In October we did the whole Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 3 days. Read our detailed description of each stop on the trail starting with our trip planning, and then follow us on days 1, 2 and 3.
But what did we learn? What would we advise you do if you want to follow in our footsteps? Here are 6 things you should know before setting out on the trail.
1. All distilleries are more similar to each other than they are different
How many distilleries can you visit? For the sake of being thorough, I did every single one in the book (except where there were 2 locations for the same distillery). However, if you are not trying to write a thorough review of the Bourbon Trail or have some other objective in mind, I don’t think the prize of a t-shirt justifies doing all the stops on the trail (10 if you ignore multiple sites). The distilling process is almost identical at each of the companies. The thing that changes is the “mash” recipe.
The process of making Bourbon across the different operators is actually very similar. Some have added minor tweaks to the process. Maker’s Mark, for instance, for the Maker’s Mark 46 product finish the bourbon in the barrel with 10 French Oak staves to enhance the sweet flavor. Angel’s Envy finishes the bourbon in Port barrels from Portugal.
The major difference in taste comes from the “mash” recipe and the time of maturation in the barrel.
The “mash” recipe refers to the combination of cereals and grains used to make the basic product. By law, bourbon must be at least 51% corn. The other two ingredients (they all use 3 ingredients) are a combination of rye or wheat and malted barley.
For the most part, distilleries that are looking for a sweeter, slightly gentler product, will increase the corn percentage and sometimes use wheat as the other ingredient. For a spicier flavor, distillers use rye. This is important to understand when selecting a bourbon product to purchase.
The longer the bourbon is in the barrel, the “smoother” it tends to be, but the flavors are more complex. Flavor in bourbon comes from the mash recipe and the barrel. The longer it has time to extract flavor from the barrel, the more “complex” the bourbon will be. Bourbon connoisseurs love older bourbons (and other whiskeys).
In the photo below, taken at Woodford Reserve, they mention 5 sources of flavor. The reason I refer to only “two” sources of flavor, is because 3 of these sources are common to all distillers. They all use Kentucky limestone based, iron-free water. That’s why Kentucky is the capital of bourbon. They all ferment their “mash” in a similar way. (The yeast strain may make a difference, hence each distiller closely guards their yeast stock. But compared to the mash recipe and the barrel maturation, this is not as important.). And they all distill in copper stills, some pot based, some tower based.
Understanding these variables, in my view, helps you unlock the mysteries of bourbon selection. Do you want a spicier, more robust bourbon? Select those that use rye in their recipe. Do you prefer a sweeter, easier on the palate bourbon? Choose one high in corn content that uses wheat instead of rye as one of its ingredients.
2. If you visit every stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail you get a t-shirt.
The prize for doing the whole tour and getting each page of the official passport stamped is “a not-very-nice-t-shirt”. Therefore, unless you have a specific reason, I would not recommend that you take a tour of every distillery. Besides, what I did find out is that the distilleries will stamp your “tour passport” even if you don’t do their tour. The problem is that in most cases, to get to a tasting you have to do the tour! I never understand this. The same thing is true of wine estates in Chile. Charge me for tasting, but don’t force me to tour your establishment.
3. Doing the trail in 3 days is difficult.
We did do the trail in 3 days, including an additional visit to Buffalo Trace which is not part of the trail anymore. But it was not easy. The second day we went without lunch to achieve it, and, even then, if it were not for the shortened version of the Four Roses tour (due to major construction), we probably would not have been able to do the 4 distilleries on that day. The solution would have been to do either Four Roses or Wild Turkey on the third day. So it is possible, but perhaps a bit rushed.
4. Pick a base and tour nearby distilleries
Consider basing your selection of distilleries on your primary location. If you intend being in the Louisville area, then think of doing the Louisville trail locations. Doing all 4 in one day is easy. If you only want to do a few, then I would suggest doing Angel’s Envy and Bulleit. You could end up having dinner downtown and do a tasting at Jim Beam.
If you are based in Lexington or Frankfort, the Woodford Reserve tour is a great option. Although not on the trail, Buffalo Trace is also good.
5. The prettiest distillery
Maker’s Mark is probably the prettiest location. The tour was very well done and the bourbon is pleasant. But it is out of the way. And, depending on which direction you approach it, the roads can be narrow and intimidating.
6. Booking tours
In peak season, it is vital to book your spot on a tour. Outside of peak season, like October when we went, getting onto tours is easy. Angel’s Envy requires you to book regardless of the season. And some of the distilleries offer specialized tours that you do have to book.
Doing the trail was a lot of fun and gave us a new appreciation for the craft that goes into making bourbon. Make a plan to visit a few distilleries when you are next in the area.
The first stop on day 3, Buffalo Trace, isn’t actually on the Bourbon Trail. However, as everyone I asked for recommendations on where to visit had told me to go there, we included it. They used to be part of the Bourbon Trail but withdrew. If you are interested in the reason you can read about it here.
Buffalo Trace is another historic landmark type distillery. It operated throughout prohibition on the strength of its medicinal license. Many of the rickhouses are brick, as they were built before the ugly metal exteriors became popular.
There are several different tour options that you can opt for. I chose their free one which gave us a fairly comprehensive overview of the business of making bourbon, except it didn’t take you into a proper operating environment. They also don’t have one of those fancy models available at other places to help you visualize the process. So if you are only doing one tour or visit, this may not be the best one unless you take one of their other tours.
If you are in the Lexington area and want a full experience, Woodford may be the better option. The other negative, which actually applied to Woodford too, was that the guide was too verbose. That could be a function of my being “bourbon toured out”. Doing ten tours in three days is only tolerable if you want to write a comprehensive blog post on the tour! I told my wife that at this stage I could probably lead the tours.
The Buffalo Trace bourbons are worth tasting. Made with rye as one of the ingredients, they have a slightly spicy taste, mellowed by the long aging process of 8-9 years and bottled in small batches. The downside of the tasting is that they only let you taste 2 of their products (3 if you include the Bourbon Cream)
Both these bourbons are excellent. The Eagle Rare actually felt a little smoother, despite being a single barrel.
Cost: Free for all tours. Reservations required for the Hard Hat and National Historic Landmark Tour
Hours: Mon-Sat: 9 am – 4 pm, Sun: 12 pm – 3 pm
Length of tour: One hour
Parking: on site
As mentioned above, if you want a comprehensive tour of a distillery process in the Lexington area, this is the distillery to visit. The tour is detailed (maybe too detailed) and the environment is very beautiful, situated among horse farms.
The signature product is well known and found in most bars and liquor stores across America. Heavy in corn (72%) but with enough rye (18%) to provide some spicy flavor, Woodford Reserve is a very popular bourbon.
We would suggest timing your tour around the lunch period because they have a simple, but functional cafe on the premises that serves a reasonable and inexpensive lunch.
Cost: $14 (they also have specialty tours which are more expensive)
Hours: Mon – Sat 10 AM – 3 PM, Sunday 1 PM – 3 PM, Closed Sundays (January – February Only)
Length of tour: One hour
Parking: on site
This distillery is unique on the trail. It really is a boutique operation, a micro-distiller if you will. Right in the center of Lexington, it is convenient if you are visiting there. It also makes beer, so you could learn about that process if you desire.
The tour was probably the least informative of them all. It was the last tour I did and was fairly much “Distilling 101”. I actually was happy about that because by this stage I probably could give the tours.
Their products are also fairly basic but, in a way, interesting. They have one bourbon, one whiskey and one rye whiskey, if you exclude their non-whiskey products.
Their Pearse Lyons Reserve malt whiskey is an extremely pleasant and mild whiskey that would make a great entre point into the category. Then there is there strong and bold Town Branch Rye whiskey. Not for the faint-hearted this is great whiskey, but be prepared to receive the strong taste statement it makes. Lastly, the Town Branch Bourbon. Worth at least one purchase, even if it’s to get a hold of the gorgeous bottle. A good, if not outstanding bourbon, it is aged for a relatively short 5 or so years.
Unless you have no choice and you want to see a distillery, I would not necessarily choose Town Branch as a stop.
Cost: Taste of the Town Tour is $8 (they also have a variety of longer tours including ones of their brewery)
Hours: Monday–Saturday: 9:30 a.m. – 5:30p.m, Sunday 11:30 a.m. – 5 p.m, Closed Tuesdays (January – February Only)
Length of tour: 30-35 minutes
Parking: there is lot behind the distillery you can park in
The End of the Trail!
We had visited all 10 stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, so all that was left was to visit the Lexington Touris Information Center about 5 minutes drive away to get the tshirt. You can also mail your completed passport in and they will send the tshirt but as it was hardly out of our way we decided to stop by.
So today didn’t exactly go as planned – too many tours, too little time! The first tours at Heaven Hill are at 10 and 10:30 depending on which one you choose – Piers wanted to do the shorter of the two, and so 10:30 is the first one they offer.
It was a 50-minute drive to Maker’s Mark where he went on the 1 o’clock tour which took about 1 hour 15 minutes. We went straight from there to Four Roses which was 40 minutes away to get there in time for the 3 pm tour. Because that tour is currently only 30 minutes we managed to make it to Wild Turkey Distillery which is just 8 miles away in time for the 4 pm tour – their last tour of the day.
Do you spot the problem? There was no time for lunch! Yes, the only way we could do it all was to go without. So – this is probably not a plan you want to replicate! If you really want to do all the stops on the trail and only have 3 days, you want to do Wild Turkey on the last day.
The commentary about the distilleries is from Piers – the rest is from me (Meryl).
First up on day two was Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center. They have 2 tours, the cheaper one is actually longer and takes you into a Rickhouse, a barrel storage building. The majority of the tour is the history of Bourbon and Heaven Hill Distillery. At the end, you taste 3 whiskeys. No production or actual making of the bourbon.
The second is the Whiskey Connoisseur Experience. Again a bit of history, but this tour focuses on the tasting of some premium bourbons. You taste 4 bourbons and can take your glass home with you.
One interesting fact is that one of the reasons for the renaissance of bourbon around the world is that women are drinking more and more of it. This is, in part, because the Master Distillers began to replace rye with wheat in their recipes. Rye adds a spicy taste to the bourbon, whereas wheat makes it more palatable to many taste buds.
The Center has quite a few displays that give the history of bourbon. However, the tour was the least compelling of all the tours I have done. On the other hand, the bourbon that we tasted on the Connoisseur tour was outstanding.
Some of the brands include Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna and Larcency (one of my favorites).
Cost: Mashbill Tour – $10.00, Whiskey Connoisseur Experience – $20.00
Hours: Different hours dependent on the season, see website
Length of tour: Mashbill Tour – 1 hour, Whiskey Connoisseur Experience – 40 minutes
Parking: on site
This was the second stop on day two. So far, by far the most picturesque Stillhouse on the trail. The beauty was enhanced by the display throughout the property of Dale Chihuly’s blown glass artwork.
Bill Samuels the founder set out to make the kind of bourbon he liked, sweeter on the palate. He achieved this by a recipe heavy in corn (70%), no rye and the rest wheat and barley. And it is aged to taste, as opposed to a fixed time period. This usually means about 6 – 7 years in a barrel.
The other distinctive feature of Maker’s Mark bourbon is the bottle, the brainchild of Marjorie Samuels. The brandy shaped bottle, sealed with red wax helps the product stand out on the shelf.
The tour was well done, but the number of people on each tour meant that it was a little longer than most.
Cost: $12 for adults over 21
Hours: Monday – Saturday: 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. Sundays: 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Length of tour: 1 1/4 hours
From Maker’s Mark we sped over to the Four Roses Distillery to get there in time for the last tour in the afternoon (3 pm).
Many people may remember Four Roses as a cheap bourbon. This is because at one stage all the good stuff was exported. However, a few years back a Japanese company bought the distillery and began reviving the brand by producing world-class bourbon again. They have 10 recipes which ultimately produce 3 products. How does that work? Well for two of their products they combine barrels from the different recipes.
Their recipes (mash) are heavy in rye. This results in a more spicy flavor, but I found it very pleasant. Another feature is that their rickhouses are single story, resulting in less temperature variation. Their standard “Four Roses Bourbon” is aged about 6 – 6 ½ years, their “Small Batch” about a year longer and their Single Barrel about another year longer.
We visited while they were in the middle of a major renovation, which meant we couldn’t actually do a full tour (for which I was actually quite thankful). They had a good video explaining what makes their bourbon distinctive, and this was followed by a simple but functional tasting.
Hours: Monday – Saturday 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., Sunday 12:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Length of tour: currently about 30 minutes while there is construction
Parking: on site
** Note – the ticket for this tour allows you free access within 60 days to their Warehouse and Bottling Tour in Cox’s Creek.
Another good thing about the shorter Four Roses tour was that we could make it across to Wild Turkey in time for the last (4 pm) tour. Wild Turkey is one of the larger distillers, producing around 12 million liters of bourbon a year. This requires a very sophisticated process that is highly professional. The tour covers the full bourbon process, but by now, you should have the process down pretty well. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and affable, in the good old Southern tradition.
Their bourbon is high in rye content but aged longer than many of the others. The longer aging smoothes out the spicier flavors from the rye. I really like their product, especially the Wild Turkey Rare Breed and the Russel Reserve 10 Year Old.
