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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Bourbon

What's the Deal with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

With the current billion-dollar bourbon boom, it’s no wonder the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has been experiencing a record number of visitors. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail launched back in 1999 – the same year that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace hit theaters, soccer star David Beckham married Spice Girls singer Victoria Beckham, Backstreet Boys’ third studio album – Millennium – was released, and everybody was preparing for Y2K. What started as seven distilleries has turned into 16 over the span of eleven years.

It all started with seven distilleries: Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, and Buffalo Trace. For those familiar with the bourbon trail, yes you read that right – Buffalo Trace was one of the founding bourbon trail members. And in 2008, Barton 1792 joined as the eighth distillery, and first new one. If you’re following along at home, you might notice that 1792 is also no longer on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It all goes back to ownership. After Sazerac Company purchased Barton 1792 from Constellation Brands in 2009, they made a decision to remove it and Buffalo Trace from the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, and therefore removing it from the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. These departures took the trail down to only six distilleries for a couple years.

Let’s take a step back to introduce a new TLA – three letter acronym. Kentucky Distillers’ Association, or KDA, was founded in 1880 as a non-profit organization to unite bourbon distillers in Kentucky to “promote our ambert art around the world and protect its enduring spirit from those who would do it harm” (Source: Kentucky Bourbon Distillers). They host networking events, advocate for the industry, and it’s the group behind the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. There are three main tiers of membership – Heritage, Proof, and Craft.

KDA Membership Requirements & Benefits

  1. Heritage Distillery Membership

  2. Maintain a minimum of 25,000 barrels distilled spirits every year

  3. Appointment of a Director to the KDA Board with full authority to vote on all Association and member issues

  4. Opportunity to participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

  5. Appointment of full voting member to all KDA advisory groups and committees

  6. Dues for fiscal year 2019: $0.10 per barrel with minimum dues being $25,000 and a one-time initiation fee of $65,000.

  7. Current members: Bardstown Bourbon Company, Beam Suntory, Brown-Forman, Diageo, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Louisville Distilling CO, Lux Row, Michter’s, O.Z. Tyler, and Wild Turkey

  8. Proof Distillery Membership

  9. Maintain between 10,000 and 24,999 barrels of distilled spirits every year

  10. Appointment of representative to the KDA Board with a voice in all Association and member issues (only Heritage members have a vote)

  11. Opportunity to participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® tour

  12. Appointment of representative to all KDA advisory groups and committees

  13. Dues for fiscal year 2019: $1 per barrel; one-time initiation fee of $1 x barrel inventory

  14. Current members: Kentucky Artisan Distillery, Rabbit Hole, Wilderness Trail Distillery, Willett Distillery

  15. Craft Distillery Membership

  16. Maintain inventory below 10,000 barrels of distilled beverage every year

  17. Opportunity to participate as an elected Craft representative on KDA advisory groups and committees

  18. Opportunity to participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour®

  19. Participation as a voting member of the KDA Craft Distillery Advisory Group

  20. Dues dependent on level of membership – introductory or established

  21. Introductory: for distilleries that maintain 1,000 barrels; dues for fiscal year 2019 are $1,000 with a one-time application fee of $100.

  22. Established: for distilleries that maintain between 1,000 and 10,000 barrels; dues for fiscal year 2019 are $4,000 with a one-time application fee of $500.

  23. Current members: Town Branch, AMBRAbev, Barrel House Distilling, Bluegrass Distillers, Boone County Distilling, Boundary Oak Distillery, Casey Jones Distillery, Copper & Kings, Dueling Grounds Distillery, Hartfield & Co, James E Pepper Distilling, Jeptha Creed, Kentucky Mist Moonshine, Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company, Limestone Branch Distillery, MB Roland Distillery, Neeley Family Distillery, New Riff Distilling, Old Pogue Distillery, Preservation Distillery, Second Sight Spirits

Back to history – how did we get from seven to sixteen? After seeing the success of Napa Valley wine tours and scotch whiskey distillery tours, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail started expanding. In 2012, Town Branch joined. 2013 brought the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience – an interesting addition as its parent company Heaven Hill was one of the founding members and this was the first of many Louisville additions. Diageo added Bulleit in 2014 at the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery. 2017 brought Angel’s Envy and O.Z. Tyler – as the tenth and eleventh distilleries, respectively. Old Forester, Lux Row, and Bardstown Bourbon Company joined in June, July and August of 2018. With Michter’s and Rabbit Hole joining the trail in 2019, the total was brought up to sixteen.

