Whether you're a bourbon connoisseur, out on a bachelor/ette party, or just plain ole thirsty, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is something you must experience. While my knowledge of Bourbon was as surface level as knowing the drink paired nicely with college football games, I quickly learned there is quite an art and science into it's creation. One I had not the slightest idea about before frolicking to over a handful of distilleries. There's extensive guidelines to even be called a Bourbon, known as the ABC's of distilling: A - Made in America, B - Aged in a charred Barrel, & C-Made of more than 51% Corn.
Throughout this post I'm going to break down the do's for a Louisville, KY based Bourbon expedition.
Bourbon Trail Day 1
*While these days are broken down by location, they in no way dictate any specific order of distilleries or days - these are just what our group discovered worked for us.
We started our trail by heading south of Louisville, heading to the furthest distillery and making our way towards the city (which we continued to do for our remaining days).
Maker's Mark - Located around 60 miles from the heart of downtown Louisville, Maker's Mark is housed on a beautiful campus with various pieces of art and Chihuly glass. Beauty aside, the distillery offers a Maker's Mark curtailed informational session as you walk through (as you get further into your trail, you'll notice its nice when distilleries aren't giving generic information as it can get repetitive). For the tasting, Maker's Mark offers a nice mix of 5 tastings. After your tasting, I highly recommend buying a bottle onsite - because you get to dip and stamp the red wax yourself! Also think about buying the Maker's hot sauce - it's pretty delicious. For another bucket list checkoff - this distillery is a registered Historic landmark.
Heaven Hill Distillery/ Bourbon Heritage Center - The first impression at this stop will be all the rickhouses located on the property. When picking a tour, there are two to choose from:
(1) The Mashbill Tour - Costs $10 per person and lasts 1 hour. You get to tour one of the rickhouses (bourbon aging warehouses) and taste 3 American whiskeys.
(2) The Whiskey Connoisseur Experience - Consists of 4 tastings of premium or limited release bourbons. Some examples of the tastings for the connoisseur experience include: Henry McKenna 10-year single barrel, Elijah Craig single barrel, & Elijah Craig small batch.
The Bourbon Heritage Center is a neat site (bonus, it's free!), as it gives a deep dive into the development of Bourbon in Kentucky with its progress & hard times throughout the years.
This distillery is located in Bardstown, KY. According to Pure Wow, this town has been named the cutest in Kentucky. If you line up your visit - they also host a bourbon festival once a year to celebrate it's name as the Bourbon capital of the world.
Four Roses Bourbon (Warehouse & Bottling) - This stop is a tad different from the others, as this is Four Roses' Bourbon bottling only plant. The tastings are $5, so relatively cheap compared to the others, for a nice assortments of Bourbon. What's nice here, if you're looking for a Rose special edition bottle, you will find that at this location.
Jim Beam - You'll end Day 1's trail at Jim Beam, located roughly 28 miles from downtown Louisville. A couple notes to make about this distillery, given it's one of the most popular. You'll most likely need to purchase tickets 2 or more days before visiting. In addition, the last tour is at 3:30pm (3pm on Sundays), so if you're planning to follow this route - make sure to get an early start! The tour last 90 minutes and covers the full distillery: going through the mashing, distilling, barreling, aging, and bottling process. The price for the full tour plus tasting is $14. A couple of fun additions located here that the others don't have, is the Jim Beam themed bar and bourbon inspired cuisine at Fred's Smokehouse. If the 90 minute tour is too long and limits you on time - there is always the option to take the Bourbon 101 option that goes into how Jim Beam is made and its rich history along with a tasting and souvenir glass but in under a fraction of the time.
For Day 2, there's a rest from all the driving - this day is centered around exploring the distilleries in the city of Louisville. This gives your group a chance to Uber from place to place, and towards the end of your trail you'll find yourself walking around Whiskey Row. The row is located in the heart of downtown by the river, where your group can later grab a bite to eat and check out the local nightlife.
Bulleit - Located at the former Stitzel-Weller Distillery, the story of one of the new companies on the block is an inspiring one. Bulleit Bourbon takes pride in their success, as they now are at the top of Bourbon sales in the US. The distillery is located east of the university and a 5 mile (15 minute) drive from the heart of downtown. Our group loved the on-site distillery, because it was not their main plant (but a specialized miniature version). The participants are able to see the whole distilling process in one room, bringing everything to life. In most of the places you'll be visiting, the key components are all in separate rooms (sometimes separate floors) and the development process seems a little more abstract. At Bulleit, with the informed tour guides and the specialized distillery, it's easier to visualize the production. I was also a big fan, that at the tasting we got to try a variety of 4 including their 10 aged bottle and their interpretation of the Stitzel Weller formula (to merge the bulleit brand with their previous tenants) as a special edition.
Jim Beam | The Urban Stillhouse - A little different from the previous visit at the Jim Beam distillery, the urban stillhouse sets out a new vibe. What immediately catches your attention is the huge tree made from charred Bourbon barrels in the middle of the room and a ceiling 'assembly line' of bottles. The tours include walking through a small working distillery, a bottling line, as well as a tasting experience. Participants can also get a unique bottle yourself bourbon experience with bourbon selected for the Urban Stillhouse.
