Bourbon barrels in a rickhouse

Head one state south, where the Kentucky spirit flows through the hills, farmlands and cities.

The bourbon boom is in full swing, and there's no better place to experience the history, traditions and tastes of the brown spirit than Kentucky. The commonwealth boasts more than 50 distilleries, a number that seems to grow every year. According to the Kentucky Distillers' Association, today there are 8.1 million barrels of bourbon aging in Kentucky rickhouses, which equals about 1.5 barrels for every resident of the state.

Bourbon is America's only native spirit, and contrary to popular belief, it does not have to be made in Kentucky—although 95 percent of it is. Bourbon is a type of whiskey, and in 1964, Congress officially recognized it as a "distinctive product of the United States." That edict also outlined the only five rules of the spirit. It must be: made in the United States; made from at least 51 percent corn; distilled at no higher than 160 proof; put into a barrel at no higher than 125 proof; and put into a new, charred oak container.

You've probably heard of the elusive Pappy Van Winkle, but Kentucky offers so much more, and your chances of nabbing hard-to-find bottles increase as you cross that state line. In fact, many distilleries offer products sold only in Kentucky, and even liquor stores and bars are fueling the fire by offering special, single-barrel options that they stock selectively.

Much like the winery experiences of Napa Valley, Kentucky has created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which attracts more than 1.2 million visitors per year. For those who are more curious explorers than avowed bourbon-lovers, the trail offers plenty of scenic vistas, history, cuisine and cultural experiences, too.

Choose Your Adventure

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail began in 1999, founded by the Kentucky Distillers' Association as a DIY road trip. Visitors picked up passports that featured six distilleries and collected stamps at each tour stop. Now, the passports include 15 distilleries, and the KDA has started a craft tour with 13 more as a companion experience (see "Happy Trails" sidebar).

The main trail isn't something you can do all at once, and in fact, Adam Johnson, senior director of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, recommends you only try to tackle two or three locations each day. The distilleries are spread throughout Kentucky, so it's a good idea to pick those in close proximity to each other and make tour reservations prior to visiting.

Johnson says the No. 1 question people ask him is which distillery is the best, and of course they all are special in different ways. From the personalities behind each brand to the unique experiences each tour offers, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail keeps people coming back year after year.

"People want to connect with the history and the authenticity of these iconic brands," Johnson says. "Couple this with the scenic drives and Kentucky's culinary scene, and it's a perfect destination."

Your best bet is to stay either in Louisville or Lexington (see "Where to Stay" sidebar), as both cities are central to the trail and boast a few distilleries of their own. Louisville, in fact, is now home to six bourbon trail distilleries, two craft trail distilleries and even a brandy distillery called Copper & Kings that's making waves. It's also home to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail's Welcome Center, located inside the Frazier History Museum downtown.

If you'd rather not drive, there are also several tour options that depart from Louisville every day. These include Mint Julep Experiences, Bourbon Barrel Tours and Copper Still Tours, among others.

Glancing at the map of Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries, you'll notice a cluster in Louisville, a cluster on a southern route, a cluster going east and one distillery way out west. We'll break it down along those lines to keep it simple. We'll also include two that aren't technically a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail but are worth your time. Consider it extra credit. Without further ado, let's hit the trail.

Louisville's Sluggers

Angel's Envy
500 E. Main St.
Brands: Angel's Envy and Angel's Envy Rye
Tours: $20, daily except Tuesdays
Fun Facts: The brand was created in 2010 by father-son team Lincoln and Wes Henderson, both of whom had years of distilling experience. Lincoln passed away in 2013, but Wes' sons Kyle and Andrew have since joined the company. The namesake bourbon is finished in used port barrels, adding some sweet, robust characteristics to the spirit.

Old Forester Distillery
119 W. Main St.
Brands: Old Forester
Tours: $16, daily
Fun Facts: This distillery opened on June 14, 2018, which just so happened to be National Bourbon Day. It marked a return to Louisville's Whiskey Row for the historic brand, which began in 1870 and was the first bourbon to be sold in bottles. The modern distillery shows you every step of the process and includes a working cooperage, where barrels and casks are made.

Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
528 W. Main St.
Brands: Evan Williams
Tours: $14, daily
Fun Facts: Owned by Heaven Hill, this was the first bourbon experience to open in Louisville, in 2013. The state-of-the-art tour gives the history of bourbon in the city.

Michter's Fort Nelson Distillery
801 W. Main St.
Brands: Michter's
Tours: $20, check schedule
Fun Facts: This visitor-friendly vision of Michter's has been eight years in the making. Scheduled to be unveiled in January 2019, it offers a gift shop as well as a fully operational distillery open for tours. The company's full-time distillery is located in Louisville's Shively neighborhood, but it's not open to the public.

Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse
404 S. Fourth St.
Brands: Urban Stillhouse Select, all Jim Beam products
Tours: $8, daily except Sundays
Fun Facts: This is a satellite experience of the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont. It provides tastings, cocktail classes and a chance to bottle your own Urban Stillhouse Select, which is only offered at this location inside the entertainment district known as Fourth Street Live.

Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience
3860 Fitzgerald Road
Brands: Bulleit Bourbon, Bulleit Rye, Blade & Bow, I.W. Harper
Tours: $14, daily except Tuesdays
Fun Facts: The brand was started in the late 1980s by Louisville attorney Tom Bulleit. It is now owned by international spirits company Diageo, which built a full distillery in Shelbyville in 2017. Tours are still held at the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville.

The Southern Route

Jim Beam American Stillhouse
526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont
Brands: Jim Beam, Baker's, Booker's, Little Book, Basil Hayden, Knob Creek, Old Crow, Old Grand Dad, Old Overholt
Tours: $14, daily except Sundays
Fun Facts: Jim Beam is the world's best-selling bourbon, and the brand dates back seven generations to 1795. You can often find master distiller Fred Noe and his son Freddie at the distillery, and they'll be happy to sign bottles and shake hands.

Lux Row
3050 E. John Rowan Blvd., Bardstown
Brands: Rebel Yell, Ezra Brooks, Blood Oath, David Nicholson
Tours: $12, Tuesdays through Saturdays
Fun Facts: This new Bardstown operation opened in the spring of 2018 and features a high-tech, 18,000-square-foot distillery on 90 acres of pastoral terrain.

Bardstown Bourbon Co.
1500 Parkway Drive, Bardstown
Brands: Collabor&tion Mistelle Finish, Collabor&tion Brandy Finish
Tours: Not yet available
Fun Facts: Opened in 2017, this Bardstown behemoth is the largest new distillery in America. The $25 million project sits on 100 acres of land and also features an innovative, Southern-inspired restaurant called Bottle & Bond. Complimentary bourbon flights are available, and the restaurant is open daily except Sundays.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center
1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown
Brands: Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Larceny, Henry McKenna, Bernheim, Mellow Corn Whiskey, Pikesville Straight Rye, Fighting Cock, Old Fitzgerald, Rittenhouse Rye, Parker's Heritage
Tours: $10, daily
Fun Facts: Heaven Hill has been family-owned and -operated since 1935. Its Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown offers guests a look at the bottling facility, rickhouses and much more. The company announced in November that a $65 million expansion of the campus is on tap for the future.

Barton 1792 Distillery
300 Barton Road, Bardstown
Brands: 1792, Very Old Barton
Tours: Free, daily except Sundays
Fun Facts: This is one of two distilleries not on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Its parent company, Sazerac, chooses not to join the KDA, but it waives fees for tours, making them free for all who visit. The distillery was first built in 1879 and still uses coal as a heating source.

Maker's Mark Distillery
3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto
Brands: Maker's Mark, Maker's 46, Maker's Cask Strength
Tours: $14, daily
Fun Facts: Started in 1953 by Bill Samuels Sr., Maker's Mark is one of the best-known bourbons for its distinctive red wax bottle-topper and its softer recipe that uses wheat instead of rye. Maker's was one of the first in Kentucky to offer a visitor's experience, and the tours are informative, hands-on and family-friendly. A distillery cat named Whiskey Jean roams the property.

The Eastern Route

Buffalo Trace Distillery
113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort
Brands: Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, E.H. Taylor, Pappy Van Winkle, George T. Stagg, Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, W.L. Weller, Sazerac Rye, Old Charter, Benchmark, Ancient Age
Tours: Free, daily except Sundays
Fun Facts: Another Sazerac-owned company that's not part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, this popular distillery attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year looking to see where Pappy is made. The old-school distillery still hand-labels many of its bourbons, and there's also a Bourbon Pompeii part of the tour where you can see the remains of a recently unearthed distillery from the 1800s.

Four Roses Distillery
1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg
Brands: Four Roses, Four Roses Small Batch, Four Roses Single Barrel
Tours: $5, daily
Fun Facts: This Spanish-style distillery is the most unique-looking one of the bunch, and it offers an immersive tour experience that shows the entire process in a fun and interactive way. The company celebrated its 130th anniversary in 2018 and continues to receive awards for its quality bourbon.

Wild Turkey Distillery
1417 Versailles Road, Lawrenceburg
Brands: Wild Turkey, Russell's Reserve, Rare Breed, Kentucky Spirit, Longbranch
Tours: $11, daily except Sundays in January and February
Fun Facts: The newly renovated visitor's center is fun and offers a look at the rich history of Wild Turkey. Master distiller Jimmy Russell, who joined the team in 1954, still monitors the daily operations, and you'll likely find him and his son Eddie in the gift shop, greeting guests.

Woodford Reserve Distillery
7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles
Brands: Woodford Reserve
Tours: $15, daily except Sundays in January and February
Fun Facts: Although this premium brand was founded in 1996 by the Brown-Forman Corp. (which also owns Old Forester), the historic distillery where it's made has been around since 1812. The scenic views here are breathtaking, so be sure to bring your camera.

Town Branch Distillery
401 Cross St., Lexington
Brands: Town Branch, Pearse Lyons Reserve
Tours: $12, daily
Fun Facts: Town Branch is part of the Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co., which also makes Kentucky Ale beers at the same site. The tours provide an opportunity to learn about both products.

And One More

O.Z. Tyler Distillery
10 Distillery Road, Owensboro
Brands: O.Z. Tyler
Tours: $10, daily except Sundays
Fun Facts: This off-the-beaten-path distillery is about a two-hour drive west of Louisville in the picturesque city of Owensboro. The tour gives you a look at bourbon production, along with O.Z.'s exclusive TerrePure method of accelerating the aging process.

Several more distilleries have opened in recent months and are waiting to join the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Those include Rabbit Hole Distillery (Louisville), Castle & Key Distillery (Frankfort) and James E. Pepper Distillery (Lexington), among others.

Happy Trails

As if tackling all 15 distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail isn't enough of a challenge, two more trails have popped up more recently.

The Urban Bourbon Trail was formed in 2008 by the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau as a way to entice tourists to spend the night and explore the city's bar and restaurant scene.

"It's hard to think back to 2008 sometimes, when there were no bourbon attractions in Louisville, but we needed a bourbon-related message beyond being a 'gateway' to the distillery tours, which at that time were all outside the city," says Stacey Yates, the bureau's vice president of marketing and one of the initial planners.

There were eight bars featured in that initial passport; now there are 44. Yates says about 50,000 passports are distributed each year, and about 5,000 are redeemed for prizes. Only six stamps are required to get a free T-shirt and certificate, and you can find the passports at any participating location as well as at the downtown Louisville Visitor Center.

In 2012, the Kentucky Distillers' Association created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour to complement the main trail and to highlight some of the smaller, newer distilleries that open each year. Currently, there are 13 microdistilleries featured in the passports, which also can be picked up at participating locations.

These destinations include Willett (Bardstown), New Riff (Newport), Kentucky Peerless (Louisville), Jeptha Creed (Shelbyville) and Wilderness Trail (Danville), among others.

Sara Havens is a writer, editor and Ohio native who has lived in Louisville for more than 15 years while covering the city's culture, bars and bourbon.

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