Planning Your Visit to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
I recently connected with a friend who had yet to visit the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Here are my tips when planning a visit.
Amateurs Talk Strategy; Professionals Talk Logistics
General Omar Bradley is tagged with that famous phrase. And it rings true when planning your trip. There's a lot of ground, literally, to cover, and often with limited time to do so, as well as other constraints. Pull out a map of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour and plan your visit. Both of these have seen significant additions in the past 5 years, as bourbon's popularity has boomed, so it may not be possible to see all of your favorite distilleries on a single trip.
Remember, the KBT is a journey/marathon - not a sprint. Not being a Kentucky native, and taking in tours as opportunities allowed, it took us about four years to complete our passports (which included the Pandemic shutdowns). In addition, while there are clusters of distillers in the Louisville, Frankfort, and Bardstown areas, some of these are far off the beaten path (e.g. Maker's Mark and Jim Beam, to name a few). As a result, you might chew up a bit of time getting to and from the more remote locations.
If you are wanting to tackle a large number of visits in a limited amount of time, it might be worthwhile to check out one of the many touring services, such as Mint Julep Tours, Bourbon Trail Tours, and Bourbon Excursions, to name a few. These take care of your tour/visit logistics as well as transportation. It also might be worthwhile to have a designated driver if you're stacking up several visits in a single day.
Get Your Passport
Passports may be required for international travel, but they're not required for visiting distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. However, I still encourage you to acquire one and collect the stamps as you visit distilleries. Upon completion of your passport, you can return it to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail office for a signature gift. Remember that some of your favorite distilleries may not be a member (distilleries have to pay to be a member of the KBT). For example, Buffalo Trace is not a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail at this time.
With bourbon continuing to boom, expect hearty crowds as the weekend approaches and around major holidays. In addition, check the websites and social media sites for the distillery you'd like to visit. A number of these have limited the dates they're open for tours (it's not uncommon to only see tours Wednesday through Sunday) and the number of tours available due to labor shortages add further constraints. In addition, it's not unheard of for a rough patch of weather or a burst pipe to shutter the site to visitors, as well.
Not every distillery is open for tours. For example, while Old Forester Experience on Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville is open for tours and has a small distillation setup, the main Old Forester distillery in nearby Shively is not open to the public; the same goes for Heaven Hill's main Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, as well.
It almost goes wthout saying that tour reservations are an absolute necessity. Several years ago, when we started on our bourbon journey, few locations offered pre-purchase of tickets or reservations. Now, nearly all do, regardless of the distillery size.
If you're planning a visit to a popular distillery (such as Buffalo Trace or Woodford Reserve), many of these reservations open up on a periodic basis, such as quarterly or bimonthly. As a result, it's a little bit like purchasing concert or sporting event tickets on Opening Day. You can sign-on when the ticket window opens, periodically refresh your browser, and be willing to be flexible as to dates and times. These tickets will go quickly.
Don't despair, though. We've been the beneficiary of getting waitlisted for an exclusive tour at Buffalo Trace and received notification a couple weeks later that two spots had opened up. Also, don't overlook the opportunity of calling (and talking to a person) or stopping in at the Visitors' Center to see if tickets are available. In many instances, guests have canceled, failed to show up, or, at some venues, a number of tickets are held-back for walk-ins. This should be a second resort - not your primary strategy, though.
Typical tour fees range from $10 - $50. Lastly, don't pay for what's "free". As I mentioned earlier, Buffalo Trace is free to visit. If you're looking at a ticket-reseller, these "free" tickets may be anything but "free".
Check the Map ... errr, Website
Several of the distilleries are in remote locations, such as Maker's Mark, or at the bottom of palisades, such as Castle & Key. As a result, cell phone reception can be extremely spotty. At the bottom of the hill, not far from Castle & Key, our Maps app struggled to find a signal. Luckily, we remembered our route and were able to navigate back to Frankfort.
On our first visit to Maker's Mark a few years ago, our cell phone took us on "the scenic route". Even the Maker's Mark website suggests you don't trust your app, and instead, use the directions on the website that will keep you on major roads. In addition, using Siri or other applications may direct you to a warehouse, truck entrance, or anywhere other than where the public should enter. Always check the website for directions and the location of the Visitors' Center.
