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 charred new American 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 (they have literally trademarked the phrase), and it includes 18 distilleries, as well as 23 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.
Where to start
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 a few hours east toward Lexington, perhaps visiting Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and Woodford Reserve, then return 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.
Yet quite a few are located further 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—but it’s only about 100 miles from Louisville.)
For people who want to visit all 18 distilleries, the KBT recommends at least five 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 six days 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.
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:
- Angel’s Envy
- Bardstown Bourbon
- Evan Williams
- Four Roses Distillery; Four Roses Warehouse & Bottling (two different locations)
- Green River
- Heaven Hill
- James B. Beam
- Lux Row
- Maker’s Mark
- Old Forester
- Rabbit Hole
- Town Branch
- Wild Turkey
- Wilderness Trail
- Woodford Reserve
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 (around $20, usually, but that can range much higher when special bottlings, cocktails, etc. are involved). Often those guided tours come with special behind-the-scenes views and tastings. Most run about 60 to 90 minutes and land in the gift shop, which is usually available without taking a tour.
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.
Start in Louisville
Louisville is ideal as 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,” including Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery (and its top-notch bar), Old Forester Distilling (keep an eye out for special whiskey drops here, such as the annual Birthday Bourbon), 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 designed 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: Kentucky Peerless Distilling 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 waterfront views.
When the distilleries close, continue bourbon tasting at Louisville bars like the Silver Dollar, a honky-tonk-themed bar owned by Larry Rice; Justins’ House of Bourbon (it’s a bottle shop too—ask about the hidden whiskey tasting room, behind a wall of bourbons); or the 1920s-inspired Neat Bourbon Bar & Bottle Shop.
Where to stay in Louisville
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 (check out the city skyline 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.
From Louisville, it’s about a 40-minute dive 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 May, the distillery cut the ribbon on a new $45 million “homestead experience.” The relaunch of the distillery and visitor center had been planned for 2020—Beam’s 225th anniversary year—but the pandemic set that back to spring 2022. 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.
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 there’s a new $135 million distillery planned for the site, coming in 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 Bardtown Bourbon Company (the latter focuses on elaborate bourbon blends).
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.
Book Now: The Samuels House
Add on a tour of Independent Stave Company 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.)
From Louisville, it’s also about an hour east to Frankfort, home of Buffalo Trace. The already-sprawling facility is currently expanding (they’ve even turned it into the subject of a complimentary “expansion tour”). For now, enjoy a stroll through the botanical “bourbon gardens” and plan to return in 2023, when the new dining and tourism destination is unveiled. 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.
About an hour south of Lexington, the picturesque Wilderness Trail Distillery is in the heart of Bluegrass territory. The distillery is a relative newcomer, having opened in 2013 and releasing its first bourbon in 2018. Yet 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. No wonder the distillery recently was switched from “craft distillery” to “distillery” by the KBT, the whiskey equivalent of moving up from the minor to the major leagues.