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.
Pretty much all distilleries 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, tours invariably end with a tasting of their products. 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.
The Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) promotes bourbon distilleries on an official Kentucky Bourbon Trail. This is pretty much pure advertising; distilleries not on the official Trail are absolutely worth a visit, while two stops on the Trail are actually just museums with small artisinal distilleries, not the actual production headquarters.
These days, due to massive consolidation in the industry and consumer demand for a wide variety of premium products, quite a lot of "craft", "heirloom", or "small batch" bourbons — including many that you may not think of as such — are actually industrially-produced bourbon (many from a factory distillery in Indiana) that are bottled and labeled as a unique brand. A few of these labels intend to or have used this as a stepping stone to starting their own distillery, but most do not. Even after doing so, they may continue to mainly use the industrially-produced whiskey to keep up with demand. This is not to imply that those brands are bad; if you enjoy a particular bourbon, by all means, drink it! But for the purpose of touring distilleries, this article only lists working distilleries that mash, distill, and age at least some amount of their product.
Ideally, a real tour of Bourbon Country should start with in Lexington or Louisville. Lexington is, in some ways, a better choice, since three distilleries (Town Branch, Barrel House, and Bluegrass) 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 a few 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. Only the most lightweight of drinkers will need a designated driver; the samples given at distilleries don't add up to more than one drink, and by the time you drive to your next stop and do their tour, it will long since have worn off.
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, or three if you're committed. For the ones furthest from your starting point, you may only be able to do one in a day unless you're dedicated.
- 1 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.
- 2 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.
- Kentucky Artisan Distillery, 6230 Old LaGrange Road, Crestwood, KY 40014, ☎ . Tours on the hour, Tu-Fr 10AM-4PM, Sa 10AM-2PM. The home of Jefferson's Bourbons, as well as Whiskey Row Bourbon & Highspire Rye Whiskey. $12.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
The official Kentucky Bourbon Trail comprises ten distilleries — or rather, eight distilleries and two museums. 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 ten stamps, you can get a free T-shirt either from one of the five listed tourism offices or by mail. Since they've added three stops in the past few years, it's unclear whether completing an older passport which had fewer stops will still qualify for the prize.
- Angel's Envy, 500 E Main St, Louisville, KY 40202, ☎ .
- 1 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.
- 2 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.
- 3 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.
- 4 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.
- 5 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.
- 6 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.
- 7 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.
- 8 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 $14 (reservations only for large groups); Special tours by reservation (history tour We 2:30PM, $25; manufacturing tour Tu Th 2:30PM, $30).
Two of the "distilleries" on the Trail are just museums; the actual product is distilled elsewhere. Both do run small artisinal distilleries on site, although what they do with the spirits they produce there is unclear.
- 9 Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience (Stitzel-Weller Distillery), 3860 Fitzgerald Road, Louisville, KY 40216, ☎ . Tours W-Su 10AM-4PM; last tour 3PM. Their actual product was formerly distilled at Four Roses; the current distillery is unknown. Tour adult $10, under 21 free.
- 10 Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, 528 W Main St, Louisville, KY 40202, ☎ . Tours Mo-Sa 10AM-5PM; Su 1PM-5PM; last tour 4PM. Their actual product is distilled at Heaven Hill. Tour adult $12, kids 11–20 $9, 10 and under free.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour
For the true bourbon enthusiast, the Craft Tour showcases thirteen 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. Like the regular Trail, quite a few stops have been added in the past few years, and it's unclear whether completing an older passport which had fewer stops will still qualify for the prize.
- 1 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). Their history ties back to the James E. Pepper Distillery, the former owner of their building 50 years prior. Current products include a vodka, moonshine, rum, and bourbons. Tours free (samples of vodka, moonshine, and 1 other spirit) or $5 (samples of all spirits, plus souvenir shot glass).
- Bluegrass Distillers, 510 W Sixth St, Lexington, KY 40508, ☎ .
- Boone County Distilling Co, 10601 Toebben Dr, Boone County, KY 41051, ☎ .
- 2 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.
- Hartfield & Co., 108 E 4th 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.
- Kentucky Artisan Distillery, 6230 Old Lagrange Rd, Crestwood, KY 40014, ☎ .
- Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company, 120 N 10th St, Louisville, KY 40202, ☎ .
- 3 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.
- 4 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.
- 5 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.
- 6 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.
- 7 Silver Trail Distillery, Hardin, KY, ☎ .
- 8 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.
- 9 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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).