Bourbon is booming right now and so is tourism in Kentucky. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a collection of ten bourbon distilleries, is drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Touring the distilleries, learning about the origins of bourbon, and tasting lots and lots of bourbon whiskey is an excellent way to spend a long weekend.
In this post, we cover everything you need to know to have the best experience on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Learn how to plan your bourbon tasting itinerary, when to go, where to stay, and even ideas for things to do off of the bourbon trail. This is your Ultimate Guide to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Guide to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (KBT)
- What is Bourbon?
- What is the KBT?
- Distilleries on the KBT
- The KBT Passport
- How much time do you need?
- Planning your itinerary
- What is it like to take a tour?
- What about drinking and driving?
- Self-drive or join a tour?
- Best time to visit the KBT
- Where to stay
- Buffalo Trace Distillery
- Things to do off of the KBT
- KBT Craft Tour
- Tips, tricks, and advice for the best experience
- Important Links
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is an American whiskey distilled mostly from corn. The distilling of bourbon began in Kentucky in the 1700’s in Bourbon County. Bourbon can be brewed anywhere in the United States, although 95% of bourbon is currently distilled in Kentucky.
All bourbons are whiskey but not all whiskeys are bourbon. There are five rules that distinguish bourbon from all other whiskeys. These five rules are:
- It must be made in the United States.
- Aging must take place in a new, charred oak barrel.
- It must be distilled from at least 51% corn.
- The whiskey cannot be distilled higher than 160 proof, enter the barrel higher than 125 proof, and it must not enter the bottle less than 80 proof.
- Nothing can be added to the whiskey other than water.
Bourbon contains at least 51% corn with different proportions of wheat, malted barley, or rye. This grain mixture is referred to as the mash bill. What distinguishes one bourbon from another is the mash bill, the strain of yeast used by each distillery (some strains dating back decades), and how long the whiskey ages in the oak barrels.
What is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a collection of bourbon whiskey distilleries located in Kentucky. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail began in 1999 as a way to bring tourism to Kentucky. Touring the Bourbon Trail gives visitors an up-close look at how bourbon is distilled, the history behind the crafting of bourbon, and the art behind the perfect bourbon tasting.
Currently, there are ten bourbon labels that are a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Each of these bourbon distilleries must be a member of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, which requires paying a fee. There are many more distilleries you can visit in Kentucky that are not part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. One of these is the very famous Buffalo Trace (skip ahead to Buffalo Trace).
Distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
- Bulleit Fronteir Whiskey
- Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
- Four Roses Bourbon
- Heaven Hill Distilleries, Bourbon Heritage Center
- Jim Beam
- Maker’s Mark
- Town Branch Bourbon
- Wild Turkey Bourbon
- Woodford Reserve
- Angel’s Envy
These distilleries are located within 80 miles of Louisville, mostly clustered between Louisville and Lexington. To read about all ten distilleries, check out our post about the best distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport
At your first distillery, pick up a Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport. All ten distilleries are listed inside, with space for your own notes and a stamp from each distillery. If you collect all ten stamps you can redeem your passport for a Kentucky Bourbon Trail T-shirt. What’s not to love? You get to sip bourbon at nine different distilleries and then get a T-shirt to proudly show off your accomplishment!
How Much Time Do You Need?
To take a tour at all ten distilleries we recommend three days. Tours last approximately one hour, ending with a tasting. With driving times averaging about twenty minutes between distilleries, most people can fit in three tours per day (in some distilleries, tours are only offered on the hour).
You do not have to take a tour at each distillery. Many places offer tastings without a tour. During these tastings, you still get to learn about the history of the distillery and what sets it apart from the others. Many of these distilleries are historic and their story is fascinating.
If you are really short on time, you can simply visit the gift shop, get your passport stamped, and do a little shopping. Each distillery has a gift shop selling bourbon and related souvenirs.
For most people, a combination of tours and tastings is the perfect way to sample the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
It took us two and half days to visit nine distilleries (Angel’s Envy was added to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail after our visit to Kentucky), doing a combination of tours and tastings. Honestly, the tours do get repetitive, as they all take you through the distillation process. Plus, there is more to see and do in this part of Kentucky, with scenic drives, great towns to visit, and restaurants to try.
Planning Your Itinerary
The distilleries are grouped together in three general areas. There are two distilleries in Louisville, four located in and around Lexington, and three south of Louisville.
