Southern Agenda

A Toast to the Bourbon Trail

An illustration of personified objects (a bottle of bourbon and two metal stills) pouring glasses of bourbon for four people

Illustration: Tim Bower

Even before the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was established twenty-five years ago, brown-water aficionados had long flocked to the state, which produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. “Before 1999, people would show up to a distillery even if it didn’t have a visitor’s center, and whoever was available would just show them around,” says Mandy Ryan, director of experiences for the Trail. “They got so much traffic that distilleries finally decided they needed to formalize this.” What started as a choose-your-adventure route connecting seven distilleries has grown to include forty-six stops in four regions across Kentucky. Hotels, restaurants, museums, and shops followed, encouraging Bourbon Trail travelers to slow down between tours and tastings. In 2017, the distillers’ association successfully lobbied for permission to sell cocktails and food within the distilleries themselves, so now trekkers can pull up a stool at the Bar at Willett in Bardstown, for instance, and order a bourbon and mezcal sipper alongside an egg salad sandwich so good it has its own Instagram account, or stop in at Louisville’s Copper & Kings for sausage and mushroom gnocchi and a tasting flight. “The Trail is designed now for people to stay all day and relax,” Ryan says. “There are cocktail classes and experiences: You can thieve straight out of a barrel, bottle your own bourbon, see the barrels being charred.” Soon, the Trail’s newly revamped website will allow visitors to create their own itineraries. Ryan’s advice: “Book ahead. Derby 150 is this year, too. It’s a big year for Kentucky.”