Prices and Experiences Vary
The price you pay for visits and experiences vary widely. Nearly all distilleries offer gift shops with an assortment of their themed products for purchase and you don't have to take a tour to purchase. Though if you're just dropping in to all of the distilleries to get your KBT stamp and run out, it would seem that you're missing out on each distiller's unique story.
Some tours are not tours, and are, instead, just a 15 or 20-minute guided tasting of the product. A typical tour will walk you through the production steps, including mashing, distillation, barreling, aging, and bottling. These types of tours typically last 60-75 minutes.
Still, others are intense, multi-hour "behind the scenes" tours, perhaps in intimate groups, exclusive top-shelf bourbons, or be hosted by a Master Distiller or Taster. These can be a lot of fun, but also come at a greater price point. Many still have limited hours and tour dates post-pandemic; it's not uncommon to see sites closed early in the week. Wild Turkey, to my knowledge, has not returned to facility tours and is only offering tastings at this time.
A couple of truly unique visits are worth mentioning. In downtown Louisville, the Evan Williams Experience offers two venues - one, a Disney-world-like tour of what distilling looks like (none is done at this downtown location), and a second - in the basement - a speakeasy experience. We attended the latter, and it was wonderful. Visitors descend a dark staircase to the basement where they see a large safe door. With the right taps and knocks, a peephole opens up, and with the correct password, we're in a 1920s speakeasy bar enjoying signature whiskeys and cocktails.
Are Children Welcome?
Most tours do allow children, though they will need to show that they are over age 21 to partake in any tastings. Some offer candy (e.g. bourbon balls) with the tasting or sodas for younger visitors. Still, a six-year-old might not appreciate a long lecture on the history of bourbon or distilling. Be mindful that your party will likely be walking through production areas with hot liquids and plenty of spots for falls, so include that in your decision to include children in the experience.
Dress the Part
I've shared that you will be going through production areas. The mashing process uses scalding water to clean vats and the cooking process emits plenty of heat in addition to the distillation process which sends the cooked mash to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in the winter, temperatures will be warm inside these areas.
On the other hand, when it comes time to visit the rickhouse, especially lower floors, temperatures can be cool. On a recent trip to Bardstown Bourbon Company for a whiskey-thieving experience, we spent an hour in the rickhouse sampling a variety of whiskeys. While the outside temperature was sunny and in the upper 60s, it was quite cool out of the sun and wind partaking in some delicious drams. Wearing a lighter coat during cold months or a similar sweater or jacket when temperatures are sweltering might keep you comfortable.
Lastly, it goes without saying to wear proper footwear. There may be quite a bit of walking to be done, and there may be stairs, open flooring, and the like. Some tours may also indicate that they are non-ADA accessible, so if this is a concern for anyone in your party, contact the Visitors' Center for additional information.
What Bourbons are Available for Purchase?
Remember that while distilleries are the manufacturer, with near-limitless supplies of brown water, they are still subject to the three-tier distribution system for the sale of alcohol. You may, however, find some unique spirits that are rarer, harder to find, or are even limited to distillery-only releases.
For example, Woodford Reserve often has 375ml distillery releases available (subject to limitations) at the distillery. The same goes for Wilderness Trail, too. However, do not show up at Buffalo Trace and expect pallets of Pappy for the taking. You may find selections of allocated bourbons (e.g. Blanton's, E.H. Taylor, and Weller) frequently available. Note however that these do sell out, and when they're gone for the day - they're gone. Also, allocated bourbons are typically limited to 1 per customer per quarter, meaning if you purchased a Blanton's on January 15th, you'd need to wait until mid-March to purchase your next bottle of Blanton's at the gift shop. But you could purchase a bottle of E.H. Taylor at the gift shop on January 16th.
Eating on the Trail
Now, mom would say, "Pack a sandwich". It certainly doesn't hurt to have some snacks in the vehicle, as, depending on the location, restaurants and even a gas station may be few and far between. In addition, if you're stacking up several visits in a day, you may find yourself, literally, running from one to another.
