Kentucky Bourbon Trail

by JudithG

By Judith Glynn Hop-on, hop-off or tour the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® in three days. Guides at the distilleries. Learn how bourbon is made. Sip samples. Stop in towns along the way.

Eastern Kentucky is a genteel place with rolling hills and thoroughbreds fetching big money for breeding. Another draw along a 70-mile stretch anchored by Lexington and Louisville is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® created by the Kentucky Distillers' Association® (KDA). With almost five million barrels of aging bourbon in the warehouses last year, no wonder Kentucky is "The Bourbon Capital of the World."

Visitors are welcome at KDA's seven distilleries that offer guided tours. They include Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. Craft bourbon makers were recently included. Some distillery tours are free; others charge a nominal amount. All last about one hour. Measured and free tastings are a given. Gift shops on site sell alcohol, candies, bourbon products and memorabilia.

In addition to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail adventure, towns along the way offer popular attractions and sell first-rate crafts.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Highlights

Over 500,000 Visitors and Counting

Since 95% of the world's bourbon is made here and bourbon's popularity is booming, no wonder the distilleries are working non-stop to keep up with the demand. Some highlights are:

  • Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby and the oldest and smallest working bourbon distillery. Personalize a bourbon souvenir bottle with a private label. 
  • Wild Turkey is  set on 900 acres that front the Kentucky River, which is its water source. This distillery has made bourbon since 1869, aging its barrels from six to twelve years. Half of the product is exported to about 60 countries. Australia is number one. 
  • Heaven Hill Distillery has the most educational of the tastings and is conducted in a barrel-shaped room. Drinking it "neat" means straight up. An exhibition traces bourbon's history.

  • A visit to Maker's Mark has the personal touch of the founding Samuels family. Some of the cypress-wood fermenting vats are 100 years old. They bubble, like all bourbon-making vats do, from the active yeast consuming the sugar in the grains. Replicate the company's red wax bottle neck coating on a purchased souvenir bottle by dipping it in red wax.

Maker's Mark Tour

Explaining the Bubbling Yeast Mash
Cypress Wood Vats are 100 Years Old
Cypress Wood Vats are 100 Years Old
Judith Glynn

Samples are Encouraged

Free Tastings at Wild Turkey
Choose Two at Wild Turkey
Choose Two at Wild Turkey
Judith Glynn

It's Official

President Lyndon B. Johnson and an Act of Congress in 1964 recognized bourbon as "America's Official Native Spirit." And although it can be produced anywhere in America, most brands come from Kentucky. 

What's In Bourbon?

By law, bourbon must contain at least 51% corn; the rest is barley and rye. Some distilleries, such as Maker's Mark, use wheat instead of rye, which lends a sweater taste. It must be aged in new, charred, white oak barrels. It has to be distilled at no more than 160 proof and aged in the barrel a minimum of two years. Other requirements differentiate types of bourbon such as blended and straight. 

Why Kentucky?

The elements here are perfect for making bourbon. The water used by the distilleries to dilute pure alcohol coming off the stills is naturally filtered by underground limestone rocks. Out goes the iron and calcium gets put back in. The four seasons are an added bonus. Kentucky is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. With bourbon aging in the barrels, the temperature expands and contracts the liquid. That process contributes to its color and flavor coming from the barrel. 

But before the government sanctioned bourbon "America's Official Native Spirit," the Bluegrass State already had a long heritage making it. Dating back two centuries, the spirit's founding pioneers were primarily Scotch-Irish immigrants. They brought with them generations of whisky-making from the other side of the Atlantic. The distillery responsible for 50% of the bourbon produced in Kentucky is Jim Beam.

Kentucky Distillers Association

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail operation is managed and promoted by the Kentucky Distillers Association®. They recommend three days to do all seven distilleries. It's the perfect 70-mile drive that winds through small towns loaded with history, beautiful scenery, great eats, first-class accommodations and a touch of Appalachia.

 

The KDA site is full of bourbon-related news, fun items to purchase  and it's where to request a free Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport (also available at distilleries). Collect distillery stamps to earn a complimentary T-shirt.

 

If You Go

Starting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in Lexington is a favorite choice. Discover historic downtown buildings using a free Lexington Walk brochure and LexWalk Audio Tour smart phone app. Both are available at the city's Victorian Square tourist center or call toll-free to 800-845-3959.

 

  

For a good night's sleep on a Tempur-Pedic mattress, stay at the downtown Gratz Park Inn that also offers complimentary parking. Jonathan's onsite restaurant is a winner. Expect the menu to have bourbon in some selections. Supposedly, the bar makes the best Old Fashioned mixed drink in town. 

          

Updated: 08/19/2014, JudithG
 
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sockii on 04/17/2015

I love bourbon - it's my favorite spirit! I so want to do the bourbon trail some time soon. Recently I was driving through Kentucky and I saw all the signs for the distilleries and I only wished I'd had the time to stop! Thanks for the info - I'm going to keep this page bookmarked for when I'm planning my trip.

JudithG on 06/12/2013

This is a terrific, and I mean terrific, road trip. And the bourbon sipping wasn't bad either.

teddletonmr on 06/11/2013

I enjoyed reading about the Kentucky bourbon trail very much. Invoking a flashback to a time when I visited Bardstown Kentucky, where I lost more than just a few unneeded brain cells. The recollections had me reaching for and dusting off an ole bottle of Makers Mark, and wandering down the ole whisky tasting memory lane of days gone by, thanks for the journey.
Cheers, Mike

MikeRobbers on 05/29/2013

That should be an interesting trail to travel, bourbon lover or not. Nice article!

dustytoes on 05/17/2013

My son lives in Kentucky and I have visited once. I think it was the Woodford Reserve we visited. Interesting page about Kentucky Bourbon! Congrats on the Award too!

whitemoss on 05/16/2013

I love Bourbon but it doesn't love me! Lovely page though- I'd enjoy the trip.

katiem2 on 05/08/2013

Great article and a much deserved ECA! :)

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