Kentucky's Bourbon Country
Dive barrel-first into the spirit of Kentucky with this ultimate guide to Bourbon Country in all its fiery fall splendor.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Bourbon is as Southern as barbecue and bluegrass―just ask anyone with a drawl. However, the bourbon itself is just a small part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail which stretches for roughly 60 miles, from Louisville to Lexington and down to Bardstown.
Bourbon Country is about the rolling hills that inspired many a man to pick up a fiddle. Pastures fertile with majestic Thoroughbreds. Anecdotes and tall tales from generations of distillers. Country roads bordered by lopsided barns and piled stone walls. And the best way to access all this? By visiting the distilleries.
Crisscross central Kentucky to tour seven distilleries of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (the eighth, the Historic Tom Moore Distillery―home of 1792 Ridgemont Reserve―wasn’t open for tours at the time). Whether you sample the wares or not, you’ll pass through swaths of land kissed by God as you travel from one to another. And you’ll never meet a more colorful cast of honest-to-goodness characters.
With mist rising off the Kentucky River, the tour begins at Wild Turkey.
Tour highlight: Meeting one of Kentucky’s living legends. Jimmy, who has been turning corn, rye, and barley malt into liquid gold for 55 years, isn’t always on-site, but try to catch him.
Signature brands: American Honey, Kentucky Spirit, Rare Breed, Russell’s Reserve, Russell’s Reserve Rye, Wild Turkey, Wild Turkey 101
Where to find them: 1525 Tyrone Road, Lawrenceburg; (502) 839-4544
The Maker’s Mark distillery is exactly what you hope a bourbon distillery will look like: a large black barn with cherry red shutters, the old homestead (now a visitors center) tucked beneath shade trees, landscaped paths, and a trickling stream named Whisky Creek.
Tour highlight: Learning how to smell bourbon: Stick your nose in the glass, open your mouth, and inhale. By breathing through your mouth, you smell the vanilla and caramel without getting a noseful of alcohol fumes.
Signature brand: Maker’s Mark
Where to find them: 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto; (270) 865-2099
In downtown Frankfort, not far from the state capitol, Buffalo Trace feels like an industrial frontier town, with most of the buildings on the 118-acre campus built before Prohibition.
Tour highlight: Watching the small team of men and women fastidiously bottle and label cases of Blanton’s by hand.
Signature brands: Blanton’s, Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare Single Barrel, George T. Stagg, Old Charter, Pappy Van Winkle, W.L. Weller
Where to find them: 1001 Wilkinson Blvd., Frankfort; (502) 696-5926
Stone fences, built in the 19th century by Irish immigrants, line scenic byways throughout Bourbon Country.
Tour highlight: Hanging out on the porch of the T. Jeremiah Beam House, where three generations of Beams lived, sipping a free taste of Booker’s.
Signature brands: Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s, Jim Beam, Knob Creek
Where to find them: 526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont; 502) 543-9877
There’s no distillery tour here per se, but the Bourbon Heritage Center at Heaven Hill features an amazingly well-edited history (read: short, sweet, and interesting) of the industry, with interactive exhibits and a tasting room shaped like the inside of a barrel.
Tour highlight: The interactive barrel display. Cross-sections of three barrels demonstrate the color and volume at each stage (from clear and full when first poured in the barrel to caramel and more than half-empty when it’s ready to come out). With the press of a button, a mist wafts through a gramophone-like tube allowing you to smell the difference aging makes.
Signature brands: Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, Old Fitzgerald
Where to find them: Bourbon Heritage Center, 1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown; (502) 337-1000
Four Roses Distillery
The Spanish Mission-style Four Roses almost seems out of place in this neck of the woods, with a stucco facade and pathways dotted with vibrant red blooms.
Tour highlight: Sampling the Four Roses collection, which can be hard to find outside of Kentucky.
Signature brands: Four Roses Single Barrel, Four Roses Small Batch, Four Roses Yellow Label
Where to find them: 1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg; (502) 839-3436
The Woodford Reserve Distillery
The Woodford Reserve Distillery still uses a track system from the 1800s to roll barrels into the warehouses. Woodford Reserve also produces the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.
Tour highlight: Driving along stone walls and wooden-fenced pastures.
Signature brand: Woodford Reserve
Where to find them: 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles; (859) 879-1812
Stops Along the Way
Capital Cellars Wine & Spirits Café Market: Part bar, part liquor store, it offers more than 50 different bourbons; free tastings on Thursday and Friday nights. 227 West Broadway Street; (502) 352-2600
Holly Hill Inn: James Beard-nominated chef Ouita Michel’s ode to Kentucky. 426 North Winter Street; dinner for two about $75
21c Museum Hotel: A modern boutique hotel. 700 West Main Street; doubles from $139
Bourbons Bistro: Offers monthly five-course bourbon dinners. 2255 Frankfort Avenue; dinner for two about $75
Top 3 Bottles
Editor's Picks, pictured from left to right:
1. Pappy Van Winkle 20 yr. Big-bodied and chewy, with notes of sherry, citrus, and creamy vanilla. It’s as smooth as a Kentucky drawl. About $100.
2. Elmer T. Lee Butterscotch, vanilla, leather, and a dash of spice―it’s like recalling stories of your grandfather while sitting in his favorite chair. About $25.
3. Bulleit Hints of vanilla and honey, with a long smoky finish thanks to a heavy dose of rye. A great cocktail bourbon that pairs well with tonic and a slice of lemon or (my favorite) infused with Allan Benton’s bacon. About $25.