Evan Williams - For this stop, our group decided to do something a little different! While they say red wine and chocolate were the perfect match - I don't think they gave Bourbon and sweets a fair chance. We decided to indulge in the Sweet & Neat experience, where we had 4 of Evan's bourbons with flavor enhancing chocolates. The price ran $15 a person. The speakeasy room they take you into is a blast from the past, that makes you feel like you're living in prohibition time. But if your group would rather have another distillery tour/tasting, or a premium spirit tasting they have those as well. I recommend buying tickets in advanced here, because they're known to sell out.
Angel's Envy - Some would call this a boutique distillery. While Angel's Envy is relatively new to the game compared to the others, the property is a site to see. They've restored an old distillery into what it is today. If you're an architectural junkie, I'd highly recommend it. The tours here are personal and small (limited to 10 people - so book in advance as it's reservation only). The tasting is not a large selection of their bourbons, but rather difference experiences with their standard offering: one neat, one on the rocks, & one paired with their bourbon chocolates (these chocolates were amazing, all the chocolates are amazing).
**If you're reading this posts in 2018 and planning to take a trip on the Bourbon Trail - Old Forester may be open, in which case I'm jealous. You're very lucky, add it to your list!
Back on the road again, folks. For Day 3's itinerary we hit both Lexington and Frankfurt - so a little exploring and more KY cities to knock off your bucket list on top of all your new distillery visits. Make sure the playlist is set and the timing is mapped out, because this is a lengthy trail day - but promise it's all worth it!
Bourbon Town Ranch - Located around 75 miles from downtown Louisville, we again work our way out-in. Something rather interesting, but making total sense, is that Town Ranch on top of being a bourbon distiller is also a brewery. In hindsight, all bourbon distilleries are breweries since beer is needed in order to make Bourbon - Town Ranch seemed to be the only brand capitalizing on both. The tastings for this stop were nice because it was a change from the standard Bourbon only assortment and added a taste of refreshing beer.
Buffalo Trace - While this stop is not technically on the certified 'Bourbon Trail', I'm convinced it's because the place is so popular they asked to be taken off for a hot second to accommodate everyone! Never the less, please make the stop here, and the one thing I have to convince you is called Bourbon Cream - yes, sweet bourbon mixed with cream is all that is holy and good in this world. They let you sample some with their homemade root beer - and it's just magical! But beyond that they have some extra tidbits that make them stand apart, like Vodka... Yes, I imagine it's a sin to have Vodka on the Bourbon Trail, but I did it and don't regret a second of it. When most vodkas are distilled 2-3 times, Buffalo Trace distills 10-12, so it's extra crisp and clean. They also had our group do a fun experiment with moonshine. Which come to find out is just un-aged bourbon.
Woodford Reserve - The Four Season, or Ritz Carlton of the Bourbon Trail. The property is lined with hydrangeas and their rick houses are more like large country estates. Nestled in the middle of Horse Country, the Bourbon taste exactly how you'd imagine - refined & delicious. While I can't get over the inside display looking more like an apple store than a liquor store, the prices on the bottles made sense. I highly recommend booking this tour in advanced, when we went the tours were all sold out and we ended up squeezing in for a tasting (don't make our same mistake). The tasting comes with two bourbons: Straight Bourbon & the Double Oaked. Both were delicious and served with their signature bourbon chocolates (damn these chocolates!).
Wild Turkey - Michelangelo had the Sistine Chapel, Mozart had Symphony #40, and Wild Turkey has their magical corn...not kidding. Apparently the corn seed reserve is hidden in many various stops around the country in case of fire, famine, or zombie apocalypse (their words). It's the company's thought that this crop is what gives Wild Turkey its unique taste and has been using the same crop since it's opening in the late 1800s. The distillery is huge, and the tours are brought around the property on chartered buses. The tastings offer a nice mix of their products, including their reserved and American Honey (which was my college drink of choice, so that brought back fun memories). They also had everyone take home nice old-fashioned rocks glasses as a souvenir.
A Few Things to Note
Free T-Shirts: Yes! We love anything free - so make sure you get your passport at the very first stop and stamp along every location. Once your passport is completely filled, they give you a free t-shirt.
Souvenirs: A few were mentioned throughout the posts, but if looking to limit the things you get from various places, my personal recommendations go as follows -
The Bourbon Cream at Buffalo Trace seems to be MIA everywhere so if you try it and love it, BUY IT! Because it's not so easy to get once your home.
Speaking of getting at home, most bottles of Bourbon can be found at your local liquor store - instead buy the bottles that are limited edition or 'created by you' like the Kentucky Derby bottles at Woodford Reserved or the Personal Red Stamped bottles at Makers Mark.
The Chocolates! Yes they have them on sale, and they can be expensive. The ones on the third day (Buffalo Trace and Woodford) were my personal favorite - so unless you fall in love with others on your first 2 days, hold off to buy till the last day.
Housing Accommodations: While there may be talks to find hotels or Airbnbs outside the city - I don't recommend it! Louisville is a fun city with an emerging nightlife and foodie vibe from the University of Louisville. Additionally the distilleries all close early, the latest at 5:30pm with some at 4pm. While the rolling hills and horse country are stunning to look at, they wont be much a source of entertainment once the sun goes down.
Driving: We all know the story - we don't drink and drive. So if you decide to rent a car or bring your own, make sure you have DDs designated for that day to bring you to the distilleries (there's 3 days so don't worry everyone gets a turn!). If you all decide to engage in the fun, there's also provided tours like: