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.