Spend one day visiting the four distilleries near Lexington: Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, and Town Branch. In order to see all four, you should be at the first distillery at opening time. We started at Wild Turkey and were the only ones on their 9 am tour. While you are in the area, consider a tour at Buffalo Trace or lunch or dinner in Lexington. We ate at City Barbecue in Lexington, a chain restaurant, but the food was outstanding!
On day two, visit the three distilleries located south of Louisville: Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Heaven Hill. And we highly recommend lunch at the Old Talbott Tavern in Barnstown; said to be the oldest western stagecoach stop in America and to be visited by Jesse James ghost. While you are in the area, consider a visit to the Kentucky Cooperage, where the barrels are made for the storing and aging of bourbon. Also in the area is the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln.
Finally, day three can be spent in Louisville, visiting Bulleit Frontier Whiskey, Angel’s Envy, and the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. For more great things to do in Louisville, read our post 12 Best Things to do in Louisville.
If you only have two days, combine days two and three listed above, taking a tour at Maker’s Mark and one other distillery of your choice, and then do several tastings.
What is it like to take a tour?
On the distillery tour at Maker’s Mark.
Be prepared for an experience for all five senses. As soon as you step out of your car, you can smell the grains cooking, the first part of the distillation process. It smells like you are at a bakery, only they are baking slightly sour bread. It smells wonderful and it kind of made me hungry!
During the tour, which usually lasts about one hour, your guide leads you through the property, teaching you about the distillation process and the history of the distillery. They like to talk about their mash bill and their yeast strains that they use. More than one distillery tour taught us that the strain of yeast they use is one of the most important factors in how their final product tastes. Some of these yeast strains have been used for decades at each distillery.
One of our favorite parts of the tour was a visit to the rickhouse. The rickhouse is where the barrels are stored. It smells so good in here!! Bourbon has a wonderful aroma and the rickhouse is the best place to smell it. During the aging process, a small percentage of the bourbon evaporates per year, what is referred to as the “angel’s share.” If you want to take home this aroma, many gift shops sell bourbon-scented candles.
These are the rickhouses at Heaven Hill. You know you are at a distillery when you see these prison-style buildings. But inside are stacks and stacks of bourbon filled barrels, slowly maturing and filling the air with a wonderful aroma.
The grand finale of the tour is the bourbon tasting. Most distilleries give you a few, tiny sips of several of their bourbons, just enough to get a good taste, and not so much that you will walk around schnockered for the rest of the day.
But What About Drinking and Driving?
All distilleries are legally limited to how much bourbon you can drink while on a tour. We felt that it was just enough to give us a taste but not so much that it impaired Tim’s driving. The tastings do get spread out over the day, but they are also right before you hop in the car to get to the next distillery, so know your limits. If you have concerns then consider alternating driving/tastings with another person in your party, have a designated driver, or take a tour.
Self-Drive or Take a Tour?
To tour the Kentucky Bourbon Trail you have two options: self-drive the bourbon trail or join a tour group. How you do it is completely up to you.
We chose the self-driving option. Renting a car was cheap, driving between the distilleries was easy (and gorgeous), and we could make our own schedule. Being on our own, we could choose which distilleries to tour and which ones to just do a tasting. Plus, being on your own gives you the flexibility to visit other sights along the way, such as a nice lunch in Bardstown or a scenic drive through horse country.
On the other hand, you may want to sit back, enjoy the ride, and join a tour. This takes the headache out of planning a day of distillery tours, perfect for some people.
There are two main companies offering tours. Here are links to their websites. Since we did not take a tour, we cannot comment on the quality of what they offer. But Mint Julep is rather popular; we saw their vans everywhere!
Best Time to Visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
The distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are open year round. The busiest time to visit the Bourbon Trail, according to several distillery guides, is the summertime. Interestingly, they said that this is the worst time to tour the Bourbon Trail, since it is hot, crowded, and whiskey isn’t being distilled at all of the distilleries. Only distilleries with active temperature control distill during the hot summer months. The distilleries not distilling during the summer will still offer tours and tastings, you just will not see the distilling process in action at those distilleries.
The best time to visit is in the fall and spring months. During these times, bourbon is in full production and the weather is pleasant. We toured the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in November and had a wonderful experience. It is awesome to be able to smell and taste the sour mash and see the distilleries in full production mode.
Each distillery has different operating hours so you should visit each distillery website for more information. We give links to all of the distilleries in our Kentucky Bourbon Trail distillery post.
Where to Stay
Most people stay in Louisville, Lexington, or Bardstown. All three of these cities have great hotel and restaurant options with easy access to the Bourbon Trail.
