What’s that we say? An American trail with the name Bourbon in it? We don’t know about you but it seems like a great way to top off the end of a global pandemic is with a nice Kentucky bourbon tour through the hills of Kentucky.
What’s the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?
The Kentucky Distillers’ Association coined the phrase Kentucky Bourbon Trail and mapped out what is now a popular trail where you can visit these legendary distilleries. You can find an interactive map here.
At last count (2019), there are 18 Bourbon makers along the trail with 13 craft distilleries, many of them in Louisville and Lexington. You can break these down into your eastern tours, southern tours, and urban tours.
With an average tour time of 90 minutes, you won’t hit them all in a day since they are anywhere from 8 miles to 70 miles apart. Luckily, there are guided Kentucky bourbon tours to help you navigate this tasting journey of discovery.
What’s the difference between bourbon and whiskey?
Bourbon is a type of whiskey that can only be born and bred in America. In fact, in 1964, Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit.” And if you’re wondering if it’s spelled whisky or whiskey, you can read about it here.
Per those aficionados at the American Bourbon Association, in order to be classified as bourbon, a whiskey needs to be distilled from a mixture of grains, or mash, that’s at least 51 percent corn AND aged in new charred oak barrels. And of course, be an all-American product.
They say not all bourbons come from Kentucky, but yeah, they really do. Kentucky maintains a pretty high-brow attitude when it comes to their bourbon and distillers follow very strict rules and regulations for production.
Bourbon History River Tour
Making perfect bourbon is a slow process, so no need to rush getting to the good stuff. A great way to immerse yourself in this rich Americana history is by a slow boat tour down the Kentucky River.
In fact, the river plays a very important part with the bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, as their spring water is perfect in every way.
Limestone filtration is crucial, and Kentucky’s limestone aquifers filter out impurities like iron, raise the water’s pH, and add minerals like calcium.
Many big bourbon names use Kentucky spring water including Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, and Woodford Reserve.
In fact, river-aged whiskey is now being made on the river banks of Ballard County, Kentucky by O.H. Ingram. They’ve built a floating rickhouse on the river.
A rickhouse is the warehouse that stores the barrels during aging, and there’s a science and art to this too. Usually, the rickhouse is around 9 stories tall, storing 20,000 barrels and a million gallons of bourbon.
If you really want to explore the science behind these structures and properly aging bourbon, check out the Whiskey Professor.
Having a rickhouse on the river utilizes the climate of the Mississippi River which expands and contracts the wood of the barrel adding to the flavor.
The motion of the river ensures a good saturation of flavor from the barrel, and the humidity of the river keeps the barrels moist. By taking a bourbon river tour, you’ll take in a lot of bourbon history and enjoy some fine whiskey!
Private Kentucky Bourbon Tour of Small-Batch Distilleries
Pegasus Distillery Experiences offers this unique Kentucky bourbon tour where you’ll have a private chauffeur taking you to 3 unique distilleries known for their small-batch crafted bourbons.
The 10-hour tour takes you to Three Boys Farm, Stitzel-Weller, and Kentucky Artisan Distillery.
Three Boys Farm Distillery is a small craft, family-owned distillery nestled on a 122-acre farm in Graefenburg, Kentucky. Priding themselves on keeping it real. This means they grow their own corn, and for the most part, they manually bottle their bourbon.
They don’t cold filter, so all the good stuff in the barrel also ends up in your bottle. In fact, the “bottom of the barrel” doesn’t have a negative connotation when it comes to bourbon, and Three Boys Farm is generous when it comes to adding this to their product.
Stitzel–Weller Distillery is a former distillery located in Louisville, Kentucky founded in 1935, then later sold into what now makes the famous Bulleit bourbon.
In the 1830s, a tavern keeper named Augustus Bulleit worked relentlessly to come upon a bourbon that had the character he had long sought after.
Poor Augustus suddenly vanished one day while transporting some barrels of bourbon, never to be seen again. The good news is his recipe wasn’t on him, and to this day we can still enjoy the bold, spicy character from the good ‘ol days.
Look at it this way, taking this Kentucky bourbon tour is merely paying respects to dear Augustus Bulleit.
