The Bourbon Trail
By Deanna Roberts
There was once a time in my life that I hated whiskey. I'd thought it was the worst thing ever. My palate was used to sweeter drinks, fruit infused confections such as Pina Coladas, Daqueri's, Margarita's. And while I still love those drinks, my mind and my taste buds have been awakened.
About 5 years ago, I was visiting my best friend, Candi, in Kentucky. Her boyfriend (now husband) kept trying to get me to try Bourbon. And, I was reluctant, sharing my prior negative experiences. Though, he simply stated I'd just not tried the right bourbon, and asked if I wanted to plan a road trip adventure on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. He had me at adventure.
Candi was our designated driver, which was a good thing. I neither had experience with Bourbon, nor the hilly back roads of Kentucky. It was a life changing trip, that I will never forget.
Back then, there were only about 8 official distilleries on the tour, which were easy enough to get to in a weekend. Each distillery had something unique to offer, whether it was the setting, process of distillation, or the product itself. I learned so much, it was amazing. One of the things I took from the trip, was why I thought I didn't like Bourbon (or Whiskey, in general), and it comes down to what it's made of. I found that I am not a fan of rye, and I much prefer whiskey with a high corn content, or even wheat. And I learned why each one of those grains creates the flavor it does.
Even the mash process, to the barrel charring, the water, the aging process, and the rickhouse construction can all influence the flavor of Bourbon, and it's fascinating to learn the intricacies of the dance that creates this gorgeous amber colored liquid. It's magical.
Over the years, I've gone on the Bourbon Trail, no less than 6 times. Sometimes taking friends on their first visits. Each year they add new distilleries to the list to try, and I have my personal favorites that I insist on stopping at. In 2019, after a 4 day weekend of visiting all 16 distilleries, I had many people ask for more information, tips, and recommendations for the Bourbon Trail.
I made a spreadsheet of the Trail, more or less, broken up into areas and/or days. Some of the distillery tours can go for 1-2 hours. The list I have below, was based on what was on the Official Bourbon Trail, June of 2019. Hours for tours, and gift shop hours vary, and can change. My list is a guideline only, and not the exact operating hours. Please check the distillery website for operating hours, and to make tour reservations.
The plan I made, gave us one full tour per day, and the rest we either did a tasting, or just visited the gift shop to get our Official Bourbon Trail Passport stamped. The Kentucky Visitors Center gives a gift for anyone who completes the Bourbon Trail & gets all the stamps in their passport. My first completion garnered me an Official Bourbon Trail T Shirt. The newest gift, I believe, is a tasting glass, which I still need to collect.
You can certainly choose which distillery you’d prefer to tour, based on your favorites. But mine are Angel’s Envy, Maker’s Mark, and Buffalo Trace (more on this one later). Or, if you have the time, tour them all.
While there are a TON of distilleries in Louisville, the majority are all in a small area of the downtown & within walking distance of each other. Also, many are also a bar, open until quite late & thus, easy to do all of Louisville in a single day.
Louisville also had a Urban Bourbon Trail passport that contains a list of bars, restaurants, and tours. After collecting 6 stamps, you can redeem your passport at the Louisville Visitors Center for a T Shirt.
Louisville, being a major metropolitan city, has a lot to offer; great food, lots of entertainment, and plenty of places to stay. I've stayed in both boutique hotels within walking distance of Main Street, and at an Air BnB in a quiet residential area.
Some Distillery Specifics
Stitzel-Weller/Bulliet is the only distillery in Louisville, that is actually just outside of the city. I would start there first, to visit the gift shop, and head into Downtown Louisville. They've also added a separate Bulleit Distillery, in Shelbyville, that is brand new for 2020 & I’ve not been there…..yet.
Jim Beam has 2 locations, the Urban Stillhouse in Downtown Louisville, and their American Stillhouse in Clermont. The American Stillhouse is very charming, though a bit out of the way, and it’s not necessary to get stamps at BOTH locations, only one. So, we chose to save time & only stop at the Urban Stillhouse. IF you can take your time & have 5+ days in Kentucky, I would say it’s worth the stop. Even though I’m not a Jim Beam fan, they have more than a few products that are very much worth stopping for.
Four Roses also has two locations; their main distillery in Lawrenceburg, which is South of Frankfort, and Four Roses warehouse and bottling facility in Cox's Creek, KY.
There are a few distilleries that are out in the middle of nowhere, with miles of backroads between. Again, some are clustered in a way you can get to them in a single day, if you time it properly. We did the Bourbon Trail in 4 days. Louisville on Friday, Loretto & Bardstown on Saturday, Frankfort, Lawrenceburg, & Lexington on Sunday, and we stopped at OZ Tyler on Owensboro on the way home Monday.
OZ Tyler is REALLY out of the way, and it’s the only distillery in the Central Time Zone. It’s a hard one to place on the list. I’m uncertain if it would be possible to stop at OZ Tyler first, on a Friday morning, heading towards Louisville. It all just depends on where your starting point is.
I’ve also decided to include 3 Distilleries that are not on the official Bourbon Trail for a few reasons.
Their proximity to other distilleries.
Cost: 2 are free. and
Damned good products & worth the trip. They are as follows:
Buffalo Trace: If you’re a Bourbon fan, you’ll already be familiar with their product lines, which are hard to come by anymore. Totally worth it.
Barton’s: I have not been to this location, but when we were staying in Bardstown last summer, I hadn’t realized just how close it was, and that their tours were free.
Willett: Fantastic location, small distillery, great product, literally between Makers Mark & LuxRow/Heaven Hill. They have distillery cats that help keep the rodent Population Down. Not free. Part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour.
Speaking of Distillery Cats, a number of these companies keep rescued cats on property, I can’t even tell you how that tickles me. My personal favorite is Whiskey Jean at Makers Mark. I try to find her & get a picture of her every time. She even has her own Instagram page & hashtag.
I’m hoping the list below takes some of the frustration of planning where to go first on the bourbon trail. It should be relatively easy to follow, and I've listed the distilleries by the nearest city, as opposed to the actual city it is in.
You can pick up your Official Bourbon Trail Passport at any of the distillery gift shops, or at one of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Centers and at the Frazier Museum in Louisville. Keep in mind they often add new Distilleries to the list (like the New Bulliet Distillery in Shelbyville, KY, or Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville, KY - never heard of this one at all).
Sometimes you can get an older passport, so you can “skip” a few, but it’s always worth a looksee, if it’s close & you have time to kill.
This summer, when travel is possible again, I intend to go back to Kentucky and explore more distilleries “off” the trail, as well as revisit some of my favorites.
For maps, a list of distilleries(with links), link to the Craft Trail, and other information go to kybourbontrail.com
www.gotolouisville.com (links to the Urban Bourbon Trail)
Happy Bourbon Trails, Y’all!