Kentucky Bourbon Distilleries Tours

Understand

Bourbon whiskey, or bourbon, is the only spirit native to the United States. Unlike Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano, "bourbon" is not a protected name in the usual sense, and bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. Yet 95% of bourbon comes from a 90-mile region in the center of Kentucky. This is attributed to an abundance of corn (the primary source of grain in bourbon), limestone in the ground producing pleasant spring water, and alternating hot summers and cold winters, which help the bourbon seep in and out of the barrels to age quickly.

The Kentucky Distillers' Association (KDA) promotes tours of bourbon distilleries on an official Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Distilleries on the trail offer tours, most lasting about an hour, where they teach you about how they make their bourbon. The process is nearly the same at each one; it's subtle differences that give each its distinctive flavor. The tour guides will explain the basics of bourbon, but they also love answering detailed questions, especially if it gives him a chance to explain why they think their bourbon is better than everyone else's!

And, of course, all of the distilleries offer you a taste of their products at the end of the tour. For most people, this is the highlight of the tour, as you finally get to experience the complex flavors the tour guides were talking about.

Get in

Ideally, a real tour of Bourbon Country should start with in Lexington or Louisville. Lexington is, in some ways, a better choice, since two distilleries (Town Branch and Barrel House) are downtown and five others are within a 45-minute drive. On the other hand, Louisville could be said to be the superior starting point not only because it's home to the Evan Williams and Bulleit museums (not actual distilleries, though; Evan Williams runs a small artisanal distillery, but it's no substitute for the real thing) but also because it originated many bourbon cocktails and has a strong connection to bourbon and bourbon lore.

Get around

If you're planning on visiting the distilleries on your own, you'll need a car. All but one are well out in the open country. You won't be bored by the drive, though, as Kentucky's scenic rolling hills are beautiful at any time of year. If getting around by your own car, you may need a designated driver.

There are also several tour and limousine services offering packages for visiting distilleries.

There are maps for getting around by bicycle, but it's quite a long trip.

Few distilleries are near each other; if you intend to visit multiple distilleries, don't plan on more than two per day. For the ones furthest from your starting point, you may only be able to do one in a day unless you're dedicated.

Locations

Four Roses Distillery, built in the early 1900's in a Spanish mission style

Obviously to sample bourbon at any distillery, you must be 21 years or older. For visitors under 21, check carefully whether you're allowed on the tour, or whether you qualify for a discounted rate.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail

The official Kentucky Bourbon Trail comprises nine distilleries. You can get a "passport" book at any of them, in which you can collect stamps from each distillery you tour. Once you have all nine stamps, you can get a free T-shirt either from one of the five listed tourism offices or by mail.

Maker's Mark production line at distillery

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour

For the true bourbon enthusiast, the Craft Tour showcases nine micro-distilleries with an emphasis on innovative and handcrafted bourbons. Like the regular Trail, a passport is available; the reward for completing it is a julep cup.

Events

Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, KY
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