2007 brought the passport program. For visiting each of the stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you can get a stamp. Collect all the stamps and you get a complimentary t-shirt. A 2013 University of Louisville study regarding the effect the bourbon boom has had on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s passport program. The UofL study found that “each passport holder spends an average of $737 on their trip” (Source: The Lane Report). This study was back when there were seven to eight distilleries on the tour. The tours alone cost nearly $200 – and in return, you get a free $10 t-shirt. For bourbon lovers, though, every second is worth it. It’s all about the history, the tastings, and a chance to possibly run into the master distiller behind your favorite drink.

One lingering question from me revolves around Town Branch. I visited this distillery a few months back and was surprised. I had received a bottle as a gift, and thought it was decent – especially as far as free bourbon goes. I’d enjoyed some of the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ales made onsite via the brewing part of Lexington Brewing & Distilling. When we drove up to the distillery, my initial thought was: small. I had been to Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey — and Town Branch was significantly smaller. Also being located in Lexington, it had a distinct urban vibe that most distilleries don’t have. The tour was great and the tastings were fabulous, don’t get me wrong. But when I saw that Town Branch was at the Craft Distillery Membership level, it adds confusion. Written into the membership guidelines for the Craft Distillery level is that opportunity to participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. Speculating wildly – they likely joined before that distinction was in the guidelines, and they’ve been (prepare for my least favorite phrase ever) grandfathered in. Without confirmation of what’s going on though, I still have questions.

If you have any hesitation about visiting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, my one recommendation is just go. Try it, do a tasting, smell the rickhouse, and absorb the history. Cheers!

Brands on the trail:

  1. Four Roses

  2. Heaven Hill

  3. Cabin Still

  4. Echo Spring

  5. Elijah Craig

  6. Evan Williams

  7. Fighting Cock

  8. Heaven Hill

  9. Henry McKenna

  10. J.T.S. Brown

  11. J.W. Dant

  12. Kentucky Straight Bourbon

  13. Kentucky Supreme Bourbon

  14. Larceny

  15. Old Fitzgerald

  16. Private Cellar

  17. Parkers Heritage Collection

  18. T.W. Samuels

  19. Virgin Bourbon

  20. Jim Beam

  21. Various Jim Beam whiskies

  22. Jacob’s Ghost

  23. Maker’s Mark

  24. Wild Turkey

  25. Various Wild Turkey whiskies

  26. Russell’s Reserve

  27. American Honey

  28. Woodford Reserve

  29. Town Branch

  30. Various Town Branch whiskies

  31. Pearse Lyons Reserve

  32. Bluegrass Sundown

  33. Evan Williams

  34. Bulleit

  35. Angel’s Envy

  36. O.Z. Tyler

  37. Old Forester

  38. Various Old Forester whiskies

  39. The President’s Choice

  40. Lux Row

  41. Rebel Yell

  42. Ezra Brooks

  43. Blood Oath

  44. David Nicholson

  45. Bardstown Bourbon Co.

  46. Michter’s

  47. Rabbit Hole

Former brands on the trail:

  1. Buffalo Trace

  2. Buffalo Trace

  3. Col. E.H. Taylor

  4. Eagle Rare

  5. George T. Stagg

  6. Stagg Jr.

  7. McAfee’s Benchmark

  8. Old Charter

  9. Old Taylor

  10. Sazerac

  11. Thomas H. Handy

  12. W.L. Weller

  13. In partnership with Age International: Ancient Age, Blanton’s single barrel, Hancock’s President’s Reserve, Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms

  14. In partnership with the Van Winkle family: Old Rip Van Winkle, Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, Van Winkle Special Reserve, Van Winkle Family Reserve

  15. Barton 1792 Distillery (formerly known as Ridgewood Reserve 1792 and 1792 Ridgemont Reserve)

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