Bourbon is America's spirit, in more ways than one. Not only is bourbon enjoying a surge in popularity across the country, but bourbon - by law! - must be made in America. And 95% of it is made in Kentucky.
When you travel to the Bluegrass State, you'll soak up more American eye candy than you can imagine. Corn stalks wave across rolling fields, horses graze in green pastures, country roads curve around small towns calling home to the biggest names in bourbon. Buckle up: you're about to travel the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The Basics of Bourbon
During our three-day trip to Louisville and Bardstown, we visited 12 distilleries of various size and scale. We toured, we tasted, we learned a lot about bourbon's history and requirements. Many myths exist over what constitutes a true bourbon but the rules are simple: the mash bill must consist of at least 51% corn; it must be aged in charred, new American white oak barrels; it must be made in America; and, it must be at least 80 US proof. It does not need to be made in Kentucky, though all but five percent of the world's bourbon supply is made there. The secret lies in their limestone water, and their role in American history. You will learn all of this and much more on any of the distillery tours you take along the Bourbon Trail.
What Is The Bourbon Trail?
The famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail is actually a program sponsored by the Kentucky Distiller's Association created to promote the bourbon program of its 16 member distilleries. There are WAY more distilleries than those 16 on the proper Bourbon Trail. Many have created their own programs and experiences, such as the Craft Bourbon Trail and the Urban Bourbon Trail. Each has their own member distillers, as well as passports to collect and stamp at each participating location.
Statue of Booker Noe at Jim Beam Distillery
Before You Go, You Should Know...
You need to like bourbon. This is not for the casual fan. Sure, a tour or two may interest you. But a full day or entire weekend? Know thyself, and only go if you're a bourbon lover or true team player. Otherwise consider hanging back at the spa or pool bar until everyone comes back from the trail.
The Bourbon Trail is not one road, town, county, or area. The distilleries are spread across 100 miles of Kentucky land, many in remote areas to which you'll need to drive. Before you set your mind on visiting certain distilleries all in one trip or one day, you should consult this map first. Scroll to the bottom for a handy chart showing you the distance between distilleries. It's often more than you think, some as many as 180 miles apart.
Plan on touring one fork/area per trip or day. Most of the Bourbon Trail's sixteen distilleries are divided into the 'South' and 'East' forks of the trail, as well as downtown Louisville. For example, going to Maker's Mark and Jim Beam in one day is very doable. But to drive all the way to Buffalo Trace would take too much time because...
The distilleries close early in the day. Check each distillery's hours and tour schedules before you go. Many will close around 4PM, including the tasting rooms. You'll need to start early to fit it all in, but don't over plan. You're not checking boxes, you're drinking bourbon.
Mix up your tours and tastings. You don't need to tour every single distillery, trust me. Most take an hour and they all repeat the same 'how bourbon is made' spiel. Book tours - well in advance, they sell out! - at the distilleries you're most interested in. Tours are cheap, though you can splurge on premium experiences. Drop by other distilleries you're not planning to tour to visit their tasting room, bar, or gift shop. Beware: some distilleries don't offer tastings-only, such as Willet. Before you drive out of your way, check for what's available.
Connoisseur Tasting at Heaven Hill
Hire a tour guide (read: driver). Companies such as Mint Julep Tours offer both public and private tours of the Bourbon Trail, horse farms, landmarks, etc. You can hop on a pre-planned tour with a group, or customize your own and let Mint Julep do all the booking, planning, and driving for you. The biggest upside: they eliminate any need for you to drive after sampling bourbon. We booked a private car tour, and while it was pricey, it was by FAR our best decision. We saw four distilleries in one day between Louisville and Loretto. The drivers know everybody at the distilleries and take great care of you.
Plan to Uber like crazy. Some of the distilleries on Whiskey Row are easy to get to from one another. Otherwise, you're going to need some wheels to get you around. We used Uber to visit the distilleries spread around Louisville, but hired a Mint Julep tour to take us to the distilleries outside of the city.
Drink plenty of water. It's H-O-T out there, especially in the summer time. Combat dehydration from the sun and bourbon by keeping a bottle of water on hand at all times. The Bourbon Trail is a marathon, not a race. Keep up your stamina by staying hydrated and eating.
Dress comfortably. You're going to be on your feet a lot so comfortable shoes are crucial. Some distilleries even have footwear policies so check those in advance. Even if you don't go during the summer, certain parts of the distillery tours are hotter than Hades. Wear loose, light clothing during the summer, and layer during the cooler times of year.
