Savor America’s Native Spirit
Loop through Kentucky on a road trip that promises adult fun, picturesque views, learning opportunities, tasty treats and free T-shirts
By Hope S. Philbrick
Each sip of bourbon awakens the senses and invites new discoveries. The same is true of each day spent touring Kentucky Bourbon Country, a place where tradition and innovation mingle to create a distinctly American taste and experience. With more than 20 working distilleries in Kentucky making more than 200 brands, it’s an ideal getaway destination for novices as well as connoisseurs—with a decidedly grownup travel theme.
From Field to Bottle
Designated by Congress as the official native spirit of the United States in 1964, bourbon is a type of whiskey. And since more than 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky, “bourbon is very much a part of who we are,” says Fred Mozenter, tour guide at Buffalo Trace. It’s no mere coincidence this region attracts distillers: “It’s because of our limestone,” says Steve Binegar, tour guide at Woodford Reserve. “The water here has no iron and that makes all the difference.”
The fact that Kentucky distilleries are clustered together facilitates visiting several during one trip. The route stretches for roughly 70 miles, from Lexington to Louisville and down to Bardstown.
Although bourbon recipes are closely guarded secrets, tours and exhibits at each distillery demonstrate how field grains are transformed and bottled as bourbon. “Wine has good and bad seasons,” says Master Distiller Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey. Bourbon is less finicky: “We strive to be consistent.” While bourbon is made much as it was 200 years ago, subtle differences among distillers’ production processes yield distinct flavor profiles.
By law bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, stored in new charred American white oak barrels for at least two years, and have no additives other than pure water. Within these boundaries, producers achieve unique tastes by manipulating variables such as the other grains selected for their recipes (like malted barley, rye, wheat and oats), yeast strain, cooking temperature, distillation method, and storage climate. But one essential ingredient is more elusive: Age. Per regulation, any age listed on a bourbon label must represent the youngest in the blend. So a mix of spirits distilled in 1826, 1962, 1987 and 2005 is an eight-year bourbon in 2013. Rickhouses (or warehouses) storing filled barrels boast a mouth-watering aroma and walking through is heavenly: Over time a percentage of each barrel is lost to evaporation; it’s referred to as the “angel’s share.”
Each tour provides unique hands-on experiences, including opportunities to taste fermenting mash, seal your own bottle, hammer a bung into a barrel, see pre-Prohibition tools, buy a bottle autographed by a master distiller, create your own blend, and learn how to taste bourbon like an expert. Allow at least an hour for each tour, which will typically conclude with an opportunity to sip small samples. (And we do mean tiny, since tour guides are aware that you’ll be getting back behind the wheel to drive to another distillery.)
Bourbon Country Distilleries
While not all the producing distilleries have public tours, most of them do. Those not offering tours typically provide a visitor experience that includes a tasting and a gift shop.
From craft to the world’s largest producers, there are currently 14 distilleries that invite visitors to learn about their brands and have a taste.
- Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Company
- Barrel House Distilling Company
- Barton 1792
- Buffalo Trace — the nation’s oldest continuously operating distillery
- Corsair Artisan Distillery
- Evan Williams Bourbon Experience (opening in 2013)
- Four Roses — listed on the National Register of Historic Places
- Heaven Hill — the largest independent, family-owned bourbon producer
- Jim Beam American Stillhouse — the world’s largest bourbon distiller
- Limestone Branch Distillery
- Louisville Distilling Co. (opening in 2013)
- Maker’s Mark — the nation’s oldest working distillery on its original site and a National Historic Landmark
- MB Roland Distillery
- Michter’s Micro-Distillery (opening in 2013)
- Nth Degree Distillery
- Tom Moore — founded in 1879 and home of the world’s largest bourbon barrel
- Wild Turkey — founded in 1855
- Willet Distillery
- Woodford Reserve — Kentucky’s oldest and smallest distillery, a National Landmark and maker of the “Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.”
Most distilleries participate in the “Bourbon Trail,” which encourages visitors to collect stamps in a free passport that can be redeemed for a free T-shirt.
In 1780 Evan Williams sold his first bourbon in Louisville. Until the 1920s, as many as 50 distilleries were located along a stretch of Main Street that became known as “Whiskey Row.” At the bars that today define Louisville’s “Urban Bourbon Trail,” the challenge isn’t whether to savor bourbon straight up or mixed into creative cocktails. It’s which of the bourbons to choose, since each establishment stocks at least 50 and up to 150 different bourbon labels.
Ranging from historic hotel properties to hip trend-setting bars, the drinks served along the Urban Bourbon Trail run the gamut from retro mixes like the Old-Fashioned and Manhattan to creative twists on current sensations such as the Cosmopolitan and Mojito. Fortunately, trained bartenders can help navigate the nuances of diverse options. Perhaps sample a few different bourbons straight-up side-by-side in a special flight. Or try a mint julep, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby.
There are currently 19 stops on the Urban Bourbon Trail:
- Asiatique — offers a unique Pacific Rim twist on Kentucky’s signature drink
- The Bar at BLU — a modern Louisville experience
- Baxter Station Bar & Grill — a comfortable, casual bistro.
