21+ Awesome Kentucky Bourbon Experiences

Enjoy America’s whiskey on and off the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail in Central Kentucky, a.k.a. "Bourbon Country."

Kentucky Bourbon Country
Explore Kentucky Bourbon at its Source.

By Hope S. Philbrick

Years ago, my favorite T-shirt was emblazoned with “I ♥ KY.” Comfortable, soft, and blue, it was my favorite thing to wear. My husband got tired of seeing it on me. But then he tagged along on a trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and discovered that he loved Kentucky, too. That T-shirt fell apart long ago, but our love for Kentucky lives on.

I’ve completed the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail three times, plus the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, too. I’ve got the T-shirts to prove it and already have new passports in the works—on the official bourbon trails, you can pick up a free passport at any participating distillery, collect a stamp at each stop, and once your passport is complete you can get a free T-shirt. I’ve been to all of Kentucky’s major distilleries multiple times, but they continue to tweak their tours, debut new products, change merchandise—some bourbons are only available at the distilleries—so there’s always a reason to visit even familiar favorites.

Brand new distilleries are also being built, thanks to the current boom in global thirst for bourbon, America’s native spirit. In Central Kentucky, bourbon’s influence reaches beyond where it’s made and aged. From wineries and breweries to manufacturers and hospitality venues, bourbon has seeped into the local culture in fascinating—usually tasty!—ways.

Central Kentucky is awash with bourbon. There’s much to sip and savor in the region known as Bourbon Country. Here are more than 21 awesome bourbon experiences in Bardstown, Shelbyville, Georgetown, Harrodsburg and Lebanon.

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
Kentucky is a state, but only one state is Kentucky.

Kentucky Bourbon

Bourbon is America’s native spirit and, by law, in order to be called bourbon the spirit has to be made of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred-oak barrels, and made in the United States. It does not have to be made in Kentucky…though most of it is (95%!).

There are three main factors Kentucky distillers cite to explain why the state leads in bourbon production: corn, limestone water, and weather.

Corn is bourbon’s main ingredient. Kentucky is perhaps better known for its bluegrass and horses, but many fields of corn also wave across the state. Nearby states, including Indiana, also grow abundant corn.

Water is another essential ingredient. Tour any distillery and you’ll be regaled with tales about how important the state’s naturally filtered limestone water is to bourbon—as one example, my most recent tour guide at Makers Mark distillery, Marissa, said, “Limestone water filters out iron and adds calcium which takes out bitterness.” Scientifically true or not, it’s hard to debate the fact that what flows out of a Kentucky tap tastes pretty darn good.

Kentucky enjoys four seasons, which is important while the bourbon sits aging in barrels. Rising and dipping temperatures cause the barrels to expand and contract, drinking up and releasing the liquid that rests inside. That natural process helps the bourbon absorb the color and flavor characteristics the charred wood provides (including vanilla and caramel notes).

Read our whisk(e)y primer for more detail about bourbon and what distinguishes it from other whiskies.

Bardstown, Kentucky

As the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” and an official trailhead of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Bardstown has adult-focused attractions built right in—the town itself is mature: it’s the state of Kentucky’s second-oldest city (after Harrodsburg). As “The Most Beautiful Small Town in America,” a distinction bestowed upon Bardstown by Rand McNally and USA Today, it seems an understatement to point out that the historic downtown is picturesque. For a town of its size, Bardstown offers so much to see and do that extended stays and multiple visits are recommended.


The Barton 1792 Distillery was originally called the Tom Moore Distillery, which was founded in 1889. The distillery was shut down during Prohibition (1920-1933), then run by the original founder’s son from 1934 to 1943. In 1943 it was sold to a Chicago businessman, who changed the name to Barton—the reason why is still a mystery because no record ties that owner to anyone named Barton. Kentucky became the nation’s 15th state in 1792, a fact celebrated by the name of one of the several different bourbons produced at this distillery, which include Very Old Barton, Kentucky Tavern, Kentucky Gentleman, and 1792, among others.

Kentucky Bourbon CountryKentucky Bourbon CountryKentucky Bourbon Country

How popular is bourbon? My tour guide shared a story that puts the answer into perspective: From the early 1980s through the early 2000s, global bourbon sales slumped. During that time ownership of the Barton 1792 Distillery changed hands four times. In 2009 it was purchased by current owner Sazerac Co., which also owns Buffalo Trace and Glenmore. Today, Barton 1792 employs over 400 people and runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week to try to keep up with demand—45 acres worth of dried corn is delivered each day for the various recipes being made!

