Central Kentucky is bourbon country. A mild climate coupled with access to ample amounts of corn and limestone-filtered water render it the ideal place for producing the honey colored drink as synonymous to Kentucky legend as Daniel Boone himself.
There are currently more than 20 (and growing) working distilleries in Kentucky producing more than 200 brands of bourbon. While bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, some would argue that the only bourbon worth drinking is true Kentucky bourbon.
There must be something to this notion, because 95 percent of America’s bourbon is made in Kentucky.
From varying mash bills (recipes) and yeast strains, to levels of barrel char and age, each distillery practices the art of making bourbon just a little differently, which makes a tour of Kentucky Bourbon distilleries a unique experience.
Even those who don’t count themselves among the ranks of bourbon connoisseurs will enjoy touring the historic buildings and learning about a craft that is nearly as old as America itself.
The Bourbon Trail
There are a number of ways to tour Bourbon Country. The most popular is to follow the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail which consists of nine distilleries: Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Evan Williams, and Bulleit.
The Kentucky Distillers Association has an informative website with all the tools you need to follow the trail, including a map and proposed itinerary.
They even have an official Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport that you can take with you on the trail. Get your passport stamped at all nine distilleries, mail it in, and the KDA will send you a t-shirt that you can proudly show off to all your friends.
Make Your Own Trail
Many visitors choose to blaze their own trail by visiting distilleries that are not part of the official Bourbon Trail. Distilleries such as Buffalo Trace, Baton 1792, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, and many more are well worth a visit.
The best way to go about touring bourbon country is to research each distillery and make your own itinerary based on what you want to see, and most importantly, how far you want to drive.
Be prepared to drive 20 minutes to an hour between distilleries. Add in extra time to enjoy the rolling two-lane country roads lined with wooden fences and charming horse barns.
- The central Kentucky distilleries can be roughly divided into two geographical locations centered around the cities of Lexington and Louisville.
- Split up your distillery visits into sections and don’t plan to visit more than three in one day.
- Most tours run on the hour, so try to time your visit to arrive at least half an hour before starting time.
- Check the distillery website for currents hours and tour times as they do change throughout the year. During the busiest times of year (spring and fall), the tours can and do sell out. Be prepared. If you can’t get on a tour you might still be able to have a tasting, and many of the large distilleries allow you to walk parts of the grounds on your own.
- The basic tours are suitable for all ages, while many of the specialty tours cater only to people 21+.
- Most distilleries require reservations for groups of ten or more who wish to take a tour.
- Many distilleries shut down production during the summer months because the local stream or water source used for cooling the mash is too hot. They are still open for visiting and touring during this time, but you will not see bourbon in production.
- If you are traveling by RV, call ahead to ask about parking. Some of the larger distilleries have huge parking lots that can accommodate rigs of any size, while others are not RV friendly.
- Have a designated driver!
Bulleit Frontier Whisky Experience
Located on the outskirts of Louisville, the Stitzel-Weller Distillery originally opened in 1935, and recently re-opened to the public in 2014. Tours are offered Wednesday through Sunday, and cost $10 for 21+, or free for ages 21 and under. The tour includes four tastings and a complimentary glass.
In downtown Louisville, on the famed Whisky Row, is an artisanal distillery that celebrates the legacy of Evan Williams, Kentucky’s first commercial distiller. Tours are offered on the hour and take you through the history of the distillery, including a viewing of the artisans still, and a four pour tasting. Each tour cost $12 per person, $9 for ages 10-20, or free for 10 and under.
Touted as the world’s most award-winning distillery, this historic Frankfort property has been the home to various bourbon proprietors for over 200 years. The basic Trace Tour is free and includes a video, a peek into the barrel warehouse, and a look at the bottling facility. The tour ends with a tasting that includes their incredible Bourbon Cream.
Buffalo Trace offers three additional complimentary tours: The Hard Hat Tour, the National Historic Landmark Tour, and the Bourbon Barrel Tour. All specialty tours require advance reservations.