- Bourbons Bistro — offers more than 130 bourbons, plus a selection of antique expression whiskies that you won’t find anywhere else
- Bristol Bar & Grille, Downtown — an impressive selection of single barrel and small batch bourbons and winner of more “Best of Louisville” awards than any other restaurant
- The Brown Hotel Lobby Bar — a landmark described by Southern Living Magazine as “straight from a 1930s movie set”
- Buck’s — bottles are within arm’s reach at this cozy spot
- Corbett’s: an American place — named by Esquire as one of the best new restaurants
- Derby Cafe: at the Kentucky Derby Museum — the only place in the world you can see the Derby and drink its famous Mint Julep every day
- Dish on Market — a value-based neighborhood bar offering everything from Truman’s Breakfast (the President liked a shot of bourbon with his daily egg) to locals’ favorite burger.
- Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar — named for the man who refined the “sour mash” process, this place serves Southern fare
- Equus & Jack’s Lounge — a relaxed contemporary neighborhood bistro
- Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar — located in the Galt House, Louisville’s only waterfront hotel
- Limestone — this place is named for the rock responsible for fortifying the calcium-rich spring water used in fine sour mash Bourbon whiskies
- Maker’s Mark Bourbon House & Lounge — features a 57-foot bar with a wall of backlit, alphabetically arranged bourbon bottles from every Kentucky distiller
- The Old Seelbach Bar — opened in 1905, the Seelbach Hotel has hosted gangsters, politicians, and celebrities for generations. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Seelbach’s gilded-era luxury served as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for The Great Gatsby, and the hotel’s Oakroom restaurant was a favorite hangout of Al Capone.
- Proof on Main — located in downtown’s 21c Museum Hotel, this bar features over 50 Kentucky bourbons as well as seasonal, specialty cocktails
- Ramsi’s Cafe on the World — an eclectic bourbon lover’s treat
- Village Anchor — a pub housed in a former train station
On a free paper or electronic passport, collect a stamp from six different stops to earn the rank of official Bourbon Country Citizen—for which you’ll be awarded a special Urban Bourbon Trailblazer T-shirt and official Citizen of Bourbon Country certificate.
Beyond the Bottle
Even if you (gasp!) lack an interest in bourbon, the region has much to offer. Bourbon Country’s diverse offerings range from quaint to edgy, historic to contemporary, pasture to skyscraper, relaxed to energetic—ensuring that an itinerary can be customized to suit your mood.
This is horse country, and industry attractions include the Kentucky Horse Park. Dozens of Civil War sites and museums recognize the 453 military actions that took place in the state. Both Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis were born in Kentucky, and are memorialized with historic sites and museums. The Kentucky Artisan Center celebrates traditional and modern artists. Federal Hill in Bardstown inspired Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” and a musical is staged during summer months. The Kentucky Railway Museum records the days when train tracks were super-highways. The Native American Museum preserves four habitats used during different time periods.
Throughout Bourbon Country, bourbon isn’t limited to bar menus. The spirit is a key component of many food dishes as well—after all, if there’s one dominant culinary trend these days it’s an increased focus on local ingredients, which in Kentucky includes bourbon. From mint julep pancakes to bacon-wrapped pork medallions with bourbon green-tomato marmalade to First-Saturday-In-May Pie, chefs’ innovations are daylong temptations.
Any trip to Kentucky Bourbon Country is a treat for all the senses.
Odds of Encountering Children: At the distilleries, odds are very low but not zero. Policies regarding children vary by distillery. We strongly caution parents against taking young children on distillery tours, however, since there are inherent physical dangers—not to mention, they’ll be bored out of their minds. At restaurants on the Urban Bourbon trail, children are typically permitted. At bars, however, the crowd is strictly 21plus.
Where To Stay…
When planning a road trip through Bourbon Country, we recommend booking hotels at strategic points along the route—each city and town boasts its own treasures that are well worth discovering. But if you’d prefer to settle into one hotel and take day trips that spoke out from there, consider Bardstown—it offers a convenient location, several bourbon destinations within town as well as many dining, lodging and entertainment spots.
In Louisville, there’s arguably no swankier place to tap into the city’s vibrancy than at the 21c Museum Hotel, where the artwork (predominantly portraits) on display was all created in the 21st Century.
21c Museum Hotel
700 W. Main St., Louisville
Boutique upscale hotel and contemporary art museum
In Lexington, this historic boutique hotel is located in one of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods. The three-story brick structure was converted to a luxury hotel in 1988.
Gratz Park Inn
120 W. 2nd St., Lexington
Historic boutique hotel with upscale amenities and a relaxed vibe
In Bourbon Country, lodge at a family-owned accommodation and you’ll get more than a comfy place to lay your head: Odds are, you’ll make a lasting friendship.
638 Beaumont Inn Dr., Harrodsburg
Kentucky’s oldest family-operated country B&B Inn
Beautiful Dreamer B&B
440 E. Stephen Foster Ave., Bardstown
Modern construction styled to evoke the early 1800s
Rose Hill Inn B&B
233 Rose Hill Ave., Versailles
Built in 1823, this home served as a hospital during the Civil War and has been a B&B for 20 years