By U.S. law, all bourbon must be made of at least 51 percent corn. Like many Kentucky distilleries, this one sources its corn from Kentucky and Indiana, while its rye is sourced from Wisconsin, and barley from the Dakotas. Barton 1792’s column still is four and a half stories tall; its 28 rickhouses have a 19,600-barrel capacity. The distillery doesn’t operate in the hot summer months but bottling takes place year-round—in fact, 150 different products are bottled here, as the bottling line does subcontract work.

Tours here are led by enthusiastic guides who know their stuff. At this medium-sized distillery, you’ll get to see all phases of production up close, ask questions, and get treated to a tasting at the end of the tour.

@21plusTravel Tip: At the Barton 1792 Distillery, you won’t collect a stamp in the “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” or “Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour” passports, but it’s definitely worth a stop anyway.

Kentucky Bourbon Country@21plusTravel Artisan Kentucky Bourbon Country Souvenir / Gift Idea! Gary Albertson, who works one of the production lines at Barton 1792 Distillery, makes a hobby of handcrafting ink pens from used whiskey barrel oak wood. Call him at 502-827-4281 for details and to place an order. Tell him that I adore my whiskey barrel pen!

Lux Row Distillery was under construction during my visit. It’s planned to open April/May 2018 and will be able to produce 20,000 barrels a year, making it the 13th largest bourbon distillery in the U.S. Two of its bourbon labels are Ezra Brooks and Rebel Yell.

Kentucky Bourbon Country

Heaven Hill Distilleries’ Bourbon Heritage Center is an official stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, though its educational displays, hands-on learning opportunities (including an informative nose-tickling aroma experience), and extensive gift shop are worth a visit even if you’re not collecting passport stamps. Wander around the gallery reading signs and watching videos to absorb facts for free. Then, enhance your evolving bourbon education by joining a guided tour. Two different tour themes are available: the “Mashbill Tour” ($10/person) and “Whiskey Connoisseur Tour” ($20/person), both of which include some bourbon history (most specifically, the history of Heaven Hill) and a tasting. The $10 tour includes a tasting of three bourbons; the $20 tour includes a private tasting of four premium or limited release bourbons plus a complimentary tasting glass souvenir. 21 Plus Salute! The “Whiskey Connoisseur Tour” is exclusively for adults age 21 and older.

Jim Beam American Stillhouse is an official stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but it’s really a must-see behemoth distillery whether you’re collecting passport stamps or not. Jim Beam is the world’s largest bourbon producer. To put it in perspective: Kentucky produces 95 percent of the nation’s bourbon; Jim Beam produces 50 percent of that. About two million barrels are currently aging in the company’s 72 warehouses. Tours begin and end in the gift shop, which is big enough you won’t necessarily wind up looking at the same stuff twice. From there you’ll hop on a bus, be regaled with family lore, then get an up-close look at bourbon production from grain to bottle to marketing. Unique aspects of the tour include the chance to help dump a barrel of Knob Creek single barrel bourbon and then sterilize a bottle to fill yourself. Tours are $14/adult and include a tasting; choose a few sips among a wide range of products including Knob Creek, Jim Beam Honey, Jim Beam Ghost, Jim Beam, Red Stag, Devil’s Cut, Baker’s, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s and more.

Kentucky Bourbon Country

Willett Distillery, a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, offers an inside look at a smaller craft distillery. “We fill 15 to 20 barrels a day here,” says one tour guide. “We don’t really want to get any bigger.” Eight rickhouses hold less than 5,000 barrels. The distillery is both historic (circa 1937) and modern (the family started extensive renovations in 2004). Tours allow you to get close to the production equipment and even stick your finger into the sour mash as it bubbles in the fermentation tank for a taste.

Beyond Distilleries

The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History is packed full of more bourbon- and boozy treasures than you ever imagined existed. Learn fun facts like how the word “booze” originated, who is really to blame for Prohibition, how some distilleries were able to operate during Prohibition, who actually launched the bourbon industry, how distilling equipment has evolved, what sort of bottles were used in the past, and much more. Spend a few overwhelming minutes taking it all in or spend hours peering deep into the past: the choice is yours.

