Since then, I’ve been to the Trail twice, both times with my wife and have enjoyed the experience from a slightly different (and arguably soberer) standpoint. In that time, I’ve thought a lot about what aspects of the Trail were the strongest and which the weakest, especially when it comes to educating and communicating with new whiskey fans. When you’re at any of the member distilleries, you can see folks on a tour or tasting that know nothing about bourbon. Maybe this is their first distillery tour; maybe this is even their first taste of bourbon! The running dialog in my head is always “How will this person perceive bourbon after this first experience? Will they like it? Will they walk away confused?” The best outcome of someone’s first experience at the trail is a new found knowledge and excitement about the brown liquor.
My recommendation for this trip, if possible, is to do it as a road trip. If you’re coming from a place that precludes you from doing it as a complete road trip, then rent a car for your time in the state. You’ll need one to reach each of the distilleries on the trail, but the journey can be a huge part of the enjoyment. The roads in Kentucky are well maintained and travel through some stunning farmland and countryside. If you have a sports car, all the better, the roads demand the attention of the driver and reward you with an amazing cruise through tight corners and beautiful scenery.
Woodford Reserve is easily the most beautiful site on the Trail. It’s set back behind a horse farm that is totally worth driving through. White fences and acres upon acres of Kentucky blue grass open up in front of a picturesque distillery, reminiscent of a California winery.
The Woodford Tour focuses on the 5 things that they’ve determined you need to make good bourbon. This applies to each distillery but they will show you a slightly different bourbon recipe than some of the others use. Keep a sharp ear out and think about each of the recipes as you visit different distilleries. You’ll start to see that you prefer certain recipes over others. This is solid information that really lays a ground work for understanding bourbon.
Woodford is a busy place and does pretty formal tours but their tasting session is one not to miss. They are very diligent about explaining how to taste as well as what to look for. It’s not just shooting whiskey! Sight, scent and taste all partner to give you the full experience. Small sips and holding it in your mouth will not only lessen the burn going down but also open up more flavors.
Keep a close eye on the Woodford “Flavor Wheel” – see if you can pick out the flavors on the wheel. Once prompted, you’ll be amazed at how many you can find. And if you can’t no big deal, bourbon (and all whiskey) comes down to one thing. Do you like it? Yes or No and that’s all that matters.
Jim Beam is also in a beautiful setting and gives a great tour on the whole process start to finish of making bourbon. They are certainly a “mega-corp” sized version of a bourbon distillery but their tour is excellent and a great deeper look into actually making bourbon. Participating in the tour really will make it a better experience. If they ask for volunteers, raise your hand! You will NOT be disappointed (white dog spirit taste? Emptying a Knob Creek barrel? Putting empty bottles on the bottling line? You may get to do each of these!)
The tour is also a professional, formal affair. They are incredibly friendly and knowledgeable. This tour focuses on production and shows how the big boys do it. You’ll see everything from where the water comes from, how corn and malted barley are used in the mash bill as well as the yeast jug that is the “starter” for growing yeast. You’ll be amazed how long they’ve had that strain.
During the tasting, they give you a card resembling a credit card and a tasting glass. The card is good for 2 tastes. Stick to the high quality stuff. Look for Bookers or Knob Creek. The flavored whiskies are excellent but the high end bourbons are really representative of the quality that Jim Beam is able to produce, including single barrel and cask strength bottlings. Be sure to listen about where they pull the barrels for Knob Creek and Booker’s from, it can be an interesting lecture in how the placement in a barrel house (or “rickhouse”) can effect an individual bottle of bourbon.
But at the end of the day, it’s your tasting. Taste what appeals to you, what sounds good.
Bourbon Heritage Center
Get a true smell of a bourbon rickhouse here at Heaven Hill. A truly enormous sized affair, the Heaven Hill distillery has incredibly sized rickhouses dotted among an open area. You’ll be amazed at how many barrels they have maturing at one time. They produce everything from No-Age Statement (NAS) bourbon to a 23 year old Elijah Craig
The whole area smells of bourbon, this is known as the “Angel’s Share”, and it’s simply evaporating bourbon. Literally the evaporation of hundreds of thousands of barrels of bourbon. The best smell in the world.
Fun Fact! If someone doesn’t point it out, you should note that there are more barrels of bourbon aging in the state of Kentucky than the state has residents!
