Hit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Six reasons (beyond the obvious: tastings!) to plan a high-spirited trip through the Bluegrass State

The Maker’s Mark Distillery.

Prohibition and the rise of clear spirits in the 1960s may have briefly sidelined bourbon as America’s favorite liquor, but today there’s no questioning its popularity. Not when folks are willing to shell out thousands of dollars for single bottles of Pappy, Willet, Old Fitzgerald, and the like. Kentucky’s fastest growing industry is pulling in heaps of tourists, too. In the last five years more than 2.5 million people have stamped their “passports” on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour, which was founded in 1999 by the Kentucky Distiller’s Association. There are ten marquee distilleries on the tour—Angel’s Envy, Bulleit, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve—but no set path. Located anywhere between eight and seventy miles apart, most are clustered between Louisville and Lexington, south of I-64. You can stop off for a swig at all ten outfits—experts recommend allocating three days (and a designated driver) to tackle the full stretch—or simply choose a few favorites. Each offers tours, tastes, and a roster of special events. But that’s not the only reason to hit the trail…

1.  You can buy (and select) your own barrel.

For diehard bourbon lovers, this is the pinnacle. Warning: Reaching it will cost around $10,000. And you’ll need someone with a liquor license to make the purchase on your behalf. But those are easily resolved details for anyone determined to claim his or her very own barrel. Many of the distilleries on the trail offer private barrel selection experiences. At Woodford Reserve, for example, you’ll sit with a master distiller to choose your own batch of Distiller’s Select Personal Selection or Double Oaked Single Barrel By the Barrel. Once you’ve made your choice, your selection will be bottled—depending on the cask’s “angel’s share,” the amount of alcohol that evaporates during aging, you’ll receive between 180 and 215 bottles.

Barrels of bourbon during the aging process at Heaven Hill.

2. The Bluegrass State’s natural beauty looks even better up-close.

In partnership with the Bluegrass Cycling Club, the trail offers three routes for experienced cyclists, including single-day and overnight loops that stop off at either three or six distilleries. Winding through the scenic hilly landscape of Central Kentucky, the itineraries stick to rural, lightly trafficked roads, when possible, and you won’t pedal more than twenty miles without a restaurant, shop, or distillery offering a diversion (and restroom).

3. You can sip more than big-name brands.

Sure, you’ll want to check off the bucket-list outfits, but on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, you can discover thirteen up-and-coming bottlers and older family-run distilleries, too. Stop by Corsair Distillery in Bowling Green, where the innovative founders, Darek Bell and Andrew Webber, take a playful approach to the whiskey business—seasonal experimental releases include a 9-grain bourbon and a buckwheat version. In nearby Bardstown, visit Willet—the independent family label celebrates its eightieth anniversary this year.

4. No surprise, these folks know how to throw a party.

The annual Bourbon Affair (June 6-11, 2017) is like summer camp for grown-ups, offering ticketed VIP behind-the-scenes experiences, including small-group barrel selection (see above), private distillery dinners, speakeasies, special limited releases, and first looks. Join Tom Bulleit on a tour (June 9) of his company’s brand-new Shelbyville, Kentucky distillery, followed by lunch and cocktails. And take home a bottle of limited-edition Bulleit. Or book a seat at the table for Blade & Bow’s Field Supper at Stitzel-Weller (June 9), which includes three courses, a behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery, and a tasting. On Sunday, June 11, there’s a ladies-only Bourbon Brunch at historic Locust Grove with chef Kathy Cary of Lily’s Bistro. Careful with the punch; it’s dangerous.

Punch at the Bourbon Affair.

5. Happy hour is even happier.

If you’re making Louisville your bourbon-country base camp, build in time during the evenings to explore the Urban Bourbon Trail. Founded in 2008, the in-town trail began as a collaboration between six bars and restaurants—Proof on Main, the Old Seelbach Bar, the Brown Hotel Lobby Bar, Bourbons Bistro, the Bar at BLU, and Maker’s Mark Bourbon House & Lounge. The number of stops has since tripled. If you’re into the classics, try the Old Seelbach Bar’s eponymous signature cocktail. The pre-Prohibition sipper, served in a coupe, is a boozy, fizzy concoction of bourbon, orange liquor, bitters, and sparkling wine. The old fashioned was invented in Louisville, too, and the bartenders at Bourbons Bistro mix a standout version.

6. The food is as good as the drink.

On the Lexington side of the trail, Holly Hill Inn (chef Ouita Michel’s farm driven white-tablecloth destination housed in a nineteenth-century homestead in tiny Midway) and Wallace Station Deli (Michel’s downhome sandwich shop in Versailles, surrounded by postcard-perfect horse farms) offer plenty of pastoral charm and are easily accessible for hungry bourbon trail travelers. Michel’s newest restaurant, Honeywood, will open later this spring at the Summit at Fritz Farm in Lexington.

Photo: Caroline Allison

Holly Hill Inn.