Kentucky Crafted artisans design, craft and sell furniture and household items made from retired bourbon barrels. From its retail shop that operates out of the New Haven Florist boutique, I purchased a stave that had been transformed into a coat rack; next time I may buy some yard art, a bench, serving tray and/or shelf to mount on the wall. The family-owned business was launched in 2015 and grew out of Tammi and David Nalley’s love for handcrafted goods, oak, and bourbon.

Kentucky Bourbon Country

Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace is a retail store and tasting bar that opened late 2013. The vibe is neighborhood pub that invites you to mingle with fellow bourbon fans, discover new favorites, and/or sip whatever you enjoy, whether that’s a bourbon served neat or a trendy cocktail concoction. Flights of three one-ounce pours start at $25. The tasting bar opens at 3 p.m. daily (except Saturdays when it opens at Noon) then transforms into a full-service bar after 8 p.m. that closes at Midnight (except on Sundays when it closes at 7 p.m.). “We carry 100 premium bourbons and ryes,” says co-owner Howard Keene. Whoever is tending bar has deep knowledge about bourbon, so this is a great place to learn: I learned that Rock Hill Farms, Elmer T. Lee and Blanton’s bourbons all start with the same mashbill recipe. “We offer education about bourbon itself, and we’re most proud of that,” says Keene. I had a blast tasting and chatting with Keene and learning which bourbons I might buy in Kentucky that wouldn’t be available in my home state. The bar/retail combo concept makes it easy to taste and then buy, plus since two bedrooms upstairs are available to rent as a bed & breakfast option (with a shared bath), you could plan to enjoy bourbon then climb upstairs to sleep. The owners, a married couple, explain that “It all began with bourbon,” since they met at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival and share a love of the stuff. They claim that the first bourbon cocktail poured in Nelson County was bourbon with ginger ale. Try it, you’ll like it. You might also try this recipe featured at the 2016 Kentucky Bourbon Festival:

Bardstown Bubbler
1/4 oz. Campari
1 oz. lemon juice
1 oz. simple syrup
1.5 oz. bourbon (Buffalo Trace was featured at the event)
4 dashes peach bitters
Sweet Champagne

Pour first five ingredients over ice in a highball glass. Stir well. Top with Sweet Champagne (approx. a third of a split) then push a bar spoon down into the glass and pull it back up and out (but don’t stir). Cheers!

The Rickhouse Restaurant & Lounge draws its name from local productions: a rickhouse is a warehouse where bourbon barrels are aged. This upscale yet laid-back restaurant has an adults-oriented vibe and is the swankiest dining option in town. Expect attentive service, sophisticated menu preparations, and refined tastes (but you can dress casual). Serving dinner only, the menu offers upscale preparations of classic American appetizers, salads and entrées including chicken, seafood and pasta—but is best known for its steaks. Several food dishes use bourbon in delicious ways—like the bourbon mushrooms, arguably the best accompaniment to any steak. Other temptations include bourbon blueberry salmon, bourbon brownie, bourbon bread pudding, and other inspired creations. The bar offers more than 130 bourbons and serves to order as well as in flights to facilitate tasting a diverse selection.

Kentucky Bourbon CountryTalbott Inn is conveniently located on Court Square in historic downtown Bardstown. Though the Inn occupies a historic building (circa 1913), it’s thoroughly modern after renovations with preserved charms (my guestroom boasted a brick wall and a vault that had been transformed into a closet). Every room is equipped with a mini-frig, microwave, smart TV, coffee maker, and access to the second-floor business center with Internet access. Rooms are available with queen, king and double-queen beds. Hallways are decorated with bourbon-themed posters and original paintings. The Inn is just steps away from The Old Talbott Tavern, which is billed as “The Oldest Bourbon Bar In The World” was built in 1779. The Tavern hosts live entertainment in the bar every Friday from 5 p.m. to 1 p.m. and every Saturday from 9 p.m. to 1 p.m.

Bourbon Manor Bed & Breakfast is a luxuriously cozy place where guestrooms offer space to spread out your own stuff without fear of breaking ancient knick-knacks, where you can sleep deep without fear of being awakened by a crying baby, where you can make yourself at home in the elegant style you know you deserve. This is how a B&B should be, from the friendly staff members to the thoughtful amenities, the uber-soft linens to the delicious breakfast, the lovely grounds to the no-kids-allowed policy. 21 Plus Salute!

