When you travel the aromatic and gorgeous bourbon trail in Kentucky, you’re experiencing American history and an authentic American culture. It’s a true American native experience.
“One need not love to imbibe in these brown spirits straight up to enjoy a bourbon tour,” said Stacey Yates, vice president of communications for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “My mother loves to visit the distilleries just to learn ways to improve her bourbon-braised pork roast.”
Winding through thoroughbred horse-farm country and Southern towns with lengthy lists of accolades for beauty and hospitality, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is more than just a liquor experience.
“These are bucket list trips,” said Adam Johnson, director of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. “The journey between distilleries is what we get a kick out of. Kentucky is a beautiful state, and sometimes these places aren’t the easiest to find. And once you get there, the manicured grounds, the pride in their product and the history are all incredible.”
Groups can choose as many stops as they like on three distinct bourbon tours.
“No matter where you go, you’re going to get a taste,” said Johnson.
“And for those venturing out on one of these trails, each is given a passport to get stamped for bragging purposes and a T-shirt just for fun,” said Yates.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Tour
Eight of the big names in bourbon, Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Evan Williams, Town Branch, Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam, are on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which spans central Kentucky within a 200-mile radius of the Louisville area. At each location, guests see the regulated distillery process and visit the massive storage areas where bourbon ages in oak barrels. Groups can even have a meal on the lush grounds of some of the distilleries.
Woodford Reserve is the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby and the oldest and smallest distillery in Kentucky; it traces its origins to 1797. There, groups can take the Bourbon Discovery Tour, an overview of how the distillery crafts Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select. Or, for those fascinated by the stone buildings and history of this Woodford County icon, the National Historic Landmark Tour delves into the rich history of the property’s architecture. The Corn to Cork Tour looks in depth at the chemical and sensory aspects of making this handcrafted favorite.
“And if you’re a Wild Turkey lover, at their distillery, you’ll not only get to see how it’s made, but [also] meet the master distiller, Jimmy Russell, who has been there for 54 years,” said Johnson. “He’s a rock star in the bourbon world.”
Kentucky Bourbon Craft Tour
Considered an essential adventure for bourbon enthusiasts, the Kentucky Bourbon Craft Tour showcases eight small operations that span the state.
“There has been an explosion in the smaller production venues that has accompanied the explosion in interest in the bourbon industry,” said Johnson.
“The craft tours, often mom-and-pop or father-and-son operations, take the visitor back to the pre-Prohibition days. Each one is so different. At the Old Pogue Distillery in Maysville, they have gone back to their family roots. At the Corsair Artisan Distiller in Bowling Green, they are experimenting with different grains and have won numerous awards. And at the Silver Trail Distillery in Hardin, you’ll get to taste their family moonshine recipe.
“These are the places to get a taste of bourbons that aren’t necessarily meant for mass production. They each have their specialty.”
New in 2013 is the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville, an artisanal distillery that creates special batches of bourbon.
“This is not the Evan Williams Black Label you buy in stores,” said Yates. “And this is a different experience than the distilleries you find in the country. It’s located on three levels of a Victorian building, and the tour opens up with guests sitting in a circa-1783 town meeting where actors portray those olden days. You really get to see what Louisville used to look like.”
Yates added that three additional distilleries are slated to open in 2014 in Louisville, and two more are in the planning stages for the not-too-distant future.
Urban Bourbon Trail
In Louisville, numerous restaurants that offer top-notch bourbon experiences have been named to the city’s Urban Bourbon Trail.
“To be on this prestigious list,” said Yates, “you have to have 50 bourbons in the bar, offer a signature bourbon cocktail and be cooking with bourbon on the menu.”
The Urban Bourbon Trail is a natural fit for Louisville. The city has been home to many distillers since 1780, many of which were located on a portion of Main Street once known as Whiskey Row. The trail includes 27 official stops, from historic hotel properties that once served Al Capone and F. Scott Fitzgerald to hip urban hangouts.
Pick up a printed booklet-style passport at the Louisville’s Visitor Center, or download an electronic passport; be sure to have your passport stamped at each location. Collect a stamp from six stops — nicknamed a Pick Six in honor of Kentucky’s horseracing tradition — and you’ll earn the rank of official Bourbon Country Citizen and an Urban Bourbon Trailblazer T-shirt.