The tour at Heaven Hill starts with a short film about the history and the master distillers. When you get into the rickhouse, really get a look around, it’s a beautiful and fascinating place and smells like heaven. This will, almost guaranteed, put a smile on your face.
The Heaven Hill tasting focuses on training you to get different senses working to taste more effectively. Remember, to get hints of orange peel out of your bourbon, you have to know what orange peel smells like! Tasting and trying new flavors will expand your appreciate of bourbon. The tasting also focuses on some of their more exclusive bottlings.
If you’re more versed in bourbon, try the Premium Tasting which omits the tour and, instead, focuses on the higher end bottlings from Heaven Hill.
Again, participate! You’ll get so much more by responding to your tour guide. Don’t worry about being wrong about tasting, it’s whatever YOU taste or smell in the glass. Everyone’s perception is different and what you get may be different. Some flavors you may encounter:
4. Black Pepper Spice
But you could get more interesting things like
1. Orange peel
2. Dark fruits – cherries, blackberries
3. Floral notes – Lilac, fresh cut grass
Whatever you taste is what you taste! But push yourself, see what you find. Thinking about it and talking about it is definitely more than half the fun of good bourbon!
Willett is right near Heaven Hill so I recommend doing Heaven Hill and heading directly to Willett. You won’t be disappointed. One of the craft distilleries I recommend hitting, this is a small operation and stark contrast to a Heaven Hill or Jim Beam. The Willett distillery has barged on to the scene recently, initially with sourced whiskey bottled under their name and now, more recently, with spirit produced on site.
The people of Willett are awesome. Tours are fascinating and good look at how the little guys are doing it. They use a single pot still like Woodford, but it’s smaller and you can get a better sense of how they use it to their advantage. The product really shines here at Willett. At this point, it’s less about the process than the philosophy. These people are trying to make a quality product that is different in quality than the rest. You can really get that during their tasting.
Maker’s Mark also has a gorgeous property set down in the woods, set away from any main road. Another one of those “smell it before you see it” kinds, you’ll know it’s there long before you see it.
This one is straightforward. Maker’s make’s a “wheated” bourbon which means after the 51% Corn required by law; they have an unusually high wheat content which makes their whiskey sweet and round on the mouthfeel making it very welcoming to new whiskey drinkers. They have two varieties widely available:
- Their standard. A pleasant, easy drinking wheated whiskey
- Maker’s 46. The difference here is that after their standard new American White Oak aging, it’s finished for more time on French oak staves dropped into the White Oak barrels. This means it gets more time in the barrel and extra wood treatment for an even more rounded mouthfeel and a fruitier taste.
Their tasting is good because they do something a little different. Usually, you only taste finished product. At Maker’s Mark you’ll have the opportunity to try a couple of unique things:
- Unaged whiskey – also known as “white dog.” If it were illegal, it would be called moonshine, but it’s not so it’s white dog. This is strong but you can taste almost a raw corn flavor. Interestingly enough, this is the flavor the barrel removes during aging.
- “Over Aged” – Because their whiskey has such a high wheat content, it loses a lot of flavor quickly in the barrel so you won’t see really old Maker’s Mark. It just becomes woody tasting! They let you taste what it tastes like when this happens.
A Few Additional Tour Options
These are the distilleries I’d recommend for new bourbon drinkers. Of course, doing the whole tour will give a broader sense of bourbon in Kentucky. Also, Buffalo Trace currently is not on the Trail but is always worth a stop. However, the tours offered there are more in line with those you’ll have been on to this point. There are several other enjoyable tours and things to do while you’re down there:
- Town Branch Distillery
- Also on the Bourbon Trail but also has a brewer that makes Kentucky Bourbon Ale as well as several other delicious beers
- They are in the heart of Downtown Lexington where there are excellent dining and shopping options.
- Keeneland Race Course
- Thoroughbred horse racing with a self-guided tour option.
- Louisville is home to bourbon distilleries as well as fine dining and shopping.
- Louisville Slugger Factory
- Any of the other distilleries on the main tour are excellent and if you are feeling bourbon excited, visit some others!
This is only a small sample of the things you can do in Kentucky of course but will grant you an in-depth look into the world of bourbon but there is so much more than just what you see here. Expand out past the borders of Kentucky and the world is even wider for a spirits lover. Be sure to drive sober and have fun!