A Complete Guide to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Everything you need to know to sample your way around the land of Wild Turkey and Maker’s Mark.

Two-story brick buildings along the main street in Bardstown, Kentucky

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail extends throughout the Bluegrass State from big cities to historic hamlets like Bardstown, which has been dubbed the Bourbon Capital of the World.

Photo by Jason Busa/Shutterstock

For whiskey lovers, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a bucket-list trip, full of opportunities to visit distilleries and learn about bourbon—plus, of course, plenty of sampling along the way.

Kentucky is the spiritual home of bourbon, an American whiskey made with at least 51 percent corn and aged in new, charred, white oak barrels. That said, many Kentucky distilleries also make other types of whiskey (like rye or American single malts) or other types of spirits. But if you’re headed to Kentucky, it’s a safe bet that you’ll find plenty of bourbon, first and foremost—including some pours you can’t find anywhere else. Here’s how to navigate the world of Kentucky bourbon.

What is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?

The official Kentucky Bourbon Trail exists under the auspices of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (who have trademarked the phrase), and it includes 18 distilleries, as well as 32 smaller distilleries designated as the “Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour.” This official trail doesn’t necessarily include every bourbon producer in the state. But it’s still a pretty comprehensive overview, and the KBT provides a useful way to organize a visit—including a website with plenty of maps and links. Those who prefer a hard-copy guide can purchase a Bourbon Trail Passport & Field Guide ($15) with similar info. Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries are sprawled across the state, with most of them within about 100 miles from Louisville, the logical starting point for the journey.

How long to spend

It’s possible to visit a good number of the best-known distilleries within three or four days. Most visitors use Louisville as a home base, spending a day or two exploring the city’s “Whiskey Row” and other distilleries within city limits. From there, it makes sense to drive about an hour east toward Lexington, perhaps visiting Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and Woodford Reserve, before returning to Louisville. The following day, head southbound toward Loretto, home of Maker’s Mark, stopping at Bardstown and its distilleries along the way. Expect to spend an hour or two at each distillery; visiting two or three distilleries a day is a realistic pace.

Quite a few are located farther afield, in more rural areas, meaning more travel time is necessary to get there. (Green River, in Owensboro, is furthest removed; it’s even in a different time zone, though it’s only about 100 miles from Louisville.)

For people who want to visit all 18 distilleries, the KBT recommends at least four days. However, a week to nine days might make for a more relaxed and enjoyable experience, particularly for those who want to visit craft distilleries along the way or make a detour to explore surrounding areas.

In addition, the KBT recommends at least a week to visit the Kentucky Craft Distillery circuit; many of the facilities are near the core KBT distilleries or en route. It’s worth doing a little advance planning and mapping to maximize visits.

Hand pouring whiskey into glass at bar (L), row of small brown arches marking "Bourbon District" in a city (R)

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail consists of numerous well-known distilleries—and plenty of lesser-known spots equally worth a visit.

Courtesy of @GoToLouisville@GoToLouisville

Which distilleries are on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?

There are 18 KBT distilleries—it’s essentially a who’s who of the bourbon names you’ll spot at a well-stocked bar or liquor store:

How to get around

Within Louisville, it’s easy to reach distilleries on foot or via taxis or rideshares. Beyond city limits, you need a car to get around; particularly in more rural areas, ridesharing isn’t always available. To delegate the transportation and/or planning, consider booking tours with a company like the famous Mint Julep or Pegasus Distillery Tours. They’ll shuttle you or your group around; many of the tours focus on specific interests, like culinary or horse farm tours, or offer VIP access to tastings or other experiences. However you’re getting around, don’t drink and drive.

How to plan a distillery visit

Planning ahead is strongly encouraged. Many distilleries are closed during the week (most often Monday and/or Tuesday), and hours may vary, so check a distillery’s website before heading out. (Also: Note that part of Kentucky is in the Central time zone, so you may need to factor that in.) For those traveling with kids: Some places welcome all ages, while others are limited to those 21 years old and over.

Do you need reservations for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?

Not always, but it helps, particularly during the peak summer and fall tourist seasons. That said, many tours are reservation only and charge a fee. Most cost around $25, but that can range much higher when special bottlings or cocktails are involved, and they tend to run about 60 to 90 minutes.

In general, visiting two or three distilleries in a day is plenty. Most tours cover the same “how-bourbon-is-made” info, and especially if you’re sampling, it all starts to add up. But it’s well worth it for bourbon fans looking to learn about America’s native whiskey and snap up hard-to-find bottles to add to a collection.

A vintage-looking Old Forester sign attached to a brick building

The historic Old Forester Distilling Co. is one of the major stops on Louisville’s Whiskey Row.

Photo by Joseph Hendrickson/Shutterstock

Start in Louisville

Louisville is ideal as a home base for a bourbon tour: In addition to distillery experiences available within city limits, it’s also relatively central to Lexington, Clermont, and Bardstown and has plenty of appealing bars, restaurants, and cultural attractions.

