Bourbon whiskey, or bourbon, is the only spirit native to the United States. Unlike Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano, "bourbon" is not a protected name in the usual sense, and bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. Yet 95% of bourbon comes from a 90-mile region in the center of Kentucky. This is attributed to an abundance of corn (the primary source of grain in bourbon), limestone in the ground producing pleasant spring water, and alternating hot summers and cold winters, which help the bourbon seep in and out of the barrels to age quickly.
The Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) promotes tours of bourbon distilleries on an official Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Distilleries on the trail offer tours, most lasting about an hour, where they teach you about how they make their bourbon. The process is nearly the same at each one; it's subtle differences that give each its distinctive flavor. The tour guides will explain the basics of bourbon, but they also love answering detailed questions, especially if it gives him a chance to explain why they think their bourbon is better than everyone else's!
And, of course, all of the distilleries offer you a taste of their products at the end of the tour. For most people, this is the highlight of the tour, as you finally get to experience the complex flavors the tour guides were talking about.
Ideally, a real tour of Bourbon Country should start with in Lexington or Louisville. Lexington is, in some ways, a better choice, since two distilleries (Town Branch and Barrel House) are downtown and five others are within a 45-minute drive. On the other hand, Louisville could be said to be the superior starting point not only because it's home to the Evan Williams and Bulleit museums (not actual distilleries, though; Evan Williams runs a small artisanal distillery, but it's no substitute for the real thing) but also because it originated many bourbon cocktails and has a strong connection to bourbon and bourbon lore.
If you're planning on visiting the distilleries on your own, you'll need a car. All but one are well out in the open country. You won't be bored by the drive, though, as Kentucky's scenic rolling hills are beautiful at any time of year. If getting around by your own car, you may need a designated driver.
There are also several tour and limousine services offering packages for visiting distilleries.
There are maps for getting around by bicycle, but it's quite a long trip.
Few distilleries are near each other; if you intend to visit multiple distilleries, don't plan on more than two per day. For the ones furthest from your starting point, you may only be able to do one in a day unless you're dedicated.
- Barton 1792 Distillery, 501 Cathedral Manor, Bardstown, KY 40004, ☎ , toll-free: . Tours on the hour Mo-Fr 9AM-3PM, Sa 10AM-2PM. Located on the site of historic Tom Moore bourbon. Tours free.
- Buffalo Trace Distillery, 113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, KY 40601, toll-free: . Tours Mo-Sa; call for times. Perhaps the oldest continuously running distillery in the USA, as it remained operational during Prohibition to make whiskey for "medicinal purposes". Besides their flagship Buffalo Trace whiskey, the site also distills and bottles smaller batches of other famous brands such as Blanton's, W. L. Weller, and the rare and highly sought after Pappy Van Winkle. There are multiple one-hour tours to choose from. The basic Trace tour is open to all on arrival, but suffers from overcrowding. Call ahead to book limited spots for the Hard Hat tour to see more behind-the-scenes action. Tours free.
- The Gentleman Distillery, 718 Main St, Paris, KY 40361, ☎ . Tu-Sa 8AM-10PM. Short tours (10-15 min) Tu-F throughout the day, long tour (1 hr) Sa 6PM by reservation (limit 8 people). The first distillery to operate in Bourbon County, Kentucky, in 95 years, when Prohibition was enacted in Kentucky. Tours free.
- Jefferson's Bourbon Visitor Center at Kentucky Artisan Distillery, 6230 Old LaGrange Road, Crestwood, KY 40014, ☎ . Tours on the hour & half-hour, Tu-Fr 10AM-4PM, Sa 10AM-2PM. The home of Jefferson's Bourbons, as well as Whiskey Row Bourbon & Highspire Rye Whiskey. $5.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
The official Kentucky Bourbon Trail comprises nine distilleries. You can get a "passport" book at any of them, in which you can collect stamps from each distillery you tour. Once you have all nine stamps, you can get a free T-shirt either from one of the five listed tourism offices or by mail.
- Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience ( Stitzel-Weller Distillery), 3860 Fitzgerald Road, Louisville, KY 40216, ☎ . Tours W-Su 10AM-4PM; last tour 3PM. Tour adult $10, under 21 free.
- Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, 528 W Main St, Louisville, KY 40202, ☎ . Tours Mo-Sa 10AM-5PM; Su 1PM-5PM; last tour 4PM. Really just a museum (their actual distillery is in Bardstown), although they run a small artisanal distillery on site. Tour adult $12, kids 11–20 $9, 10 and under free.
- Four Roses Distillery, 1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, KY 40342, ☎ . Tours Mo-Sa 9AM-3PM on the hour; Su 12PM-3PM on the hour. Four Roses' main building was built in the early 1900s in a Spanish mission style, complete with arches, red tiled roofs and even a bell tower. The tour starts with a video providing a good overview of the basics of bourbon making, followed by a trip through the plant, but if you're looking for a lot of details you may be disappointed. Tour $5, or free with receipt from Warehouse tour within 60 days; price includes a souvenir rocks glass.
- Coxs Creek Warehouse & Bottling Facility, 624 Lotus Road, Coxs Creek, KY 40013 (approximately one hour from the distillery by car), ☎ . Tours Mo-Sa 9AM-3PM on the hour; Su 12PM-3PM on the hour. Tour $5, or free with receipt from Distillery within 60 days.
- Heaven Hill Distilleries, 1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown, KY 40004, ☎ . Mo-Sa 10AM-5PM (last deluxe tour 3:40PM); Su March-December 12PM-4PM. Mini tour ½ hour, $3; Deluxe tour 1¼ hours, $5; Trolley tour ½ hour, $5; Behind the scenes tour 3 hours (by appointment), $25.
- Jim Beam Distillery ( Jim Beam American Stillhouse), 526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont, KY 40110, ☎ . Mo-Sa 9AM-5:30PM, tours every half hour 9:30AM-3:30PM, except 12:30PM; Su 12PM-4:30PM, tours every half hour 12:30PM-3PM. Adults (21+) $8; under 21 years old free.
- Maker's Mark Distillery, 3350 Burks Springs Road, Loretto, KY 40037, ☎ . Tours Mo-Sa 10:30AM-3:30PM every hour on the half-hour; Su March-December 1:30, 2:30, 3:30; closed some holidays. Aside from the usual distillery tour perks, Maker's Mark offers a unique souvenir: you can purchase a small bottle of bourbon and dip it yourself in their signature red sealing wax (must be 21 or older). Free.
- Town Branch Distillery ( Alltech's Lexington Brewing & Distilling Company), 401 Cross Street, Lexington, KY 40508 (downtown Lexington, near intersections of Versailles Rd. / W High St. and W. Maxwell St.), ☎ , e-mail: TownBranchTours@alltech.com. M-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM; tours every hour, last tour at 4PM; Jan-Feb no tours on Tuesdays. Touring Town Branch, you'll get a double-header of beer and whiskey. From its roots as an agricultural company started by yeast expert Dr. Pearse Lyons, Alltech began brewing beer with the intention of making slightly more than its employees could drink. Ten years later, they now produce 5 beers and 3 spirits and are Kentucky's largest brewery, working 24 hours a day to keep up with demand, 80% of which is for their signature Bourbon Barrel Ale. Tour $8.50, 18 and under free.
- Wild Turkey Distillery, 1417 Versailles Rd, Lawrenceburg, KY 40342, ☎ . Tours Mo-Sa 9AM, 10:30AM, 12:30PM, 2:30PM, 3:30PM; March-December 1PM, 2PM, 3PM; closed some holidays. Tours free.
- Woodford Reserve Distillery, 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, KY 40383, ☎ . Mo-Sa 9AM-5PM, tours hourly 10AM-3PM; Su noon-4:30PM, tours Mar-Dec hourly 1PM-3PM. One of the more popular distilleries (expect a crowd), their tour covers a lot of the fine details that go into bourbon making, and explains why their particular choices make their bourbon some of the best. Tours $10 (reservations only for large groups); Special tours by reservation (history tour We 2:30PM, $25; manufacturing tour Tu Th 2:30PM, $30).
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour
For the true bourbon enthusiast, the Craft Tour showcases nine micro-distilleries with an emphasis on innovative and handcrafted bourbons. Like the regular Trail, a passport is available; the reward for completing it is a julep cup.
- Barrel House Distilling, 1200 Manchester Street, Building 9, Lexington, KY 40504 (Old Frankfort Pike, in a gravel parking lot), ☎ . W-F noon-5PM (tours at 15 minutes past the hour 12:15PM-4:15PM), Sa-Su 11AM-3PM (tours 11:15AM-2:15PM). Tours free (samples of vodka, moonshine, and 1 other spirit) or $5 (samples of all spirits, plus souvenir shot glass).
- Corsair Artisan Distillery, 400 E Main St #110, Bowling Green, KY 42101, ☎ . Tu-F 10AM-4PM, Sa 10AM-5PM; tours on the hour, last tour 1 hour before closing. Free. F-Sa open to public; reservations required on other days.
- Limestone Branch Distillery, 1280 Veterans Memorial Hwy, Lebanon, KY 40033, ☎ . M-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su 1PM-5PM; tours every hour, last tour 5PM. Evening and private tours by request.
- MB Roland Distillery, 137 Barkers Mill Rd, Pembroke, KY 42266 (I-24 exit 89, north on KY Hwy 115 towards Pembroke), ☎ . Tu-Sa 10AM-6PM; tours every hour. Free.
- New Riff Distillery, 24 Distillery Way, Newport, KY 41073, ☎ . Tours Th-Fr 4PM and 6PM; Sa 12PM, 2PM, 4PM and 6PM; Su 12PM, 2PM, and 4PM. Tours last 45-60 minutes. Reserve tours online to guarantee admission.
- The Old Pogue Distillery, 716 W 2nd St, Maysville, KY 41056 (entrance is on W Germantown Rd). Tours by appointment W-Sa 10AM-2PM, Su 2PM. Book tours online.
- Silver Trail Distillery, Hardin, KY, ☎ .
- Wilderness Trail Distillery, 445 Roy Arnold Ave, Danville, KY 40422, ☎ . Tours Th-Sa 10AM-4PM on the hour (Jan-Mar, Sa tours only on the first and third Sa); VIP tours Tu-We. Gift shop Mo-Fr 10AM-5PM and Sa during tours. Tours $7, children 12 and under free.
- Willett Distillery, 1869 Loretto Rd, PO Box 785, Bardstown, KY 40004, ☎ . M-F 9AM-5:30PM, Sa 10AM-4:30PM, Su noon-4:30PM; tours M-F 10AM-4PM hourly, Sa 10AM-3PM hours, Su Mar-Dec 12:30PM, 1:45PM, 3PM. Tour and tasting $7; tour, tasting, and souvenir glass $10. Reservations recommended F-Su.
- The Kentucky Bluegrass & Bourbon Experience, Louisville, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Sept 5-7 (2014). Already an established celebration of bluegrass music, burgoo, and other Kentucky heritage, the festival recently added bourbon to its attractions. $9 before 6PM, $12 after 6PM, kids 10 and under free.
- Kentucky Bourbon Festival, Bardstown, toll-free: . Sept 16-21 (2014).