This post includes tips for making the most of your visit to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We have visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail on several occasions. Our most recent visit was focused on Maker’s Mark, but we have visited most of the distilleries over the past several years. Brian’s favorite adult beverage is bourbon and he is part of the ambassador program at Maker’s Mark (I’ll tell you more about it below). Although I’m not much of a drinker, I always enjoy learning about the history and process of making bourbon.
Brian actually completed the bourbon trail twice (once with me and once with friends). It is important to note, however, that these visits were in 2011 and 2012 when there were only six distilleries and they were concentrated around Lexington. Now there are sixteen distilleries on the bourbon trail and several are closer to Louisville.
The original six distilleries are Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve. If you had to choose only one distillery to visit, I recommend Maker’s Mark. They offer several different tours and in addition to seeing the inner workings typically found on a distillery tour, you can also see (and even put your hand into) the massive vats of mash. You can also see the bottling process if you visit during the week. It is really impressive to watch the workers individually dip every single bottle into the signature red wax with such speed and accuracy. In addition, in the gift shop you can purchase un-dipped bottles and other merchandise and then dip them into the wax yourself. It is a fun experience and makes a great souvenir.
Bourbon Trail Passports
At any of the distilleries on the trail you can ask for a Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport. In this passport there is a page for each distillery. You collect stamps as you visit each. In the past, you received a t-shirt for collecting all six stamps. Now you receive a commemorative tasting glass for collecting all 16 of the stamps in your passport. But you can still buy the t-shirt in the gift shop of most of the distilleries.
It is important to note that the passports do not expire. You do not have to collect all of the stamps in one visit but can instead collect them over time. Additionally, if you forget to get a stamp at one of the locations, you can simply show receipts or photos of your time at that distillery. If you complete your passport you can either take it to one of the Official Trailheads or you can mail it to the address printed on the passport.
Planning Your Trip
If you only have a short amount of time, my recommendation would be to prioritize your favorite bourbon. I think that Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve offer the two best tours (plus both give you a chocolate bourbon ball to compliment your drink). Note that it is not necessary to complete a tour to participate in a tasting or to receive a stamp in your passport.
Each of the distilleries sets their own hours and pricing for tours and tastings. Most charge a fee for the tour and include tastings as part of the tour.
The Bourbon Trail website offers planning assistance. You should absolutely plan your route in advance. Several of the distilleries require reservations (especially on the weekends) so planning ahead is a must. Depending on how much time you have, it often makes sense to concentrate on a specific area:
If you focus your trip near Lexington, you could travel to Town Branch, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, and Four Roses are all within about an hour without stopping. In addition to bourbon, Town Branch makes the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale which is very popular. Woodford Reserve is beautiful and they have a really great tour. There are a number of really nice photo opportunities on the Woodford Reserve Property.
Seemingly missing from the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail is the Buffalo Trace Distillery (makers of Pappy Van Winkle). It is located in Frankfort only about 25 minutes from Lexington. It is a national landmark and the longest continually operating distillery in the United States. We very much enjoyed this distillery tasting and tour (one of the only distillery offering tastings and tours for free) and highly recommend it if you are looking for additional bourbon options near Lexington.
Near Bardstown, Bardstown Bourbon, Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, and Lux Row are all within six miles of one another. The Maker’s Mark Distillery is about 35 minutes away, but well worth the extra distance. In addition to being our favorite tour and distillery, I also encourage you to consider eating lunch at Maker’s Mark. The Star Hill Provisions restaurant was quite lovely and you can try a Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich or Some Ale-8-one (usually referred to as Ale 8) soda and drink like the locals do.
While at Maker’s Mark you can also sign up to be part of their ambassador program. Once you sign up (for free), your name is placed on a barrel with other ambassadors. Once your barrel matures in 5-7 years, they will contact you to visit to pick up bottles from your barrel with custom labels featuring your name. You will also receive fun holiday gifts. We have received earmuffs, a scarf, and mistletoe that fit our Maker’s Mark bottles.
Jim Beam is located just between the Bardstown distilleries (30 minutes northwest) and the Louisville distilleries (30 minutes south) so it could be included in a trip to either. The campus has been recently renovated and is quite large.
In Louisville, there are six distilleries. Five of them are located within 1.5 miles of one another. Four of those are located on a mile long stretch of main street which is referred to as Whiskey Row. These include include Angel’s Envy, Old Forester, Evan Williams, and Mitchter’s. Less than a half mile from Angel’s Envy is Rabbit Hole. Also in Louisville- about 22 minutes away from the other Louisville distilleries- is the Bulleit Distillery.
Finally, the O.Z. Tyler distillery is located in Owensboro. It is quite a distance from the other distilleries on the tour (almost two hours from both Louisville and Bardstown). I haven’t visited this distillery and can’t say if it is worth the drive- but it is necessary for completion of the Bourbon Trail Passport.
Have you completed the bourbon trail? Which distillery is your favorite?