Start with Whiskey Row, which is home to Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery (and its top-notch bar), Old Forester Distilling (keep an eye out for special whiskey drops here), and Angel’s Envy. From there, the NuLu district offers the modern design of Rabbit Hole Distillery and its second-floor Overlook bar, with drinks by the Death & Co. team. Grab a rideshare for the five-mile drive to West Louisville to tour the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which opened in 1935 but had been closed to the public for many years. (Attention horse fans: The Kentucky Derby Museum is nearby.)

Among the smaller Craft Trail distilleries nearby in downtown Louisville: Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. and Copper & Kings, an industrial-chic space that started as a brandy facility and has only recently begun producing bourbon. Look for the monarch butterfly garden out front and the rooftop restaurant/bar with sweeping city views.

When the distilleries close, continue bourbon tasting at Louisville bars like the Silver Dollar, a Bakersfield-style honky-tonk owned by whiskey expert Larry Rice; Trouble Bar, where you choose among flights curated by local experts; or the 1920s-inspired Neat Bourbon Bar & Bottle Shop.

Where to stay in Louisville

Consider a stay at Hotel Distil, a bourbon-themed hotel located in a historic building on Louisville’s “Whiskey Row”; the boutique-y 21c Museum Hotel is also home to stellar restaurant Proof on Main.

You could also try Galt House Hotel, a much larger venue with views of the Ohio River, or the genteel Brown Hotel, which dates back to 1923 and offers skyline views from the restored rooftop garden.

Day trip options from Louisville

Visit a couple of distilleries during each of these day trips with Louisville as a convenient home base, or combine them for a longer road trip. Here are a few potential options to build an itinerary.

1. Clermont

From Louisville, it’s about a 30-minute drive south to Clermont to reach James B. Beam Distilling—known for making Jim Beam, Knob Creek, and Basil Hayden, among others. They’ve been busy over at Beam: In 2022, the distillery cut the ribbon on a new $45 million “homestead experience.” The new space includes the Kitchen Table, a 5,000-square-foot restaurant and bar, and the Fred B. Noe Craft Distillery, a facility to explore new fermentation and distillation techniques.

2. Bardstown

Either starting out from Louisville or continuing on from Beam, head to Heaven Hill, the family-owned distillery that makes such legendary brands as Elijah Craig, Old Fitzgerald, and Henry McKenna, among many others. While the company’s new $200 million distillery is slated to open at the end of 2024, this remains a fine place to learn about bourbon production and snap up exclusive bottles.

See also two sleek, state-of-the-art newcomers: Lux Row Distillers and Bardstown Bourbon Company (the latter focuses on elaborate bourbon blends).

A gray house with red window shutters next to a small stream lined with stone walls

You’ll love strolling the grounds of the Maker’s Mark Distillery, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Photo by Fiona Young-Brown/Shutterstock

3. Lebanon/Loretto

Maker’s Mark is on many a bourbon lover’s must-see list. Visit the distillery and tour the grounds, but don’t leave without dipping your own bottle in the iconic red wax.

This might be the endpoint of a route heading south through Clermont and/or Bardstown. Since the distillery is fairly remote from Louisville, plan to stay overnight—if possible, at the Samuels House, an Airbnb-style house rental owned by the family behind Maker’s Mark, stocked with a collection of whiskey memorabilia.

Add on a tour of the Kentucky Cooperage Visitor Center to learn how barrels are made, and see firsthand how they’re charred with a burst of flame—a key part of the bourbon-making process. (Note: You can also go directly from Louisville to Maker’s Mark by helicopter.)

4. Frankfort/Lexington

From Louisville, it’s also about an hour east to Frankfort, home of Buffalo Trace. Choose from several different themed tours of the sprawling facility, such as the “Old Taylor Tour,” which focuses on the legacy of E.H. Taylor, who revolutionized the bourbon industry; or a tour through the property’s arboretum and botanical gardens.

Continue on to Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, housed in a 1910 mission-style building, or Woodford Reserve in Versailles (pronounced “ver-sales”). Of note, Lexington, the “Horse Capital of the World,” is home to multitudes of thoroughbreds, so consider adding a horse farm tour to your itinerary.

5. Danville

About an hour south of Lexington, the picturesque Wilderness Trail Distillery is in the heart of the Bluegrass region. The distillery is a relative newcomer, having launched in 2012 and releasing its first bourbon in 2018. In that short time, it has garnered plenty of attention and is already expanding capacity. Starting with 44 acres, the distillery purchased another 124 acres in 2021, adding six new fermentation tanks and six new barrel houses.

This article originally appeared online in August 2022; it was updated most recently on April 24, 2024, to include current information.

Kara Newman writes about food, drink, and travel and is the author of seven cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip., about equal-parts drinks.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR