Bourbon is booming right now and so is tourism in Kentucky. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a collection of eighteen 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.
But there is more to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail than just distillery tours and bourbon tastings. It’s a step back in time where you learn about the history of Kentucky. You will drive through scenic bluegrass Kentucky, with horse farms as far as the eye can see. Spend the night in a historic tavern, enjoy the nightlife in Louisville, or visit the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. Whether you have two days or a week, there is plenty here to keep you busy.
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.
Table of Contents
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 eighteen 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).
List of Distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
- Bulleit Distilling Company
- Evan Williams
- Four Roses Bourbon
- Heaven Hill
- Jim Beam
- Maker’s Mark
- Town Branch
- Wild Turkey Bourbon
- Woodford Reserve
- Angel’s Envy
- Stitzel-Weller Distillery
- Rabbit Hole
- Michter’s Distillery
- Old Forester
- Lux Row
- Bardstown Bourbon
- Green River, formerly O. Z. Tyler
- Wilderness Trail Distillery
These distilleries are located within 110 miles of Louisville, mostly clustered between Louisville and Lexington. To read about all eighteen 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 of the distilleries are listed inside, with space for your own notes and a stamp from each distillery. If you collect stamps from each distillery you can redeem your passport for a Kentucky Bourbon Trail tasting glass.
How Much Time Do You Need?
To take a tour at all eighteen distilleries you will need a minimum of five days, but six to seven days is ideal. 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.
We have visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail twice. Spread out over two separate trips, it took us seven days to visit seventeen distilleries (one more distillery has been added since our visit in November 2019), 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 four general areas. There are six distilleries in Louisville (seven if you count the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse), five located in and around Lexington, one in Danville, five in and around Bardstown, and one in Owensboro.
If you are doing this over a long weekend, plan on spending one day in each area. In one day, it is possible to do three to four tours and/or tastings.
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, adding on a visit to Bulleit in Shelbyville, or lunch or dinner in Lexington.
On day two, visit the distilleries located south of Louisville: Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Bardstown Bourbon, and Lux Row. And we highly recommend lunch at the Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown. It is 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 Stitzel-Weller, Old Forester, Michter’s, Rabbit Hole, Angel’s Envy, and/or Evan Williams. For more great things to do in Louisville, read our post 12 Best Things to do in Louisville.
With more time, you can make the drive out to Owensboro and visit Green River Distilling Company or drive to Danville and visit Wilderness Trail.
For more suggestions on how to plan your time, don’t miss our Kentucky Bourbon Trail itinerary planner. Get suggestions on how to plan your trip, whether you just have a few days, a long weekend, or an entire week.
Our List of Top Experiences
If you are short on time, or have no desire to visit all eighteen distilleries, here is a short list of the top experiences to have on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Evans William Experience in Louisville. This is a great place to start your visit to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Travel back in time to 1783, to the very early days of Louisville, where you will learn about the early history of bourbon and this area of Kentucky. This tour does the best job explaining the history of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Old Forester Discovery Tour. If you want to see the entire bourbon distilling process from start to finish, including the making of the barrels and the bottling of the final product, take the Old Forester Discovery Tour.
Take a Mixology Class. Several distilleries now offer cocktail or mixology classes. These last one to two hours and cost more than your typical tour, but you get a hands-on lesson on how to mix a craft cocktail. We took the Shaken & Stirred class at Bardstown Bourbon and it was our favorite experience on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Take a Tour of Makers Mark. This was our all-around best tour experience. The historic grounds are beautiful to visit, the history behind Makers Mark is intriguing, and at the end of the tour you get to hand dip a bottle in red wax.
Take a specialized tour of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. All standard one-hour tours are roughly the same…a tour of the facility ending with a tasting. But many distilleries offer “special tours.” The Angel’s Envy tour features a tasting of their Rye whiskey straight from the barrel. Old Forester offers a tour with the president of the company (a few times per year). And many distilleries offer longer, behind the scenes tours for a more detailed look at the distilling process.