We stayed in Louisville because it had lots of other non-bourbon activities we wanted to explore. Read about the 12 best things to do in Louisville here.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
Buffalo Trace, located in Frankfort, is one of the most famous bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. Surprisingly, it is not part of the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Why not? Rather than paying the fee to join the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, they prefer to offer free tours and tastings to their visitors.
Buffalo Trace has a long and fascinating history. Buffalo Trace is the oldest continuously operating distillery in America. They were one of only three bourbon distilleries that were allowed to operate during Prohibition, producing “medicinal” bourbon.
They offer a comprehensive tour of their facility, including a look into how their bourbon is bottled.
A visit to Buffalo Trace is definitely worthwhile when you are in the area, even if it is not officially on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Many people state that the Buffalo Trace tour is their favorite in Kentucky.
And you definitely should try the Bourbon Cream. Trust me!!!
Getting Off the Bourbon Trail
If you want to do some “non-Bourbon” activities while road tripping around Kentucky, here are some ideas for you.
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace
Abraham Lincoln was born in a one room log cabin in Hodgenville, Kentucky in 1809. A memorial now stands at his birthplace. Inside of the memorial is a symbolic log cabin, a historic replica of the one that Abraham Lincoln first lived in. It is not the actual log cabin of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace.
The memorial is free to visit. It is open daily except for major holidays. Allow about 30 to 45 minutes for a visit here. From Bardstown it is a 45 minute drive. Since it is located off of the Bourbon Trail and does not have the actual log cabin that Abraham Lincoln was born in, this is only worth it if you have an interest in American history or Abraham Lincoln.
Old Talbott Tavern
Located in Bardstown, the Old Talbott Tavern dates back to the 1700’s. There is a lot of history here. It is said to be the oldest western stagecoach stop in America and legend has it that Jesse James left behind bullet holes in the tavern. Andrew Jackson and King Louis Phillippe both stayed here. This is a great spot for lunch or dinner while touring the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. They also operate a bed and breakfast.
Also known as the Independent Stave Company, this is where the barrels are constructed for many of the bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. Tours are offered Monday through Friday; they do not offer tours on weekends. Scheduling a reservation is highly recommended. Visit their website here.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour
Similar to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the Craft Tour takes bourbon touring and tasting to the next level. Dive deeper into the history behind bourbon distilling. On this tour you visit micro-distilleries, tour historic sights and towns in Kentucky, and stay in historic bed and breakfast accommodations. It takes five days to complete this tour. For more information, visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail website.
Tips, Tricks, and Advice for Touring the Bourbon Trail
Do you need a reservation? Most tours are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis but it is a good idea to be prepared. We knew we wanted to take the Makers Mark tour so we booked our tickets online in advance. Jim Beam’s website states that a reservation is required for their 90 minute tour at least 2 days before your visit; but reservations for their 45 minute Bourbon 101 Tour are not accepted. Think about the tours you want to take and check the distillery’s website to see if you can make an advance reservation. If you are traveling in a group of ten people or more then it is strongly recommended that you contact the distillery in advance.
Is there a fee to visit the distilleries? Yes, all of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries charge a fee for a tour or a tasting. During our visit this ranged from $5 to $15 per person depending on the distillery and the type of tour you choose to take. Specialty tours cost more. Visit the distillery’s website for up-to-date pricing.
Are children allowed on the tours? Yes! Children are allowed on the tours and generally pay a reduced tour fee or can tour for free, depending on the distillery. However, people under the age of 21 are not permitted to do a tasting (of course!) and cannot participate in the Passport program.
Do you have to be a bourbon drinker to have a good time on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail? Nope. Prior to touring the Bourbon Trail, Tim and I were not whiskey drinkers. We are wine drinkers. Visiting these distilleries is similar to visiting a winery. You take a tour, learn about the art and science behind the distilling of bourbon, and end with a tasting. As you tour more distilleries, you can pick out the differences between the bourbons. We both acquired a taste for bourbon on our long weekend in Kentucky. To read about our favorite bourbon distillery, read this post.
Check the hours of operation for each distillery before your visit. Some have limited to no hours on certain days and hours can change based on the season. Sundays, Mondays, and holidays are the most common days to have limited or no hours.
Bring your military ID, if you have one. Most distilleries offer free or discounted tours for military personnel.
Visit the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail website here. This is a great resource for getting an in-depth history of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail as well as additional information to help plan your trip.
And don’t miss our post about all ten distilleries, the Best Distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Post updated June 2017.