Navigating the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is easy, and with a little planning, can be a fantastic getaway both for bourbon lovers and those who simply want to sight-see!
Fellow foodies, if you, like me, enjoy tours of vineyards, distilleries, and breweries– listen up! I’m sure you’ve heard of famous wine-tasting regions, such as California’s wine country, Italy’s Tuscan vineyards, and France’s Loire Valley. Those areas are special because, while there are other fantastic vineyards scattered across the world, these are in clusters, and make for spectacular vineyard-hopping getaways. You may or may not have realized, however, that several major bourbon distilleries in Kentucky are also clustered together, and make up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Kentucky’s native limestone rock makes bourbon production easier, and 95% off all bourbon is made in Kentucky. The Bourbon Trail runs from Lexington to Louisville, and as of September 2016 has nine official stops.
What to Expect on the Kentucky bourbon trail:
Cost: The trail is incredibly affordable! For most tours, expect to pay $10-$12 a person.*
Time + Distance: Most of the tours are about an hour long. Tours tend to run on a set schedule (depending on the distillery), and can fill up quickly on busy weekends. Plan ahead, and if the distillery allows pre-booking, do it. If you end up waiting an hour for a tour to start, there’s usually grounds to wander around, a restaurant, or a gift shop. The distilleries aren’t within walking distance of each other– they’re mostly scattered across the Kentucky countryside. Try not to plan on more than 3 distilleries per day.
When To Go: Our weekday trips have been more enjoyable, with less crowds and less waiting on booked-up tours. If you go on a weekend, make sure to book online for any spot that will let you. Whatever you do– remember that the first weekend in May is Derby Weekend. If you plan your trip that weekend, be prepared for major crowds. There are extra events and a lot more to do– just don’t forget what a magnet the Derby is. Book your hotel FAR in advance, and call the distilleries ahead to find out their touring schedule is for that weekend.
Tastings + Loot: The amount of bourbon samples included in your tour will vary from spot to spot, but range from 2 – 4 tastings. Don’t blame the distillery if you want more, they can’t hand out more because of Kentucky law. Some tours will also give you a free bourbon ball, some send you home with your tasting glass, and some give you a bottle label as a souvenir.
Who Can Go? U.S. law says you have to be 21 to drink alcohol, so any tastings obviously require you to be old enough to drink. That said, if you have someone younger with you, they should still be able to go on the tour (they just aren’t allowed to drink anything!) Double checking the under-21 policy at each distillery isn’t a bad idea if you’re bringing along someone who’s under-age.
The Distilleries: From Lexington, towards Louisville
1. Alltech / Town Branch ($10 per person tour)
This distillery / brewery is located in downtown Lexington. It’s a smaller distillery, but ended up being one of my favorite tastings. The distillery part of the tour was shorter (as there wasn’t as much to see), but it also included a tour of their Town Branch brewery– where they make Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. The tour included 4 tokens that let you choose which drinks you wanted to sample, and you could choose from both the distillery and brewery drinks. This was a nice stop if you’re tired of bourbon after bourbon, and want to shake things up with some local brews.
2. Woodford Reserve** ($10 per person tour)
Woodford Reserve, located outside Lexington, is like the country club on this distillery tour. The distillery grounds are gorgeous– with limestone buildings and lush green countryside, and the tour takes you through the large distilling area and the rick-houses (where they store the bourbon barrels). The tour includes two bourbon tastings and a bourbon ball. Our tour was on Derby weekend, and so the entire area was extra crowded. Because of the crowds, tours were running every 15 minutes instead of every hour, and they had free mint julep balls in the gift shop (score!)
3. Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey, located about halfway between Lexington and Louisville, is one of the three main distilleries that I haven’t been to yet!
4. Four Roses
The Four Roses main distillery, also located between Lexington and Louisville, was under construction and not available for touring on our last Bourbon Trail adventure. The construction was only temporary, but we haven’t been to the main site yet.
Four Roses Warehouse: Four Roses also has a warehouse with tours and tastings near the Jim Beam distillery. We opted for a 30-minute tasting here, and paid $5 a person. The tasting included three bourbons and the tasting glass. It was short, sweet, and a nice side-trip while we waited for our Jim Beam tour.