Slower in the summer. Because of that darned heat, crowds are thinner during the hottest months of July and August. Tours are easier to come by, but some distilleries do a "summer shut down" to perform maintenance. You can still see the facilities, but production may not be active. Churchill Downs also halts their racing schedule through July and August and resumes live races in September.
Pack a Tupperware bin to bring your bourbon back home. Trust me, you're going to come home with some merch...lots of bourbon! If you're planning to drive to Kentucky and back, bring an empty Tupperware to pack all your bottles in for safe transportation home. It also helps get them out of your hotel room and into your car on check out day.
The rare bourbons are rare up there, too. Sorry to dash your hopes, but don't expect to roll up to Buffalo Trace and find shelves lined with Blanton's, Pappy, or Weller. By law, the distilleries must sell their bourbon to their distributors and buy it back for sale in their gift shops. They can't hold back the hard-to-find bourbons. You might luck out -- we stumbled upon McKenna 10 Year at Heaven Hill -- but you'll probably have to get creative trying to sniff out the rare stuff. On that note, you should know that...
They will only sell one bottle of rare bourbon per person. They scan your ID to track the sale so there's really no getting around it. You're not going home with a haul of collector's bourbon, but there's plenty of other great bourbon to discover.
Drug stores sell bourbon in Kentucky. Aside from how novel that is, some drug stores in rural areas will get the rare bourbons that are sold out everywhere else. Drop into some and see what you can find.
Liquor stores will tell you which days they receive their shipments if you want to call and check what came in. If you just walk in, you may need to ask if they have any specific brands in stock that you don't see on the shelves. They often keep them hidden behind the counter.
Willet distillery in Bardstown, KY
In three days we visited 12 distilleries, a considerable feat even in the opinion of the distillery employees. Here's how we planned our long weekend to the Bourbon Trail.
Day One // Mint Julep private tour of the Bourbon Trail's South Fork
This tour was planned with the help of our Mint Julep associate. She created the itinerary for us, made all our tour and restaurant reservations, and kept us on schedule. Due to the respective distillery schedules, we could fit in two tours/tastings and one tasting only in one day.
Leave Louisville at 8:45AM
Arrive at Jim Beam for a 9:30AM tour and tasting (duration: 1.5 hours)
Depart Jim Beam at 11:30AM, drive to Bardstown for lunch at Kurtz from 12-1:15PM
Arrive at Heaven Hill for the Connoisseur Tasting from 1:30-2:30PM
*We finished early and squeezed in a trip to Willet, located right by Heaven Hill, for a quick trip to the gift shop.**
Arrive at Maker's Mark by 3:00PM for a tour and tasting (duration: 1 hour)
Relax at Maker's Mark gift shop (where you can hand-dip your own bottles) and on-site bar.
Head back to Louisville at 5PM
Day Two // Walking Tour of Whiskey Row, Uber Around To Louisville-based Distilleries
We started touring the second day around noon after a late breakfast. Rabbit Hole keeps longer hours than some of the others so we ended there and returned to our hotel by 6PM.
Uber from hotel to Michter's on Main Street
Order flights at Bar at Fort Nelson at Michter's
Walk across street to Louisville Slugger Museum
Walk down Main Street to Evan Williams Experience to visit gift shop
Continue down to Old Forester
Order flights at George's Bar at Old Forester
Uber to Bulleit Stitzel-Weller distillery in Shively
Self-guided tour of gift shop and main building, drinks at Bulleit's bar
Uber to Royal's Hot Chicken for late lunch
Walk to Angel's Envy to visit gift shop (they offer tours only, no tastings or bar)
Uber to Rabbit Hole for a self-guided tour and drinks at bar overlooking the city
Uber back to hotel
Neon sign at Michter's Bar at Fort Nelson
Day Three // Self-Driving Tour of the Bourbon Trail's East Fork
On our way home we drove towards Frankfurt and Lexington, so we took the time to stop by two additional distilleries. Due to timing constraints, we weren't able to book any tours or tastings. FYI -- Buffalo Trace is not technically part of the official Bourbon Trail, though they are one of the largest distilleries in Kentucky,
Arrive at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort at 12PM, tour gift shop
Drive to Woodford Reserve, tour gift shop and bar
Head south back to North Carolina!
W.L. Weller & Sons bottling hall at Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky
If you're the least bit interested in learning about bourbon, I highly recommend taking a trip to the Bourbon Trail. Hopefully this travel guide and planning resource will help you! Next time we go we plan on visiting more distilleries along the East Fork of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail as well as the craft distilleries that are up-and-coming.
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