Bourbon is a uniquely American liquor. It is intimately linked with the state of Kentucky, where all bourbon is crafted. To try to help people appreciate the incredible variety of bourbon, but also get a sense of the place that makes bourbon so special, a number of distillers came together to create the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which is more of a taste odyssey than a physical tour.
History of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail was founded in 1999, and it included 7 of the 8 recognized distilleries in the region at the time.
The official Kentucky Bourbon Trail has had its membership change over the years, but the biggest change came in 2012. At that time, the primary Kentucky Bourbon Trail was expanded to recognize the growing influence of craft distilleries in the region. A second “Craft Tour” was added, featuring seven artisan distilleries.
The tour has been very successful in helping to promote bourbon tourism. Over the last five years, nearly 2.5 million people from all 50 states and 25 foreign countries have visited member distilleries.
The Primary Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Currently, there are ten destinations on the primary Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Located in Louisville, Angel’s Envy is bourbon aged in port wine barrels. It has a distinct flavor that comes from breaking with the tradition of using newly charred oak barrels. However, in every other respect it meets the definition of Bourbon.
Bulleit Bourbon is produced by the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, which opened in 1935, but it traces its lineage back to the whiskey pioneered by August Bulleit over 150 years ago. This is a high rye bourbon, which gives it a distinctively spicy character.
Evan Williams Bourbon
Evan Williams claims the label of Kentucky’s 1st Distiller. Williams crafted corn-based whiskey commercially, starting in 1783. However, the modern distiller doesn’t exactly link back to the historical personage, something they carefully elide in their historical sections. Although the bourbon is made in Heaven Hill, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is located in Louisville.
The Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg was built in 1910, and, out of keeping with most of the other distillers, features a distinctive Spanish Mission-style architecture. It features roses on the label and on the distillery grounds. Although there may be only four roses on the label, the distiller actually creates 10 different recipes, sometimes bottling them individually and other times blending them for a distinctive flavor profile.
Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center
Located in Heaven Hill, this is a bit of a cheat, because it’s the distiller that makes Evan Williams, but they also feature several other bourbon brands, such as Elijah Craig, Fighting Cock, Henry McKenna, Larceny, and Old Fitzgerald.
The Jim Beam family claims more than 200 years of history making bourbon, which they now do in Clermont. Jim Beam proudly promotes the fact that their family standard means that they age the bourbon twice as long as the law requires—4 years—to make a mellower, smoother bourbon.
Maker’s Mark in Loretto ages their bourbon to taste, not based on the calendar. Maker’s Mark is a high wheat bourbon, which helps to make it a sweeter whiskey. It’s aged in cypress fermentation tanks, and some of the planks still in use are more than 200 years old.
Located in Lexington, Town Branch is a relatively new bourbon distiller, but they have grown in popularity in recent years because of the quality of the product, and they joined the main Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 2012. The bourbon features woody aromas with hints of caramel, toffee, and cherry.
Wild turkey in Lawrenceburg is one of the bestselling bourbons in the US, and it claims to stick closely to a pre-prohibition standard of bourbon making. The distiller claims the distinction of the world’s longest-tenured active master distiller, with more than 75 years in the business.
Located in Versailles, this claims to be “oldest and smallest distillery in Kentucky,” saying it can trace its history back to 1797. (Wait, doesn’t Jim Beam claim to be from 1795? It’s best not to look too closely at these claims.) This handcrafted bourbon claims that the distinction of a copper pot still and triple distillation process. Makes them unique.
The Craft Tour
Just as with beers, the distilling business has changed dramatically in recent years. There are now many more small distilleries producing a wide variety of bourbons that have very distinct flavors. To recognize the artisanal craft distillers, the Kentucky Bourbon tour added a Craft Tour that helps people discover their new favorite bourbons. The current membership of the craft tour is:
- New Riff Distillery in Newport
- Boone County Distilling Co. in Boone County
- Old Pogue Distillery in Maysville
- Hartfield & Co. Distillery in Paris
- Barrel House Distilling Co. in Lexington
- Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville
- Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon
- Willett Distillery in Bardstown
- Kentucky Artisan Distillery in Louisville
- Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co in Louisville
- Corsair Distillery in Bowling Green
- MB Roland Distillery in Pembroke
Where many of the larger distilleries often claim long histories and talk about their allegiance to tradition, these craft distilleries readily admit that they’re new. And they may even focus on putting a completely different spin on bourbon, although there are some traditionalists, too.
Can’t Make It to Kentucky?
Not everyone can take the time to travel to Kentucky to visit the 10 distilleries in the primary tour and the 12 in the craft tour. But that doesn’t mean you can’t experience the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. You can start your journey at Applejack, where we’ll direct you on your first steps to explore the amazing diversity that is bourbon.