Visit Your Favorite Distillery. If you are a bourbon drinker and have a favorite distillery that’s on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, make sure you include it on your tour of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
For more information on these tours and experience, read our article about the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
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.
Mint Julep is the most popular tour company in Kentucky that offers tours to the distilleries. We saw their vans everywhere!
Best Time to Visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
The distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are open year round.
Bourbon is distilled year-round, with the exception of a few weeks during the summer, when some distilleries shut down for routine cleaning and maintenance.
The busiest time to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is from August through mid-November. During this time, most tours will be full and many will sell out in advance. If you have plans to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail during this time, make sure you make your reservations in advance.
The worst time to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, according to the guides that we spoke to, is during the summer months. It’s hot, it’s crowded, and during the summer months, most distilleries take a break from distilling, anywhere from a week or two or longer. You can still tour the distillery, but you might not get to see the fermentation and distilling process.
Spring is a nice time to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The weather is pleasant and bourbon is in full production.
If you want to tour the distilleries without the crowds, visit Kentucky from the end of November through March.
Both times we visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, it was the weekend before Thanksgiving. It was delightfully quiet, with small tour groups. It can be chilly, but most of the time we were indoors, so weather wasn’t much of a factor.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: Most distilleries do not offer tours seven days a week. Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays are the days that distilleries are most likely to close their doors to tour groups, but this varies from distillery to distillery. Make sure you check the hours of the distilleries you want to visit before your trip. 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 recommend staying in Louisville. It has a relatively central location, so it’s easy to get to Bardstown, Lexington, and even Owensboro. Plus, there is a high concentration of distilleries located right in town, not to mention lots of great restaurants and hotels to choose from.
Here are four highly rated hotels in Louisville.
LUXURY: The Brown Hotel. This is Louisville’s landmark hotel. It has received accolades from Conde Nast Traveler, Southern Living, and Travel & Leisure. In 2008, it was Historic Hotels of America’s top pick. If you want to stay in a historical, luxurious hotel in Louisville, your hotel search can end right here. Even if you don’t plan on staying here, a drink in the Lobby Bar is a must-do while in Louisville.
UPSCALE: 21c Museum Hotel. Artsy, unique, contemporary…this is another top pick in Louisville. It’s centrally located, so you can walk to many of the sights and distilleries on Whiskey Row. This hotel’s onsite restaurant, Proof on Main, is one of Louisville’s best restaurants and bars. There is even an art museum located inside of the hotel. Plus, it’s easy to find. Just look for the giant, golden David statue out front and you know that you are in the right place.
MIDRANGE: Homewood Suites. If you want a hotel with an awesome location and one that gets great reviews, the Homewood Suites is one to consider. It’s located right around the corner from 21c Museum Hotel, so you can walk to many sights in downtown Louisville. Tim and I stayed here on our most recent visit to Louisville and we had a very nice experience here.
BUDGET: Holiday Inn Express and Suites Downtown Louisville. This hotel also gets great reviews and has an excellent location. If you are looking for a highly rated hotel and don’t want to spend a lot of money, this is a great option. Tim and I stayed here on our first visit to Louisville in 2016.
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? If you have plans to tour the Kentucky Bourbon Trail between April and early November, make your reservations several months in advance. This is the busiest time on the trail and tours can sell out. All other times of year, I still recommend making a reservation, but you you can do it several weeks in advance, since the trail is less busy at this time. On our most recent tour in November 2019, we booked all of our tours in advance but only one of them was sold out (the Inside the Barrel Tour at Angel’s Envy).
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 $25 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 eighteen distilleries, the Best Distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
If you have any questions about how to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information for Your Trip to Kentucky
KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL: Pick out which distilleries to visit in our article Best Distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. For information on how to plan your visit, don’t miss our Kentucky Bourbon Trail Itinerary.
MAMMOTH CAVE: Mammoth Cave is a national park in Kentucky and it makes a great day trip from Louisville and Nashville.
If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Travel Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.
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