If you want smooth Scotch, you head across the pond to Scotland. If you want exquisite champagne, you travel to the Champagne region of France. If you want fine bourbon, you go to Kentucky – and if you want the souvenir T-shirt, you’ll need a passport.
“There is a reason bourbon was born here in Kentucky, and a reason why bourbon that comes from here is still considered the gold standard,” said Craig Beam, master distiller at Heaven Hill Distilleries. “Ed O’Daniel, past president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, used to say it’s a myth that bourbon has to be made in Kentucky; by law, it simply has to be made in the United States – but if you want to sell it, you better make it here.”
In fact, 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky, a process visitors can experience with a leisurely exploration along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The trail meanders from Louisville on the Ohio River, through Bardstown – the acknowledged “Bourbon Capital of the World” – to Lexington in the midst of horse country.
“Just like the Kentucky Derby and mint juleps, bourbon is synonymous with Kentucky,” said Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. “You just can’t have one without the other.”
Indeed. And with several of the distilleries offering new tasting rooms and tasting experiences, this is a great time for the adventure. Plan a long weekend with plenty of time built in to enjoy the uniqueness and flavor nuances of each distillery and their bourbons. There are plenty of overnight options along the Trail, including the new Bourbon Manor, an elegant bourbon-themed inn located in Bardstown, where you can also bone up on bourbon facts, figures and fun at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History.
Ready to sample Kentucky’s liquid gold? Pick up an official Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport at any of the trail’s eight member distilleries or download the app, which can be digitally stamped. Once you’ve “earned” all eight stamps, head to one of the three official Trailheads, located in Bardstown, Shepherdsville and Lebanon, to pick up your T-shirt, a trail exclusive.
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is a multimillion-dollar artisanal distillery on Louisville’s historic Whiskey Row – not far from the riverfront location where the Evan Williams distillery stood in the late 18th century. Its 1960s-themed Max & Harry’s Tasting Room evokes the “Mad Men” aesthetic.
Four Roses: This Spanish mission-style distillery is on the National Register of Historic Places. Whisky Advocate named Four Roses’ 2013 Limited Edition 125th Anniversary Small Batch Bourbon the “American Whiskey of the Year.” It earned the title in 2012, too.
Heaven Hill Distilleries: Want a “taste of heaven”? It’s here, in the barrel-shaped Taste of Heaven Tasting Room, where you’ll finish off your tasting with a luscious crafted-in-Kentucky bourbon ball.
Jim Beam: Go behind the scenes on an interactive, multi-sensory tour: explore the museum with its collection of Jim Beam limited-edition decanters; catch a cooperage demo of a craftsman
building a barrel by hand; sip in the state-of-the-art tasting room; dine at newly opened Fred’s Smokehouse.
Maker’s Mark: Yes, this is where you get to hand-dip your own souvenir bottle in the iconic red wax seal. Step into one of three glass-enclosed tasting rooms and sample a bourbon flight.
Town Branch Bourbon: The first new Lexington distillery in more than 100 years, Town Branch was named for the very waterway the city was founded on – and where much bourbon production was once centered.
Wild Turkey: Tour the new Wild Turkey Visitor Center, perched on the edge of a cliff looking out over the scenic Kentucky River. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet bourbon maestro Jimmy Russell.
Woodford Reserve: Kentucky’s oldest and smallest working bourbon distillery is a National Historic Landmark known for its copper pot still and triple distillation process.
“The allure of our distilleries is not only the history and the legacy, but the passion Kentuckians have for upholding bourbon-making traditions,” said Russell. “You aren’t going to see me messing with perfection, which is why I’ve been making Wild Turkey bourbon the same way going on 60 years now.”
Kentucky Bourbon Trail (Note: All Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport distilleries charge a small fee except for Four Roses.)
ADVENTURE GUIDE TO DON’T-MISS MOMENTS
♦ Waking up to a breakfast of Bourbon Bacon Waffles with Hot Caramel Sauce at Bardstown’s new 10-room Bourbon Manor, the world’s first bourbon-themed bed-and-breakfast. The inn’s Bourbon Bar cafe is newly opened and serves a tapas menu. This fall, the spa will open with bourbon-oriented treatments and an exclusive line of spa products.
♦ Sipping MoonPie MoonShine at Lebanon’s Limestone Branch Distillery. Be forewarned: The famous marshmallow, graham cracker and chocolate confection in liquid form is deliciously habit-forming.
♦ Crossing over to the Urban Bourbon Trail in Louisville to experience several stops: Bourbons Bistro, with more than 150 bourbons on the menu; Proof on Main to see the fabulous art collection in the 21c Museum Hotel; the Brown Lobby Bar for that classic Kentucky libation, the mint julep; and the Old Seelbach Bar at the Seelbach Hotel to dip into some “Great Gatsby” history.
♦ Joining Dixon Dedman for a Personalized Bourbon Tasting with the Innkeeper at Harrodsburg’s white-columned Beaumont Inn. Slip into the leather chair comfort of the James Harrod Room and sample your way through the taste profiles, history and nuances of up to six Kentucky bourbons, including rare bourbons such as Four Roses 125th Anniversary Small Batch Collection, Pappy Van Winkle (15, 20 or 23), Wild Turkey Diamond and Jefferson’s Presidential 21 and 25.
♦ Enjoying some off-Trail time under the stars at the amphitheatre in My Old Kentucky Home State Park to catch the Broadway-style musical, “The Stephen Foster Story“. Known as the “father of American music,” Foster wrote 286 songs before his death in 1864. More than 150 years later, people still know the words and tunes to “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races” – and, most famous of all, “My Old Kentucky Home.”
ADVENTURE GEAR TO TAKE ALONG
Apps – they’re free, they take up virtually no space in your luggage, and when it comes to navigating the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, they’ll give you everything you need to know to get maximum enjoyment from the experience.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Click on the Map tab to download. This app has everything you need to do the Trial justice. Available: App Store.
Urban Bourbon Trail. Click on Things to Do/Urban Bourbon Trail/The App. Think of this app as an electronic “pub crawl” of nearly 30 bourbon watering holes in Louisville. Available: App Store, Google Play.
Both bourbon-related apps provide GPS directions, interactive maps, tour hours, admission fees (where applicable) and other information such as menus and bourbon recipes.
Kentucky B&B app (from the Bed & Breakfast Association of Kentucky). Need a place to hang your hat along the Trail? This app includes info about member B&Bs, social media links, frequent-stay form, and lodging and promotional specials, including for the Bourbon Manor. Available: App Store.