Kentucky is known for many things, but bourbon is chief among them. Kentucky claims to be responsible for 95% of the world’s bourbon production, and Congress actually passed a resolution in the 1960s declaring bourbon to be a “distinctive product of the United States” in a move prohibiting the importation of other whiskeys claiming to be “bourbon whiskey.” Kentucky is understandably proud of this heritage, and in 1999 the Kentucky Distillers’ Association founded the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The Main Trail and Its Members
The trail charts a circuitous route from Louisville to Lexington that takes roughly three days to properly enjoy. There are nine distilleries on the official tour with a passport that offers you a T-shirt once you’ve been to all nine. There’s also a “craft tour” with 10 smaller distilleries that you can visit. Filling out your passport for the craft tour nets you a commemorative julep cup. The main Bourbon Trail focuses on nine locations, spread across the landscape of north-central Kentucky. Many of them are names you’ll be familiar with whether you know bourbon or not—Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Bulleit, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Town Branch, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, and Evan Williams.
This isn’t a walking trip, by any stretch of the imagination. The website suggests an optimal route, including a set of turn-by-turn directions, a profile of what makes each distillery unique, and a downloadable app. You can also arrange for someone else to take you on the trip—accommodations range from joining a tour bus (they suggest sponsor Mint Julep Tours) to hiring a stretch limo (sponsored recommendation R&R Limousine). If you feel like taking a more active approach to the tour, the Bluegrass Cycling Club has laid out a safe, scenic route with less traffic and several route options.
Depending on how much bourbon you’re planning on experiencing, a tour company might be a great idea, but bear in mind that on a group tour you lose flexibility, which you might want if you plan on taking your time or tracking down the distilleries on the craft tour.
The Craft Bourbon Trail
The craft tour includes newcomer Kentucky Peerless, along with Hartfield & Co., Willett, Wilderness Trail, The Old Pogue, New Riff, MB Roland, Limestone Branch, Corsair Artisan, and Barrel House. Many of these are located near distilleries on the main tour, though some require a bit of extra legwork. Kentucky Peerless is located in Louisville alongside Evan Williams and Bulleit, but Corsair Artisan is in Bowling Green, farther south and closer to Tennessee. That’s sort of in keeping with the spirit of the Craft Tour, though—it claims to take you “deeper” into the bourbon industry, and that’s as true of the countryside it winds through as it is the distilling processes.
The bourbon trail is a great way to get a feel for what Kentucky is all about. You get a well-curated experience, a great look at how bourbon is made, and you learn a lot about what makes each bourbon unique and what to look for when you’re tasting a bourbon. The Bourbon Trail experience is as warm, thorough, and well-guided an experience as you could hope to have as you dive deeper into the world of America’s native spirit.