Add the capital of the commonwealth to your Bourbon Country itinerary.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Though I’ve been doing business in the Bluegrass State for decades and it’s a favorite vacation destination—my husband and I have looped around the Kentucky Bourbon Trail multiple times—until a few weeks ago, I’d never been to Frankfort, Kentucky (beyond the Buffalo Trace Distillery). It’s the state capital! It’s between Louisville and Lexington! Missing it is an oversight finally corrected and won’t happen again. Frankfort is the sort of place where once you go, you know you’ll be back.
Frankfort is currently in transition and under construction. A professionally-executed implosion wiped out most of the buildings around the Capital Plaza Hotel—which still stands, along with a parking ramp. Plans for exactly what’s going to be built to fill the block are still being debated. There are some empty storefronts in the historic downtown with “for lease” and “for sale” signs in windows—entrepreneurs welcome! Even in occupied retail spaces, many business owners are in the midst of renovations, so you might find yourself standing on a tarp while looking at merchandise on shelves. Detour signs are common sights while driving throughout town. Outside the city limits an old distillery is being transformed into a new one, with cranes doing heavy lifting and forklift drivers beeping around the property. Even Buffalo Trace Distillery has scaffolding in use on site. In short, Frankfort feels like a big dig, but don’t let that stop you from going soon! Part of the fun is to see what’s going on now then returning later to see all the progress.
Historic Downtown Frankfort is walkable and picturesque (even during construction) with historic architecture and public art installations nestled in the natural beauty of the Bluegrass region. The Old State Capital and Public Square serve as a shady gathering spot during festivals and special events, though you can wander and linger on the grounds anytime. Not far away, impressive gardens surround the current Capital building and Governor’s Mansion. The Kentucky River bisects the city; steep hills surround it.
The friendly community offers lots of to-dos for adults. Of course families live here, but Frankfort skews “grownup” more than an average town. For starters, its population swells during work days when many adults who live in Lexington, Louisville and other nearby towns commute into Frankfort to do their jobs, including elected officials for the state government. Thus local restaurants and businesses are designed to cater to adults more than kids. Distilleries and bourbon-related businesses abound in Frankfort, as is fitting for Bourbon Country. It’s easy for a grownup to find good things to eat and drink, fun things to do, and places to go in Frankfort that are tailor-made for the 21 plus crowd
Straight up, Frankfort rocks. And like bourbon aging in a barrel, it’s only going to get better.
Among our recent discoveries…
Buffalo Trace Distillery is not currently a member of the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but every bourbon lover considers it a must-stop destination anyway—even if only to get inside the gift shop, since the logo looks cool on merchandise and also because the gift shop sells bourbons that are not readily available and/or nearly impossible to find elsewhere. (Note that the assortment of bourbon being sold in the gift shop varies daily and even throughout the day, and you can only buy one of each type of bourbon on gift shop shelves because, no, you cannot buy a case and resell bottles at a profit. Also note that the bourbon prices at the distillery for those hard-to-find bottles, if you’re lucky enough to stumble upon any, are way better than what other retailers may be charging: I bought a “rare” bottle of bourbon for $45 at the distillery and a week later saw the exact same thing for sale at a boutique liquor store in Covington, Ky., for $85—which was not an unfair price considering that it was the only retail store I’d seen in two weeks that had that particular bourbon in stock at all.)
Aside from the glee and glory of buying hard-to-find bourbon at the gift shop for a good price, as happy as that will make you, there are more reasons to visit Buffalo Trace Distillery. For starters, it offers a variety of tours, so you can choose the one that suits your interests and always learn something new even after multiple visits. Buffalo Trace is considered “one of the fathers of the modern bourbon industry,” noted the guide of my most recent tour, and “the oldest continually operating distillery in the U.S.”—since 1786! It was able to operate during Prohibition as it was licensed to produce “medicine,” and helped fill 6 million prescriptions in those years. The distillery is now owned by Sazerac, which is investing $1.2 billion in it over the next 10 years with planned changes including adding rickhouses (barrel aging warehouses), doubling the size of cookers, and other improvements and enhancements.