There are a few spots worth mentioning that are worth a stop for a leisurely meal along the way. In Bardstown, the historic Talbott Tavern which churns out exquisite Southern-style food (and where Jesse James was once a guest - and left bullets in the wall to prove it). Also in Bardstown is the Bardstown Bourbon Company Kitchen & Bar. Reservations are a necessity at each of these popular locations. In Frankfort, Bourbon on Main is a great stop for an inexpensive meal and wide selection of fine bourbons. While we had reservations for a midweek lunch, they were not necessary. Lastly, some venues offer food trucks on the weekends. We enjoyed a particularly tasty lunch, amid the beautiful gardens and heavenly aromas on the grounds of Castle & Key.
Shopping on (and off) the Trail
Nearly every distillery offers a gift shop where home goods, food items, apparel, barware, and even spirits may be purchased. Some of the signature sauces, seasonings, and chocolates (i.e. bourbon balls) are "to die for". In addition, if you're one that likes to pair your glass with what's inside, now is the perfect time to add to your glassware collection. Note that on some tours, you may be leaving with a free Glencairn glass (or similar) etched with the distillery name that is included in the price of your ticket.
Factor shopping time into your visit. If you have a full day planned, arriving early and scouting out potential purchases may allow you to quickly head to your next location. In addition, sometimes when you show up early, you get to meet some cool people!
On a recent trip to Bardstown Bourbon Company, I saw an older gentleman walking through the gift shop pulling bottles off the shelves, signing them, and returning them. When he turned, I saw it was Master Distiller and Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame member Steve Nally. We proceeded to not only have a great photo opportunity, but also a 20 minute conversation about the bourbon industry and their recent acquisition of Green River Distilling - all the while that other customers walked around and shopped unaware of this industry legend. Sometimes, opportunity smiles.
While I've shared that not every distillery will have a large array of bourbons for purchase, a couple sites off the KBT do warrant a stop. If you've never been to a Liquor Barn, now is the time to add that to your bucket list. These offer a dizzying assortment of spirits, wines, and beers, as well as food and gift items. You'll also find Derby party decorations available nearly year round. Some locations are smaller, so be sure to check out the larger-sized stores. Total Wine has also found its way to the Bluegrass and is worth a stop, as well.
In Louisville and Lexington, you'll find Justins' House of Bourbon (yes, that apostrophe is correct - they are owned by two men named Justin). In addition to having good selections of bourbon, including special releases, they are a licensed re-seller. As such, they are able to purchase bottles directly from consumers or an estate sale and re-sell these to the general public. A visit to their Downtown Lexington location is a treat for the eyes, as museum-quality floor-to-ceiling glass display cases are filled with historic bourbons that were bottled decades ago, if not a century or more. This makes for a wonderful photo opportunity.
Joseph Bourbon's Favorite Distilleries to Visit
Not all of these are on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but here's my short-list of must-see venues:
Woodford Reserve: Where it all began. This was my first distillery visit, and to this day, remains one my personal favorites and one of the best to visit as it shares the full distilling process and introduces you to Ruth Hunt Bourbon Balls.
Castle & Key: This historic site that was once the Old Taylor Distillery has risen like the Phoenix of mythological tales. Bourbon is finally flowing at this site, and the history that is present will delight visitors.
Buffalo Trace: While not an official member of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, this is worth visiting just to see a large, industrial, production facility. The smell? Heavenly. And if the bourbon gods are smiling, allocated bourbon to purchase at MSRP.
Bardstown Bourbon Company: BBC has been the quiet producer behind several top-selling brands, including Jefferson's, High West, Belle Meade, and others. Master Distiller Steve Nally and his team have a lifetime of insights into making bourbon and have access to hundreds of different bourbon recipes. The onsite restaurant is top-notch as well and worth a visit.
Wilderness Trail: Recently added to the Sazerac (Buffalo Trace) portfolio, Wilderness Trail has taken a unique route to producing spirits. While most distillers utilize a sour-mash process (think sourdough starter) to produce a consistent product, Wilderness Trail uses a fresh-mash process, where each batch of mash begins with fresh yeast. This is incredibly time-consuming and very difficult to pull off. In addition, nearly all of their products are Bottled-in-Bond.