Twenty years ago, the Bourbon Trail didn’t exist. Before 1999, when the Kentucky Distillers’ Association created the concept, tourism to the state’s bourbon distilleries wasn’t much of a thing, and it took a few years to catch on. To wit: In 2003 my mother and I headed to the Buffalo Trace distillery, maker of its eponymous bourbon as well as the impossible-to-procure Pappy van Winkle, on the outskirts of Frankfort. We arrived shortly before the visitor center closed. One man worked in there, and we were the only guests.
Fast forward to this past June, when we returned to Buffalo Trace to find an enormous and enormously packed visitor center, with a massive shop and tasting room. This too was just before closing time, only this time hundreds of people milled about. By 2016, the Bourbon Trail had caught on, and caught on big.
The interest in bourbon comes courtesy of a clever marketing campaign, yes, but even more so thanks to a resurgent interest in bourbon both nationally and internationally, after the industry bottomed out in the 1970s. Today, it benefits from an image of authenticity in an age when authenticity has become a status symbol. And bourbon producers have revolutionized their products, as well. For example, single barrel bourbon didn’t exist before the 1980s, and now it’s a coveted–and premium–subcategory unto itself.
As a tourist draw, then, the Bourbon Trail was just waiting to be capitalized on. Like Napa Valley on the West Coast, central Kentucky’s countryside is hilly and gorgeous. It’s also dotted with racehorses out to graze. Getting from one distillery to the next is a joy. Unlike the wineries of Napa, the tasting rooms at the bourbon distilleries function less as bars and more as venues for educational tastings—if I were them, I’d veer more toward the Napa model here, but that’s a small quibble.
Buffalo Trace isn’t even an official stop on the Bourbon Trail—it was removed in 2010 after ending its membership in the distillers’ association—but that seems to keep exactly no one away from it. This leads to an important point: If you’re visiting, use the list of official Bourbon Trail distilleries only as a starting point: There are at least a dozen others without the distinction that are well worth a visit.
Notes for Your Bourbon Trail Itinerary:
- In addition to Buffalo Trace I visited Wild Turkey, Four Roses and Woodford Reserve (see below for my notes on each individual visit). Geographically, grouping these four makes sense: They’re all clustered together near Frankfort.
- Bulleitt Bourbon and Jim Beam are both located in the Louisville area, so grouping them together in a single outing can work well.
- Lexington is home to a number of new craft bourbon distillers: Town Branch, Barrel House, and Bluegrass Distillers.
- Bourbon is said to have got its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky. (A competing origin story has it named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans.) When Prohibition came along in 1919, all of Bourbon County’s 26 distilleries closed. Bourbon County didn’t have another distillery until Hartfield & Co., a craft distiller, opened in 2014.
- Everyone wants to make it to Makers Mark. Just keep in mind that this is one distillery located far from all the others, 65 miles from Lexington and 58 miles from Louisville.
- Tours at most distilleries can be booked ahead of time, which is advisable during peak times. To a certain extent, the tours are similar and invariably include a lesson in how bourbon is made. I’d recommend no more than two tours in one day, rounded out with tastings at a couple other distilleries.
And finally, here’s my take on the four distilleries I had a chance to visit on this trip:
Wild Turkey: The bourbon that makes me think of college more than any other had me expecting something a little more downmarket than what I got. This is obviously a large production facility, but it’s tucked into a gorgeous spot on the Kentucky River and the warehouses are old and charming. The tour is given via air conditioned buses, with stops along the way, and concludes with an impressive tasting that includes not only Wild Turkey bourbon, but also the Russell’s Reserve and Kentucky Spirit labels, along with a honey bourbon that’s easy on the pallette. 1417 Versailles Road | Lawrenceburg, KY | website
Four Roses: The tour here is much shorter than at Wild Turkey and, since this is a more compact distillery, is conducted on foot. Built in 1910, the mission style buildings make for a nice oddity in these parts, and the interiors had an antique romance to them. The tastings were less exciting than at Wild Turkey but still generous. Keep an eye out in the tasting room for all the old Four Roses bottles on display. 1224 Bonds Mill Road | Lawrenceburg, KY website
Buffalo Trace: This place was a madhouse, but the grounds are great—I can’t get enough of their big old brick warehouses. Instead of a tour, we signed up for just a tasting, which was underwhelming: a bourbon, a choice between their White Dog and their vodka, and a bourbon crème liqueur. That said, it was free. More than any other distillery I visited, Buffalo Trace takes advantage of the crowds with an enormous offering of paraphernalia for sale. And to those who may wonder: No, there’s no Pappy to be found.
Woodford Reserve: The drive out to Woodford Reserve’s distillery is reason enough to make the visit, offering up the very best of rolling-hills-dotted-with-thoroughbreds goodness—and you’ll likely find yourself driving alongside the farm where American Pharoah lives. The grounds are idyllic, too, with their old stone buildings and sloping lawns. Again here, we opted for the tasting instead of the full tour. For $7, the two bourbons and a chocolate felt meh, but still, it’s a great distillery to visit. I left with a delicious bottle of cherry bitters from the shop. Just a little further down the road sits the once-Old Tayler/future-Key & Castle distillery, worth a drive by even before it opens, and beyond that, the shuttered Old Crow distillery, which is slowing coming back to life as Glenns Creek. 7855 McCracken Pike | Versailles, KY | website
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