Hours: Different hours dependent on the season, see website
Length of tour: about an hour
Parking: on site
Supper – Ginza Restaurant
We had driven a fair amount and rushed between places so much, that we were happy to discover, Ginza, a Japanese restaurant in walking distance from our Holiday Inn Express in Frankfort. You can have hibachi or sushi – we chose the latter. Their specialty sushis were rather expensive so we just opted for standard rolls. The food was fine, the service a little lacking though.
Bulleit is the brand. Stitzel-Weller is the location of the tour. It is a distillery that was born shortly after prohibition but which ran into trouble during the Bourbon Depression in the 70’s. The facility was sold to Norton-Simon which, through a series of take-overs and mergers is now part of Diageo, a massive worldwide operation. Diageo reopened the location in 2014 and it is now the home of the Bulleit tour.
The tour begins with the fascinating history of the area and bourbon in particular. It moves onto outlining the distilling process, using a useful model still. The tour covers areas that the other distilleries didn’t (at least on day one of our 3 day Bourbon Trail adventure). You go into a rickhouse (or rackhouse as it is sometimes known), where the bourbon is stored in the white oak barrels. You also get to see how leaking barrels are repaired by coopers. Production bourbon is not distilled at this location. Instead, they show you the test distillery where they experiment with new recipes and techniques.
The tasting experience was good. They offer you 4 different bourbons to taste. Bulleit has a higher rye content than the typical bourbon which gives it a unique flavor that I liked.
Cost: $10 for over 21. Under 21 are free
Hours: 10am until 4pm. Closed on Tuesdays. Tours leave on the hour or half hour depending on the day.
Length of tour: about 1 1/2 hours
Parking: on site
On day 1 of the Bourbon Trail, this was the only ‘production’ facility with a tour. Angel’s Envy is a fairly new operation and it was ‘state-of-the-art’.
The tour guide let us smell, taste and experience the product at the various stages of production. This was really helpful in understanding the process.
The still at Angel’s Envy
The tasting was very different to the other distilleries, born mainly out of necessity. Angel’s Envy produces one product, so there is only one bourbon to taste. However, they take the opportunity to teach how to really taste bourbon, including the use of chocolate to complement the bourbon experience. The last stage of the tasting includes the use of ice to open up the flavor of the bourbon. (Evan Williams adds a few drops of water to one stage of their tasting).
The experience at Angel’s Envy was quite different and complementary to the Bulleit Tour.
Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. No tours on Tuesday. MUST RESERVE TOURS IN ADVANCE!
Length of tour: About 1 1/2 hours
Parking: We parked in the street but there is also a lot opposite that costs $7
The addition of the word “experience” is a clue to the nature of this tour. Located in downtown Louisville, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is predominantly a “museum” type experience.
Through the use of video, actors, and sets, they take you back to the days of Evan Williams, one of the first whiskey producers in Kentucky, and to the early days of Louisville. As such it is a valuable history lesson. They have a great visual model of how bourbon is produced and there is a “model” still that produces one barrel of bourbon a day.
The tasting at the end of the tour was well done. We tasted 5 different bourbons including a 12-year-old bourbon which is available mainly in Japan.
As a side note, our tour guide was a stand-up comedian (literally) who obviously brought a good sense of humor to the tour.
Cost: Adults (21+) $12.00, Kids (11 – 20) $9.00, Kids (10 and under) FREE
Hours: Different hours, depending on the day. Check the website
Length of tour: About 1 hour
Parking: We parked in the lot right around the corner but there are also parking garages nearby
The only exercise we had the entire 3 days was walking to Art Eatables and then back to Jim Bean Urban Stillhouse and finally back to the car. The whole walk was about 30 minutes. Better than nothing, I guess!
At Angel’s Envy they strongly suggested everyone visit Art Eatables. So of course, we felt we needed to follow their advice. The shop owner greeted us with samples of chocolates with bourbon centers – very yummy! Everything in the shop is very tempting and we left with a box of store sampler of assorted chocolates.
The last stop on day 1 was to the Jim Bean Urban Stillhouse, also downtown Louisville. This really was a retail and tasting experience, without the tour. Having done 3 tours already on day one, I was happy to go straight to the tasting. Jim Bean is obviously a well-known brand, but under the stable of Jim Bean there are many other brands such as Knob Creek. You can taste nearly all of these at this location.
If you want to visit their distillery, you can find it in Clermont. You can get the stamp in your passport by visiting either.
