Let’s take a moment to raise a glass to Kentucky. In addition to bestowing upon us some of the finest bourbon in all the land (and 95 percent of the world’s supply, at that), the Bluegrass State is also home to one of the best reasons to stir up a mint julep — the Kentucky Derby. With the annual gathering at Churchill Downs just days away, there’s no better time to become a bona fide bourbon expert — and there’s no better place to do just that than the famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Join us as we sip, smell and taste our way through the trail’s barrel-aged bounty.
What to Know
Fourteen bourbon distilleries dot the state of Kentucky — seven larger ones that make up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve) and seven micro-distilleries that make up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour (Barrel House, Old Pogue, Corsair Artisan, Limestone Branch, MB Roland, Silver Trail and Willett). While the micro-distilleries are scattered across the state, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries are mostly clustered around Lexington and in the rural areas just south and west of the city, reaching almost to Louisville.
There’s no set route for sipping Kentucky bourbon, but it typically takes three days to visit all seven Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries—some are as close as 8 miles apart, and others as far away as 70. Fortunately, Kentucky gives way to a scenic drive, particularly in the springtime—rolling hills, rich green grass, colorful wildflowers, white fences and horse-filled pastures. In fact, one of the better ways to tour the distilleries in the spring may be by bicycle—the Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s suggested bike routes wind experienced cyclists along lovely, little-known country roads (Kentucky’s best-kept secret, if you ask us) and through quiet central Kentucky towns such as Danville, home of quaint Centre College, and Harrodsburg.
What to Do
Naturally, you’re here for the bourbon—a whiskey that distinguishes itself (among other ways) by being made from a mash that’s at least 51 percent corn and stored in new, charred oak barrels. Each of the distilleries offers educational tours and tastings, some of which are complimentary and some costing around $7.
Woodford Reserve Distillery, for example, a particularly lovely stone distillery in Versailles, Ky., provides three in-depth tours—one focusing on the long history of the distillery, one on the history of bourbon, and another on the mechanical and chemical processes involved in bourbon making. Before or after your tour, enjoy a Kentucky country ham sandwich at the distillery’s lunch spot, Picnic on the Porch, which offers a seasonal menu. The charming Spanish Mission-style Four Roses Distillery was built in 1910 on the banks of the Salt River near Lawrenceburg, and gives tours between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 12 to 3 p.m. on Sunday. For a taste of craft bourbon (Johnny Drum, Willett Bourbon Whiskey, Old Bardstown), visit the Willett Distillery in nearby Bardstown. And, of course, you’ll want to pop in for a $7 tour and tasting of top shelf Kentucky bourbon, Maker’s Mark, at its distillery in Loretto.
While you’re in the Lexington area, you might as well squeeze in a visit to Keeneland horse track for a guided tour, or—in April—for one of the Stakes Races (and, of course, a mint julep at Friday happy hour at the Mezzanine Bar). Or, go horseback riding along the picturesque grounds at Kentucky Horse Park, which also hosts the popular Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event equine competition at the end of April.
Where to Stay
Lexington and Louisville both feature plush hotel accommodations, while the oh-so quiet towns of central Kentucky offer quaint country inns and rustic cooking. Experience a little of both as you tour the state.
Lexington: After tasting bourbon at Town Branch Distillery and craft distillery Barrel House Distilling Co., check in to downtown Lexington’s Gratz Park Inn, housed in a building dating back to the late 1700s. The boutique hotel offers 33 rooms and eight suites, each uniquely decorated with antique reproduction furnishings, four-poster beds and regional art.
Versailles: Convenient to the historic Woodford Reserve Distillery, The Woodford Inn is a Dutch Colonial Revival-style bed and breakfast surrounded by picturesque Thoroughbred horse farms. You can even sample your first hot brown sandwich (turkey, bacon, country ham and Mornay sauce) at Addie’s at The Woodford Inn.
Harrodsburg: Book a room at The Beaumont Inn, a bed and breakfast convenient to the Wild Turkey and Four Roses distilleries. This family-owned inn offers 31 guest rooms housed in four historic buildings graced with stately columns.
Bardstown: The Old Talbott Tavern, near Maker’s Mark, Willett and Heaven Hill distilleries, boasts just five guest rooms, and the 1700s structure and antique furnishings are sure to take you back in time. Sample the chess pie (a Kentucky favorite) at The Talbott Tavern, which is touted as the world’s oldest bourbon bar.
Louisville: After you visit the Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont, stay the night in Louisville at 21c Museum Hotel, a downtown boutique hotel combining luxe accommodations with a contemporary art museum. Or, for a more historic Louisville experience, check in to The Brown Hotel, a Georgian Revival-style structure with a grand marble lobby and 293 luxurious guest rooms. Be sure to try the hot brown—the famed open-face sandwich was named for the hotel.
Photos Courtesy of Kentucky Distillers Association