Read more about Bardstown.

Shelbyville, Kentucky

The American Saddlebred Capital of the World is home to one of the state’s newest distilleries, and it makes for a pleasant, convenient stop on the drive between Bardstown and Georgetown.

Kentucky Bourbon CountryJeptha Creed Distillery is a family-owned operation that opened November 11, 2016 and takes a “ground to glass” approach—the Nethery family grows the heirloom Bloody Butcher red corn used in its products on its 1,000-acre farm, and sources ingredients as close to its Kentucky home as possible.

The distillery is helmed by a mother and daughter team—it’s still rather unusual to find women working in the spirits industry (unfortunately) and thus is noteworthy that two women are in leadership roles here. Joyce (mom) is master distiller, with a strong background in chemical engineering and industrial distillation. Marketing manager Autumn (daughter) studied with some of the best distillers in Scotland and is now one of the youngest distillery owners in the U.S.

Kentucky Bourbon Country

The heirloom Bloody Butcher corn is a gorgeous burgundy red. It’s typically planted “just before the Kentucky Derby,” says Autumn, “and harvested in early October.” Stalks reach heights of 12- to 16-feet. After testing the red corn in a batch of whiskey in 2014, the decision was made to feature it more extensively in Jeptha Creed products. “Bloody Butcher gives a flavor you can’t get from yellow corn,” says Autumn. “It has more fruity notes.” It is sweeter—and you can conduct some home experiments yourself: In the gift shop you can buy a bag of cornmeal; the cornbread recipe on the back of the bag calls for significantly less sugar than typical cornbread recipes. Autumn says that she cuts the sugar in her favorite cornbread recipe in half when using Bloody Butcher cornmeal.

The goal is to keep Jeptha Creed spirits as natural and authentic as possible. The distillery produces bourbon, moonshine, and vodka. Current total production is approximately 45,000 cases a year.

Touring any of the smaller distilleries is a great juxtaposition to any of the giant powerhouses, and this one is definitely worth a visit. Tours are led by enthusiastic guides who know their stuff. You’ll get to see all phases of production up close, perhaps even meet the distillery cats, ask questions, and get treated to a tasting at the end of the tour. Tours are $10/adult ($8 for anyone under age 21) and include a tasting of your choice of any four products. Every Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. the “Jammin’ at Jeptha” event features live musical performers in a range of styles, from country to rock to jazz.

Kentucky Bourbon CountryKentucky Bourbon Country

Read more about Shelbyville.

Georgetown, Kentucky

Billed as “The Birthplace of Bourbon,” Georgetown is a small town in Kentucky Horse Country that’s also the state’s fastest-growing community, thanks in part to its close proximity to Lexington.

Legend holds that Rev. Elijah Craig first produced bourbon in what’s now known as Georgetown in 1789 using water from Royal Spring. Come for the water, savor the bourbon, and stay for the charm.


Kentucky Bourbon CountryBourbon 30 Spirits Distillery, located across the street from Royal Spring Park (described below), is the first distillery in Georgetown in 200 years. Using the same water source used by “the father of bourbon” Elijah Craig, this small distillery (which launched in 2015) produces all its spirits on site. “We have access to our barrels every single day,” says Jeff Mattingly, founder and co-owner. Every bottling is from a single barrel. “We don’t blend anything,” he says. “Our claim to fame is that no two barrels taste alike.” Visit for the chance to taste straight from the barrel; you can also fill a bottle (to buy) straight from the barrel.

Beyond Distilleries

Royal Spring Park, in historic downtown Georgetown, is the water source used by Elijah Craig, considered to be one “the father of bourbon.” Legend has it that Elijah’s distillery caught fire, burning some empty barrels. He discovered that, though charred, the barrels were still capable of holding whiskey so decided to go ahead and use them anyway. When the corn whiskey from those barrels was poured out, it was an amber hue with a superior taste. Now all bourbon is aged in charred American oak barrels—and if this legend is true, we can all thank Elijah’s happy accidental discovery for that tradition. Whether or not the full story is completely true, it is fact that this spring was his water source. Living history, it still supplies water to Georgetown.