The home of Kentucky’s top-selling Bourbon brand is also where some of the hot, premium brands like Baker’s, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Knob Creek are produced. They offer a 30 minute guided tour for $10 (free if you are under 21) that takes you on a bourbon journey from natural well water through distilling and barreling. The tour ends with a tasting. Tickets are first come first serve.
For the ultimate bourbon fan, book a Behind the Beam Tour ($200, 21+ only) which includes a private experience with the master distiller, a bourbon-themed meal, barrel thieving in the bourbon rack house, a premium bourbon tasting, and a commemorative bottle.
A small distillery with free tours and tastings Monday through Saturday. Barton 1792 is not part of the official Bourbon Trail, which makes it a great place to visit during the busy season when all the other distilleries are packed. Located in Bardstown only a few blocks from the Getz Museum of Whiskey.
Home of the Bourbon Heritage Center, Heaven Hill is the largest independent family-owned distillery in America. They offer a one hour Mashbill Tour for $10 per/person, or a half hour Whiskey Connoisseur Tour for $20.
Another stop not on the official Bourbon Trail that is well worth a visit. Learn about one of Kentucky’s smallest family-owned and independently operated distillery. Tour the restored distillery and sample their unique Bourbon and Rye Whiskeys that are bottled by hand in very small batches.
Tours operate on the hour and cost $7 per person including a tasting. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made on their website.
Four Roses is the only distillery in Kentucky that boasts two separate locations. Both are worth a visit. First stop at the 115-year-old Spanish Mission Style Distillery on the scenic Salt River in Lawrenceburg. Tours operate on the hour and cost $5 per person.
Next, head over to the Warehouse and Bottling Facility in Cox’s Creek where you can see first hand how the bourbon is stored and bottled.
The $5 ticket fee gets you a tour at both locations for no extra charge within a 60 day period. Both locations include a tasting after the tour.
This massive, modern facility recently underwent an expansion which included a brand new visitor center over looking the Kentucky River. Tours operate on the hour and cost $10 per person. After the tour enjoy a two bourbon tasting of your choice.
This national historic landmark is one of the oldest working bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. The distillery tour takes you through the history of bourbon, past giant vats of mash, and gives you a close look at the copper sills and storage buildings. The tour ends with a two pour tasting.
The distillery tour operates on the hour and costs $10 per person. They do not take reservations and the tours fill up fast, so be sure to arrive an hour before the time you would like to tour.
For a more in depth experience, reserve a spot on the National Landmark or Corn to Cork Tour. Both tours require advance reservations and cost $30 per person.
Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co., also known as Town Branch, has the unique distinction of being both a brewery and distillery. As the first new distillery built in Lexington in over one hundred years, this downtown locale offers barrel-aged beers that incorporate the unique attributes of Kentucky bourbon.
The one hour and fifteen minute distillery tour tells the story of Town Branch while offering a behind-the-scenes look at the beer and bourbon production. Each tour costs $8.50 per person and includes four tasting tokens that can be used in either the brewery or distillery.
Town Branch also has four specialty tours that offer the opportunity to learn about brewing and/or distilling from the masters of the craft. Specialty tour prices range from $12 to $50 per person and advance reservations are required.
Of all the distilleries in central Kentucky, Maker’s Mark is the hardest to get to. That’s because it’s located a bit out of the way in the countryside of Lorretto. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit though. And it really doesn’t mean that it’s not a popular stop!
The basic distillery tour runs on the hour and costs $9 per adult. Each tour includes a guided view of the distillery, plus a tasting and a chance to dip your own bottle in their signature red wax. Tours operate on a first come, first serve basis and fill up fast so get there early.
Maker’s Mark also offers a Behind the Mark Tour that takes you behind the scenes to explore the inner workings of how bourbon is crafted. The two hour tour costs $35 and includes a set of wax dipped rocks glasses. Reservations are required.