On this visit I took the E.H. Taylor Tour, which walks through bourbon history by focusing on E.H. Taylor, Jr., who made a lasting impact on the bourbon industry and once operated the distillery now known as Buffalo Trace (it was O.F.C., for Old Fired Copper, when he ran it beginning in 1870). The guy was quite the braggadocious salesman—the script for a video shown during the tour is based upon Taylor’s letters; he boasts that his is the “best distillery in the world” among other grandiose claims—but there’s no denying that his influence lingers. His distillery was the most state-of-the-art in its time and featured copper fermentation vats, column stills, and a first-of-its-kind steam heating system.
The tour includes a walk through Warehouse C, which is now dubbed Bourbon Pompeii. Sazerac planned to renovate that building to add more event space, but when digging into the concrete slab floor rows of old-timey bourbon-making vats and other essentials were discovered. Construction stopped, a bourbon archeologist was called in—“that’s a real job in Kentucky!” our tour guide insisted—and the historic treasure was deemed way too significant to destroy. So Sazerac will add event space elsewhere and Bourbon Pompeii will be restored to show off how bourbon was made back in the day: At least one brick “tank” will be lined with copper so a batch of bourbon can be made the old fashioned way. Bourbon Pompeii is basically a bunch of holes in the ground but it’s also way too significant to miss seeing up close if you’re really into bourbon.
The E.H. Taylor, Jr., story includes his heyday of success and leadership at the distillery now known as Buffalo Trace, and also what happened next. Turns out he got himself into some financial problems, had to take on a distributor as a partner, but really didn’t like having a partner in a business that he once ran himself. So once he got enough money, he left Buffalo Trace and started his own new distillery not far away, The Old Taylor Distillery Company. Because he liked owning the “best distillery in the world,” he vowed to out-do himself and make this new distillery even better than his last one.
I was able to drive by The Old Taylor Distillery Company and great news! It’s fantastic: It looks like a castle of childhood dreams with an actual castle, ivy-covered adjacent buildings, a classical spring house and sunken gardens. Better yet, it’s been purchased and is undergoing extensive renovations that will respect the site’s history as well as make it a top-notch place to make bourbon. It will open as the Castle & Key Distillery, and the master distiller will be Marianne Eaves (Barnes). That’s right: A female distiller will have the keys to this bourbon castle. I can’t wait to go back to Frankfort and check out Castle & Key once it’s open and fully operational. My sneak-peek at the stunning property set expectations high.
If your goal is to explore Bourbon Country, Frankfurt is a must-stop that offers convenient access to multiple distilleries large and small, both on and off official trails.
From Castle & Key it’s a short drive to Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, which is on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Some tiny distillers in Frankfort offer a different perspective.
Three Boys Farm Distillery is a must-see small craft distillery on a 122-acre farm. The tour is simple since Owner/Distiller Ross Caldwall’s production happens pretty much all under one barn roof; the highlight is that you get to taste bourbon straight from the barrel. You can even buy a 375ml or 750ml bottle to fill with your pick among the barrels—a great souvenir for any bourbon lover, especially to commemorate a special occasion like an anniversary or honeymoon (remember to record video of your barrel-to-bottle filling experience). This is quality bourbon, so it’s worth a splurge to buy a bottle to savor at home.
Glenns Creek Distillery feels like the garage band equivalent of a bourbon distillery. When you pull up and park, the place looks huge because buildings of the former Old Crow Distillery covered in the naturally-occurring black baudoinia fungus that’s common to distilleries stand, photo-ready. But most of the buildings aren’t in use, at least not until current owner David Meier wins the lottery or finds a rich benefactor, he says with a smirk. The operation currently occupies one building that has openings similar to garage doors and looks like loading dock. Four stills are used, all small and some tiny, and they all seem to use an uncommon quantity of tubing and plastic buckets. Bottling is done by hand. Current annual production is 75 barrels.