Kentucky Artisan Distillery is best known for being the contract distiller and bottler for Jefferson’s Reserve Bourbon. Everything happens onsite with this small-batch distillery, and we mean everything.
Kentucky Artisan Distillery is one of the few distilleries that produce bourbon and spirits literally from the roots to the bottle, all by hand.
They grow their own grains on 700 acres of neighboring land, and the distillery is completely run by their distillers, not a computer. You might say they put their 5 senses to stellar use.
Heading down the bottling line, you won’t find crafty robots filling and assembling the bottles. This is all done by humans – lots of them.
Jefferson’s Bourbon is well-known and has quite the history, as we see in most of these Kentucky bourbon distillers. Jefferson’s was founded in 1997 by Trey and Chet Zoeller who wanted to produce the same craft bourbon their 8th generation grandmother made.
She was subsequently arrested in 1799 for the “production and sales of spirituous liquors.” To this very day, we don’t know if Trey or Chet was ever able to clear her good name, but respect, folks – let’s raise a glass to granny!
Guided Walking Bourbon Tour of Downtown Louisville
Here are 10 bourbon distilleries you can cover in about 2 hours, all nestled in a 3.5-mile perimeter. But hey, it’s not a race – we’re guessing this is more of a day’s trek since you will be tasting and eating along the way.
The Ohio River provides a beautiful backdrop against the vibe of downtown Louisville. This walking, urban bourbon tour will educate you about the stories that brought these distilleries to life.
Since bourbon whiskey is the main ingredient in a mint julep, you can opt for a guided tour that focuses just on this cocktail that’s as famous as the Kentucky Derby, one of our favorite races in the world!
Touring Maker’s Mark, Dining At Star Hill Provisions
Let’s first start by explaining what makes Makers Mark an exemplary bourbon and one of the top Kentucky bourbon tours you don’t want to miss out on.
It all begins with a 170-year-old recipe, created by Bill Samuels, Sr. As the legend goes, he set the prized recipe on fire, along with the drapes. Apparently, back then, fire-starting was not a perfect science.
But getting back to the recipe, the secret Bill came upon was using soft, red winter wheat instead of the traditional rye grain. This took the edge off sipping, replacing the “bite” of rye with the delicate sweetness that elevates Makers Mark to one of the favorite Kentucky bourbons around.
While Bill tended the drapes and distilled his bourbon, co-founder Margie Samuels was the genius behind the marketing.
She came up with the shape of the bottle, look of the label, signature red wax topper, and the name Makers Mark.
Located at the distillery, you’ll find Star Hill Provisions, a James Beard-approved restaurant with locally sourced and inspired ingredients.
The inspiration part means you’ll find Makers Mark as an ingredient in these culinary delights. This includes their desserts like pecan pie and brownies.
As we find in all these Kentucky bourbon tours, there is an age limit. Per the Maker’s Mark website: All guests must be 21 years of age or older to tour. (This includes toddlers & infants). Gotta love that.
Tours that Mix Horse Racing With Bourbon
Kentucky is home to Churchill Downs where they hold the Kentucky Derby, so you know there are amazing thoroughbred horse farms in Kentucky.
You can package tours and tastings with some of these famed horse locations at Bourbon Excursions, where you’ll get to tour distilleries along with a behind-the-scenes look at Churchill Downs.
You’ll be combining 2 well-known cultures with these tours – Kentucky bourbon tasting and the famous horse racing tracks and farms.
Tips For Planning Your Kentucky Bourbon Tours
- Purchase your tours ahead of time.
- Make sure you have water – if you’re inside a rick house, it’s going to be humid, especially in the summer.
- You won’t be able to do the entire bourbon trail in a day or even 2, so research the distilleries and find the ones you really want to see.
Kentucky is known for 2 things – bourbon and horseracing, and both are deep-rooted in Kentucky culture. It’s almost as if the state of Kentucky was created to encompass and preserve this horse/bourbon heritage.
Distilling bourbon whiskey is intertwined in American history, so a Kentucky bourbon tour is a fascinating way to explore slices of life back in the 1900s. As we mentioned, there certainly were coloful characters honing in on their whiskey craft. We salute them all.