Some might say that if you’ve seen one bourbon distillery, you’ve seen them all; that there’s only one way to make bourbon. But while the primary recipe for bourbon stays the same from distillery to distillery (whiskey created from a mixture of a minimum of 51% corn, aged in new, charred-oak containers and stored at no more than 125 proof before bottling at no less than 80 proof), the distillery experience ranges vastly. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail takes advantage of this truth, attracting travelers with a taste for whiskey to its 17 distilleries.
Today, 95% of the world’s bourbon is produced in Kentucky, and in 2019, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association announced that the state boasted the highest bourbon inventory in the 52 years it’s kept records, with more than 9 million barrels.
Bourbon connoisseurs are also growing in number. According to Adam Johnson, senior director of Kentucky Bourbon Trail Experiences, “We have noticed that the knowledge level of our visitors has skyrocketed, and people want to go deeper into the whiskey-making process, cocktail culture, food and dining, etc.”
Whether you’re a bourbon connoisseur or you just want to partake in tastings and learn more about this quintessential American spirit, you’ll want to devote at least a weekend to savoring the experience, since traveling the Kentucky Bourbon Trail takes time. It clusters around the major hubs of Louisville and Lexington, as well as the state’s small capital of Frankfort, with one stop on the trail being somewhat secluded, set off in the western portion of the state in Owensboro (that would be the O.Z. Tyler Distillery). At each distillery, you can tour the production process, enjoy a tasting of the various types of bourbons produced at that distillery and occasionally dine and shop. Here are some not-to-miss tours.
You could easily spend an entire day alone on the Maker’s Mark campus, beautifully landscaped as it is and dotted with picturesque buildings sporting the classic Maker’s Mark black and red hues. Just getting to Maker’s Mark is an adventure, as it’s set in rural Loretto, Kentucky, amid rolling farmland and pristine cow pastures. Lost on your way there? Just follow your nose. You can usually smell the bourbon before you can see it.
The basic Maker’s Mark tour lasts a little over an hour, but there are also tastings to enjoy, a gift shop to peruse (where you can dip your own bottle of bourbon into the iconic Maker’s Mark red wax) and an on-site restaurant serving new takes on favorite Southern foods. Pro tip: Don’t miss the Ale-8 slush cocktail, a unique blend of bourbon and a locally lauded Kentucky soft drink.
Wild Turkey Distilling Co.
The same could be said for Wild Turkey Distilling Co. in Lawrenceburg. If you’ve seen Matthew McConaughey promoting Wild Turkey products recently and assumed the distillery would offer a somewhat corporate and big-brand-style environment, don’t be fooled. Just because Wild Turkey touts a celebrity endorsement doesn’t mean the company’s lost its roots. The operation — at least the side the public sees — is on the small end. Tours are led by colorful locals with years of tales to recount. It’s not uncommon to see the master distiller hanging out in the lobby of the visitor’s center, signing bottles and taking photos. And the visitor center’s pièce de résistance? An intimate patio with views of the Kentucky River. Where better to enjoy a sample of prime Kentucky bourbon? The entire vibe makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a hidden gem — a locals-only spot — even if you can find Wild Turkey on spirits shelves all across the globe.
Distilleries all along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are making themselves not just a stop on the trail, but a whole destination in and of themselves — and those who aren’t quite there yet are well on their way. Take, for example, Heaven Hill. The brand’s Bourbon Heritage Center is just getting started, with extensive renovations due to be wrapped up soon. The future of the center includes a “You Do Bourbon” space, where guests can participate in lab learning experiences and bottle their own bourbon; a rooftop bar with views of the rickhouses; and interactive, educational spaces focusing on Heaven Hill’s dramatic history.
Similarly, Woodford Reserve recently opened a new welcome center, where guests begin their tour. The welcome center includes a new cocktail bar, Baccarat Bar, named in honor of the brand’s partnership with Baccarat crystal. The beautiful new space, though modern, still manages to retain its sense of history, as the distillery does sit on the state’s oldest distilling site. Once guests have enjoyed exploring the welcome center, they’re whisked away on a tour that gives them a look at one of the only heat-cycled barrelhouses in the world, 100-year-old cypress wood fermenters and a 500-foot-long, gravity-fed barrel run. Beyond the regular tours, Woodford Reserve also hosts special recurring events, from its Bourbon Academy days to culinary experiences.
Bottom line: Much like you’d sip a premier bourbon slowly, relishing every drop, you should also relish every moment on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, even if that means extending your stay in bluegrass country just a little bit longer.
Details: You can find more information about all the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail at kybourbontrail.com. From there, visit the distilleries’ individual sites to book tours and tastings (most have various packages that range according to the level of immersion you’d like). Make sure to pick up a Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport at your first stop; you’ll win fun prizes as you collect stamps for each distillery you visit. If you stay in Lexington, you’ll want to check into the 21C Museum Hotel for its juxtaposition of historic charm and contemporary art. If you opt for an overnight in Louisville, The Brown Hotel has been recently renovated while still preserving its historic Southern charm.