Bourbon appreciation can be as simple as savoring a porch-time pour at the end of a long day. But if you’re looking for a deeper dive, the bourbon boom in recent years has led to new experiences that offer an immersion in America’s native spirit, from the care and skill that goes into its production to its role in key historical moments to its colorful cast of characters, past and present. Kentucky, which produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, is of course a natural destination to soak in knowledge. And while a traditional distillery tour is a fine place to start, here are five ways to elevate a Bluegrass State bourbon excursion.
Tour with a Master Distiller
Who better to take guests behind the scenes and answer all your technical questions than the expert in charge of distillation and development? Woodford Reserve Distillery offers a two-hour VIP experience with master distiller Chris Morris or assistant master distiller Elizabeth McCall that takes small groups on an in-depth tour and ends with a guided tasting. Guests also receive a limited-edition bottle to take home.
Fred and Freddie Noe, the father-and-son master distillers at the James B. Beam Distilling Co., will also meet one-on-one with small groups. The four-hour “Behind the Beam” experience includes a VIP tour, followed by a guided tasting and lunch with Fred and Freddie at the distillery’s new Kitchen Table restaurant, where there’s plenty of time to share stories from the family’s 227-year history in bourbon.
And on Bardstown Bourbon Company’s “Tour with the Master” experience, Hall of Fame master distiller Steve Nally shares insights and stories from his five-decade career in the industry, including a tasting of Nally’s favorite recipes. Book early, however, as all the above experiences have limited availability.
Bottle Your Own
Opportunities to get hands-on with bourbon—and leave with a personalized keepsake—are increasingly offered at Kentucky distilleries. Angel’s Envy in downtown Louisville debuted a “Bottle Your Own” experience as part of its recent $8.2 million expansion. It includes a tasting for up to six guests of single barrels of Angel’s Envy selected specifically for the experience, followed by an opportunity to fill, label, and seal a cask-strength bottle. The Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience in Bardstown, also part of a recent multi-million-dollar expansion, features an interactive “You Do Bourbon” offering. Participants taste through various barrel-proof bourbons—including Elijah Craig and Larceny—and can then fill and label a personalized bottle with their favorite.
Ride the Bourbon Train
My Old Kentucky Dinner Train has rolled through the Bluegrass since 1988. More recently, the railway added a “Bourbon Excursion” that pairs a guided tasting with a four-course meal prepared by onboard chefs. The bourbon rides are offered once or twice monthly, with guests boarding one of two restored 1940s-era dining cars at the depot in Bardstown for a leisurely thirty-two-mile roundtrip that passes through the James B. Beam Distilling Co.’s campus and across a historic trestle in the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. If the included pours aren’t enough, the train’s bar also stocks more than thirty-five bourbons.
Sleep in a Bourbon Landmark
Located just outside Bardstown, the Samuels House holds deep significance for the founding family of Maker’s Mark Distillery. The Georgian-style residence was built in 1820 by John Samuels, who operated a small farmstead distillery. In 1844, nephew T.W. Samuels built the family’s first commercial distillery within walking distance of the home. “Our family’s legacy of 240 years of whiskey-making in Kentucky started right here in what would become Samuels, Kentucky,” says Maker’s Mark COO Rob Samuels. “We thought it would be fun to bring out our most interesting artifacts, add some modern comforts, and swing open the doors to folks drawn to Kentucky culture and bourbon culture.”
Newly renovated and opened to guests in 2021, the three-bedroom, 3,500-square-foot home retains its historic charm while incorporating amenities such as a media room, indoor and outdoor dining areas, and a stocked chef’s kitchen with a whiskey ice maker. Artwork and artifacts from the family’s eight-generation collection adorn the home, including an array of rare bottles and the deep fryer Margie Samuels used to create the brand’s signature dripping red-wax seal. Guests can also add on a private dinner prepared by chef Newman Miller, VIP day or evening tours of the Maker’s Mark distillery, or one-on-one time with chairman emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr.
Go All Out
Mint Julep Tours proves the sky’s the limit with its “Roll Out the Barrel” vacation package. The all-inclusive experience includes two nights of luxury accommodations in either Louisville or Nashville for up to four guests, with chauffeured transportation. Start with a customized tour of local distilleries. The next day, a helicopter whisks your group to either Maker’s Mark Distillery in Kentucky or Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Tennessee for a private tour and lunch, followed by a barrel selection yielding about 200 bottles. Taste several choice barrels of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and choose your favorite, or at Maker’s Mark, select a combination of oak staves to finish a barrel of Maker’s Mark Private Selection. The distilleries will then arrange to ship the bottles to a local retailer for pick up.