Kentucky Bourbon Country

Kentucky Bourbon CountryCountry Boy Brewing is an artisan brewery that first opened in 2012 in Lexington with just two beers in production and exploded onto the local scene earning rave reviews and devout fans. One sip and you’ll understand why. Country Boy was “the seventh licensed brewery in Kentucky when it opened; the state now has 65,” says Daniel Harrison, brand manager and partner. Country Boy’s second location in Georgetown (which opened Feb. 17, 2017) was “the first new construction brewery in Kentucky in the modern era since Prohibition,” he says. Country Boy produced 540 barrels of beer its first year, 1,800 barrels the second year, 17,000 in 2017 and expects to produce 25,000 in 2018. The beers are minimally processed (employing some Japanese craft brewing techniques), made of fresh ingredients, and the “boys” like to experiment with fruits, hops and other ingredients to achieve tasty, creative results like the bourbon barrel-aged IPA and Sinkhole Stout. Visit to get a tour of the brewery and/or sit indoors or out on the patio sipping brews.

Kentucky Horse Park is “the premier event venue for equestrians and those who love and want to learn more about horses and man’s relationship with the horse.” The 1,200-acre campus boasts museums, galleries, theaters and exhibits that showcase all horse breeds. Don’t miss the marked measured strides of three famous racehorses: Man O’ War, Secretariat and John Henry—they’re mind-blowingly impressive. Time your visit right to join the audience during a special event such as the National Horse Show, which is the oldest indoor horse show in the U.S. and a proving ground for top equestrians from around the world. It’s hard not to feel like a real Kentuckian while you’re sipping a bourbon cocktail and watching a horse competition.

Satisfying dining options abound in Georgetown. Rodney’s on Broadway offers elegant world-class dining in a historic home. Best known for prime rib and fresh seafood, Chef/Owner Rodney Jones’ dinner menu also offers international dishes like Thai Curry and Italian Bolognese. Bourbon graces the bar menu, and also finds its way into creations like the Woodford Reserve Shrimp & Scallops. The casual Galvin’s on Main serves generous servings of hearty fare like burgers, wings, nachos, pizza and more; the restaurant has bourbon barrel décor, a festive vibe, and fresh preparations. Fava’s, a Georgetown tradition since 1910, is a family-owned local treasure that serves three meals a day but is best known for breakfast (which is so popular it’s available all day).

Kentucky Bourbon CountryBeyond bourbon, Georgetown is home to Yuko-en on the Elkhorn, the official Kentucky-Japan Friendship Garden; art galleries and boutique shops along Main Street; the Toyota Motor Manufacturing facility; Old Friends Retirement Thoroughbred Farm; and Whispering Woods Riding Stables. Also, Ward Hall, considered “Kentucky’s Grandest Greek Revival Mansion” (circa 1857), which once housed saucy Southern belle Sallie Ward who is considered to be the inspiration for Scarlett O’Hara. Don’t miss the basement for one of the best peeks into slave history available anywhere.

Accommodation options in Georgetown include a former tavern, cottage at a horse farm, and more than a dozen chain hotels like the Hilton Garden Inn.

Harrodsburg, Kentucky

The oldest town in Kentucky, Harrodsburg is in the heart of the Bluegrass region and boasts four National Register Historic Districts. Harrodsburg has been named one of the “50 Best Small Town Downtowns in America” and one of the “20 Best Small Towns to Visit.”


Kentucky Bourbon CountryOlde Towne Distillery secured its license in 2013 and first made three flavors of moonshine (plain, blueberry and maple). Elkhorn bourbon and honey bourbon came on line next. The current portfolio includes more flavors of moonshine, vodka that’s distilled and filtered six times, several whiskeys and—most notably for its uniqueness—Hemp Moonshine. Olde Towne Distillery is the first distillery in the U.S. to produce Hemp Moonshine, and it’s not merely flavored, it’s made using hemp seed grown in Kentucky. Hemp lends the moonshine a distinctive nutty flavor.

@21plusTravel Tip: If you’d like to tour Kentucky distilleries without the worry of driving, check out Central Kentucky Tours, based in Harrodsburg. Several bourbon-themed tours are available, as well as some tours that combine bourbon with other interests, plus you can design a custom tour. As one example, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport Tour is a guided way to complete the trail passport in three days at a cost of $375 per guest. Other tour options include “Barrel to Bottle,” “Heritage Bourbon,” “Bourbon, Betting & Burgoo,” and more. Currently, the company runs three tour buses to keep up with bookings.