5. Maker’s Mark ($9 per person tour; specialty tours also available)
Maker’s Mark is in Loretto, KY, south of Lexington and Louisville. Of the tours I’ve been on so far– Maker’s Mark was one of my absolute favorites. The grounds are gorgeous, and the tour was fantastic. The tour includes a walk-through of their large distillery area, a chance to taste the mash of fermenting grains, a view of the production line, a bottle label, four tastings, and a chance to hand-dip a bourbon bottle in their signature red wax. They also have more expensive specialty tours available. These vary but include a more extensive view of the grounds. Check on their website about reserving these ahead if you’re interested.
One fun, free bonus— Sign up as a Maker’s Mark Ambassador online, and have your name engraved on a barrel of bourbon. They send you free ‘ambassador’ business cards, and let you know when the barrel with your name on it is ready to be bottled in case you want to buy a bottle from ‘your’ barrel.
6. Heaven Hill / Bourbon Heritage Center (Mashbill tour- $10; Whiskey Connoisseur Tour- $20)
Heaven Hill is located about an hour south of Louisville. This location does not have an on-site distillery, so if you opt for the cheaper (and longer) tour, you’ll learn about the history of Heaven Hill, see the on-site rick-house, and (obviously) have a bourbon tasting. We decided to go for the shorter ‘connoisseur’ tour, and really enjoyed it. This tour costs more because of the quality and price of your tastings– you get a chance to try some bourbons that are $200-$300 a bottle. If you don’t think you’ll have another chance to try high-end bourbon, this is your chance!
7. Jim Beam ($12 per person tour)
The Jim Beam distillery is located outside Louisville. This tour was fantastic– but I definitely recommend booking your tour online ahead of time. We didn’t, and the next tour wasn’t for another hour and a half. That said, this tour of the largest bourbon producer on the trail was as extensive (or maybe even more so) as the Maker’s Mark tour, but with a much more industrial feel. The tour included their distillery and rick-houses, a chance to taste the mash of fermenting grains, and a chance to smell or taste undiluted bourbon straight from the barrel. You also get to clean an empty bourbon bottle (by washing it with bourbon, of course), set it on the bottling line, and then add the wax seal if you’re purchasing a bottle. Jim Beam’s tasting room was the most unique I’ve been in– instead of a human pouring the samples, you’re given a card with three credits loaded to insert into one of the many bourbon dispensing machines in the room. Each credit poured 1/2 ounce of bourbon into your tasting glass. Jim Beam definitely had the most tasting options– including their classic bourbons, single barrel bourbons, and flavored whiskeys. The tasting glass is included in the tour price.
Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse: Jim Beam also has a tasting room in downtown Louisville. For $5, you get a shot glass to keep, and four bourbon tastings. It’s only a short walk from the Evan Williams distillery.
The Bulleit distillery is just outside Louisville. We missed the last tour at Bulleit by 10 minutes, so it’s still on my to-do list.
9. Evan Williams ($12 per person tour; Speakeasy specialty tour- $20)
Evan Williams, in downtown Louisville, provides the most unique Bourbon Trail tour I’ve been on. We had to wait an hour and a half for this tour too, so I recommend booking online (they let you book online within 24 hours of the tour you want). There’s no large distillery on-site, and you only get a brief glimpse of the small artisan distillery. Even so, they provide an enjoyable, incredibly interesting tour. The entire tour felt like walking through an interactive play, with rooms turned into reproductions of old Evan Williams buildings and historical Louisville. A lot of the tour was via videos shown as the guide led you from room to room. The tasting included three bourbons and a bourbon ball. The Speakeasy tour was sold out when we got there, but seemed similar to the Heaven Hill connoisseur tour, which makes sense, because Heaven Hill is the parent company for Evan Williams. You’ll see a lot of the same bourbons available to buy at both locations.
Have you been on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!
*Note: Obviously, the breweries can change the prices of their tours without giving me a heads-up. If you need to know exact numbers before you leave, double check on their websites.
**Also Note: I’ve inserted links to help you find the distillery websites, but Woodford Reserve has a fairly lengthy and strict linking policy. You’re going to have to search Google for them yourself, sorry! (They’re incredibly easy to find).