In Central Kentucky, bourbon’s influence reaches beyond the barrel and bottle, it seeps into the local culture in fascinating—usually tasty!—ways. In Frankfort, there’s much to sip and savor…
Kentucky Gentleman’s Cigars produces hand-rolled cigars using tobacco that’s first aged in used bourbon barrels for two years. The product line includes tobaccos aged in barrels that previously held Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and other bourbon brands. This family-owned cigar business has operated for 15 years, son now working alongside father. A back room at the shop in Downtown Frankfort is being transformed into a full cigar- and bourbon-bar.
Kentucky Knows, operated by the kind-hearted and generous Tony Davis, produces Kentucky’s first bourbon barrel coffee plus a range of furniture and housewares crafted from used barrels, including bistro tables and stools, coffee scoops, easels, and even smokers. Only retired Buffalo Trace barrels are used. Roasted coffee (100% Arabica beans) is available in several flavors including Kentucky Bourbon, Bourbon Ball Barrel Aged, Bourbon Cinnamon and more. Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind shop in Downtown Frankfort.
While shopping Downtown Frankfort, several shops are worth time and attention, including Broadway Clay pottery shop, Old Capital Antiques, Poor Richard’s Books independent bookseller, and Completely Kentucky artisan shop featuring works by more than 650 artists throughout the commonwealth.
Josephine Sculpture Park sprawls across property that was once Melanie VanHouten’s grandparents’ farm. Now it’s her home and passion project, a place where she can pursue her own art as a sculptor while also giving other sculptors a place to come to work and display their creations. Anyone is welcome to come see what’s on display—currently there are 50 pieces from artists around the world—and it’s free (yes, free!) to wander around and appreciate art every day during the year from dawn until dusk. Classes, workshops and special events are held throughout the year. The property is also dog-friendly, just remember to leash and clean up after your best friend.
West Sixth Farm is the two-year culmination of the vision of West Sixth Brewery’s four owners. The small farm will not supply 100 percent of the Brewery’s needs, but it will supply enough for experimental batches and educational programs. Currently the only farm brewery in Kentucky, it boasts a third-acre planted with 325 hops plants, another plot with 100 apple trees of vintage varietals (for ciders), plus berries and a few other potential ingredients. Visit to stroll the grounds and discover what’s planted, hike or bike the four miles of trails, and/or sip fresh brews in the taproom.
Where To Eat…
Bourbon on Main
Sip bourbon a cocktail alongside scratch-made bites inside this historic building located near the Kentucky River.
Dig into fresh food while sitting on a dock that overlooks the Kentucky River.
Sage Garden Cafe
Bite into a super fresh sandwich, salad, soup or entree at this local treasure of an eatery that’s located inside a nursery.
Where To Stay…
Capital Plaza Hotel
405 Wilkinson Blvd.
Frankfort, Kentucky 40601
Sleep easy at this independent hotel (that also has a few condos in the mix, so you might share an elevator with a local or even state politician).
- Located within walking distance of Historic Downtown Frankfort
- Free Wi-Fi
- Free parking
- Pet friendly
- Non-smoking (designated smoking area)
- Indoor pool
- On-site dining
- On-site bar
- Free business center
- 24-hour front desk
- ATM on site
- Odds of Encountering Children: Lower than at national brands
Read more about what we’ve seen and sipped in Kentucky Bourbon Country…
- Read 21+ Awesome Bourbon Experiences in Kentucky Bourbon Country.
- Read more about Bourbon Country.
- Search “bourbon” and/or “Kentucky” on our site to find even more of our previous coverage.
– Photos © HSP Media LLC
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion. Thanks to Visit Frankfort for hosting my visit.