Beyond Distilleries

Kentucky Bourbon CountryLemons Mill Brewery is part of Kentucky’s new Brewgrass Trail, and like its Bourbon Trail inspiration, you can pick up a free passport at any of the 12 participating breweries, collect stamps at all 12, then get a free T-shirt. Lemons Mill Brewery was launched Labor Day 2016. The owners, four Harrodsburg friends, had discovered a Prohibition-era secret beer recipe. Using that recipe as their guide and adding modern techniques and flavors, they produce tasty beer. The current portfolio features a variety of brews from ales to stouts. Grab a seat at the bar in the jovial tap room and taste whatever sounds appealing, there are no mistakes.

Beaumont Inn, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019, has added a new tasting room to support the ballooning popularity of its bourbon tasting program. Bourbon tastings are held an average of three times each week for up to 15 adults and last 60 to 90 minutes. (Cost is $40/adult to taste five introductory bourbons and $70/adult to taste five premium bourbons.) Innkeeper Dixon Dedman’s bourbon collection includes “a lot of bourbons people don’t get an option to taste elsewhere.” Each tasting features five bourbons selected for their distinguishable characteristics, to help facilitate education and conversation. In addition to running the Inn and hosting tastings, Dedman has been perfecting his own bourbon and rye whiskey recipes, sold under the Kentucky Owl label. After a tasting, consider dining at either of the Inn’s restaurants: Old Owl Tavern or Owl’s Nest. (Beaumont Inn was a James Beard Foundation “America’s Classics” award winner in 2015.)

Bright Leaf Golf Resort, which opened in 1963 and is currently run by the 4th and 5th generation of the founding family, is home to the state’s only lighted Par 3 golf course and is the first all-inclusive golf resort in Central Kentucky. Standard rooms (most with two double beds), villas and suites are available, plus there’s an on-site restaurant. The “Birdies to Bourbon” package includes a round of play on the challenging 27-hole championship course, plus the chance to test your skills on the lighted 9-hole Par 3 executive course, and a tasting tour on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Two options are offered: 1 night/2 days starting at $205/person and 2 night/3 days starting at $312/person. Packages include lodging, breakfast, golf, golf cart, and more. For details call 800-469-6038.

Kentucky Bourbon CountryWhile in Harrodsburg, be sure to visit the 3,000-acre historic Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill; old Fort Harrod State Park, which has a full-scale replica of a fort that commemorates the first permanent settlement west of the Alleghenies; and the geologically ancient Kentucky River Palisades. Horseback riding, cycling, and watersport adventures options also abound. You can also pick up a free walking and driving tour map at the Tourist Commission that features 78 sites! Grab a meal or snack at Dedman Drugstore / Kentucky Fudge Company, housed in an Early American pharmacy (circa 1865) where the original cabinetry is still in place.

Lebanon, Kentucky

Located in the center of the state, Lebanon is billed as the “Heart of the Bourbon Belt,” the epicenter of barrel and bourbon making.

It’s no mere boast.

Lebanon is an official trailhead of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and is home to two distilleries and a barrel cooperage, among other compelling destinations.


Limestone Branch Distillery, a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, is a micro-distillery helmed by brothers Steve and Paul Beam and was designed to mimic the style of distilleries that was common in the past. With a focus on authenticity, the brothers use a 150-gallon hand-hammered copper pot still to produce small, one-barrel batches of their products, which include SugarShine moonshine, rum, and various whiskeys. Folks working here have genuine enthusiasm for what they do and it shines through the tour and across the tasting bar. On my most recent visit, the tasting bar had been expanded and relocated to accommodate larger groups yet still with enough elbow room to swig samples with ease. A new semi-tractor behind the distillery holds smaller-than-average barrels, including a 100% malted rye whiskey sold exclusively in the gift shop (375 ml for $26.99—and worth every cent!). In addition to its spirits and branded merchandise, the gift shop is small but offers some items you won’t find elsewhere—such as the used barrel stave I snagged for $6.

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Maker’s Mark Distillery, a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, has formalized and expanded its tours in recent years—tours no longer start in the Samuels’ house with its retro kitchen, but in a building constructed specifically as a tour hub; look for the Chihuly artwork that lingers after the spectacular installation in 2017. At the appointed hour, a tour guide will meet your group then walk you through the production facility, starting with grain samples and following the bourbon-making process to its packaging finish. One special treat is the chance to dip your finger into the bubbling sour mash for a taste; it’s sweeter than you might expect. Another is the chance to see bottles hand-dipped into the signature red wax. You’ll also see a new Private Select room that’s kept at 50°F. Tours at Makers Mark are led by guides who have real knowledge and didn’t just memorize a script, so you can expect informed answers to questions. A new tasting facility is the second-to-last stop on each tour—the huge gift shop is last, naturally—and you’ll be able to sip samples after proving you’re age 21 or older. (Yes, IDs are checked.) Sample pours are small per state law, because you’ll get to taste a few different versions of Maker’s Mark. While all bourbon must use at least 51 percent corn, most brands use rye as the second-most-plentiful grain in the mash bill, but Maker’s Mark uses wheat. All grains are local, sourced within a 40-mile radius of the distillery and the water comes from a 50-acre lake on the property. Tasting is a chance to understand the distinctions between original, 46 and other variations on the recipe. If you’re still thirsty after the tour, stop by the on-site restaurant for a bourbon slushy.

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@21plusTravel Tip: Makers Mark is about a 15-minute drive from downtown Lebanon, but the route feels like you’re meandering through the middle of nowhere. I fought off the “this can’t be right” feeling and my GPS proved trustworthy.

Beyond Distilleries

Independent Stave Company / Kentucky Cooperage is where barrels are manufactured and therefore a must-see destination for any bourbon lover—Lebanon is the ONLY place on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail where you can see genuine bourbon barrels being made, and you’ll see (and smell!) every step of the process. At its 712 East Main Street facility in Lebanon, tours are offered every Monday through Friday (promptly at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and 1 p.m.) for anyone age 17 and older ($10/person). Tour groups gather in a new room just inside and to the left of the front entrance and include a video overview and walking tour that lasts about 45 minutes. Closed toe shoes required and photography is not permitted (bummer!)

Bourbon gets its color and character from oak barrels and this is where to see how barrels are made. The first thing that hits you when you get out of the car in the parking lot is the smell. It’s a yummy vanilla-caramel-toast smell that any bourbon lover will recognize.

For more than 100 years this family-owned operation has tailored barrels to each distiller’s request. “Bourbon gets 100 percent of its color and about 70 percent of its flavor from barrels,” said one tour guide. “So each distillery is very specific” about how they want their barrels made.

All the barrels are American white oak, much of which this company harvests in Missouri. “Oak is a slow-growing tree, but thanks to acorns, we don’t have to replant,” she says.

Watching humans and machines wrestle flat boards into rounded containers that can hold 53 gallons of liquid—without leaks, for years at a time—is a sight to behold. It’s a process with many steps and it’s both thrilling and shocking to watch those finely crafted barrels get set on fire (briefly) in order to char the interior. But char is an essential ingredient!

The company also makes barrels for wine and other uses. Before I left, I bought a pair of two-quart barrels for at-home experiments.

Kentucky Bourbon Country

Billed as “the world’s largest bourbon pour,” the City of Lebanon’s water tower has been transformed into a work of art featuring a bottle of Maker’s Mark with its signature red wax label offering a long pour of the amber-colored liquid. Rising more than 135 feet above Lebanon, the water tower is visible for miles. It’s also a great selfie stop.

Bourbon Water Tower

While in Lebanon, you might also visit the Gorley Naturalist Trail that offers hiking and biking challenges plus 47 scenic bridges; Fagan Branch Reservoir and Sportsman’s Lake for canoeing, kayaking and fishing; the Civil War Discovery Trail and/or Marion County Quilt Trail; shop for antiques, collectibles and handmade crafts downtown and dine at an eatery such as Ragetti’s Italian Kitchen for scrumptious authentic fare or County Seat Kitchen & Bar with its impressive drink selection (including bourbon and regional beer) and confident preparations of farm-to-table fare. Accommodation options include the Hampton Inn Lebanon, which is conveniently located near key attractions in Lebanon and at what’s billed as “the crossroads of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Bourbon Craft Tour.”

Kentucky Bourbon Country

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– 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 each CVB and venue that hosted my visit and to Kathy Witt for making arrangements.

Hope S. PhilbrickHope S. Philbrick is founder and editor-in-chief of Getaways for Grownups. She became a freelance writer and editor because she believes that work and fun should not be mutually exclusive. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide. When not writing, she can usually be found on the road or savoring something tasty.

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