Cost: $6 (includes a Jim Bean shot glass)
Hours: 1 to 9 pm Monday to Saturday (closed on Sundays)
Length of tour: The tasting takes about 15 minutes
Parking: There must be garages nearby but you can walk from Angel’s Envy or Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
I discovered this place on Tripadvisor and someone described it as a “hole-in-the-wall”, and that it was! But it was also a great find. The husband and wife team who run the restaurant are from Nepal and they were very concerned that we would have a good experience with them. We had a delightful conversation with them and learned what their lives were like in Kathmandu before they moved to the USA.
We enjoyed samosas, onion pakora, mo mos and biryani – all were delicious and the prices are excellent.
A month ago, Piers suggested we go to Kentucky over the spring break as he wanted to visit a few distilleries. He is interested in the craft of making bourbon as he is fascinated by the creative skill that is involved in the process.
He got a few suggestions of places to visit from friends, but when I started searching for recommendations I discovered there is a whole Bourbon Trail! We knew we could spare 3 days and that is exactly how many days the official trail page suggested. Piers agreed and we decided to follow the general plan laid out by the Bourbon Trail website – we would start in Louisville and finish up in Lexington.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport
There is a Bourbon Trail Passport and if you get stamps for all 10 distilleries on the trail, you get a t-shirt at the end. Well, we aren’t that interested in a t-shirt but it seemed a cool idea to try and do the WHOLE trail. That means 10 stamps ie 10 locations! (There are 12 places on the trail but 2 of them each have 2 different locations and you can get a stamp at either location)
Initially, we planned to book the tours online in advance for all those that require reservations, but then I started to wonder if Piers will actually manage to go on 10 tours! He isn’t one to love tours and museums! So we have decided to play it by ear .. so follow along to see how it goes.
**Note: From my research I can see this would not be a good idea if you went in summer (we were there in October). In summer, you HAVE to book or you don’t get to go on the tours as they get booked up really quickly.
What you also need to know is that I don’t drink bourbon and am not at all interested in learning about how it is made. So – I will be finding places to work while he tours and samples and I will blog about that in case there will be others who go on the Bourbon Trail who also aren’t interested.
We want this to be a low-cost trip so decided to use the points we have accumulated on our IHG card to cover hotel costs. We have booked 2 nights at the Candlewood Suites near Louisville Airport, then 1 night in Frankfort at a Holiday Inn Express and the final night at another Holiday Inn Express in Lexington.
Food and Exercise
We like interesting food – so we plan to try and find that as we travel around Kentucky. I will use the Afar app and Tripadvisor primarily when I look for eating locations.
Eating well means we need to keep up our exercising. So we will be sure to share how we do that too.
Day 0: We arrive in Kentucky!
We arrived in Louisville around 6 pm so had time for our first food and drink experience that night.
This bar is in an old church and they have created a wonderful ambiance. I ordered a cider which was great and Piers had his first Flemish beer – and discovered he doesn’t really like Flemish beer Very sour, I believe!
This was a great place! Fun background music and a menu so tempting that we ate too much! We decided to order 3 items from their tapas menu and share them – Guacamole and plantain chips, a flatbread with tomatoes and goat cheese baked and chicken empanadas.
So very delicious. Go there when you are next in Louisville!
Our 3 Day Plan
Day 1: Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience, Angel’s Envy Distillery, Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Jim Bean Urban Stillhouse
Day 2: Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, Makers Mark Distillery, Four Roses Distillery, Wild Turkey Distillery
Day 3: Woodford Reserve Distillery, Town Branch Distillery (plus a bonus distillery)
We decided to have a lazy start to the day so it was late morning by the time we took our last stroll to the Waterfront.
The girls wanted to get fries from Steers for lunch, and the adults opted to visit the Food Market which we had walked past every day. There are lots of different options and we chose samosas. They were OK – but nothing special. What was special was sitting at the outside tables, enjoying the view and listening to the street musician who had set up near us.
Our final exursion was to take the cableway up Table Mountain. We bought the tickets online a few days before as that is the cheaper way to do it. You can get a refund if the weather turns bad so there is no risk involved and it also means you skip the ticket lines. An adult ticket costs about $20. We drove to the cableway station, but you could also take an Uber.
You can wait in long lines to get on a cable car, but as we were there at the end of May, we just walked straight on. Be sure to take warm clothes as it often windy at the top and always quite a few degrees colder than at the base.
We spent about an hour walking around the top. You can see for miles on a clear day. Watch out for the wildlife! We saw quite a few dassies (rock-rabbits).
We also saw a bride and groom!
We would love to have been up top as the sunset but the cableway closes down at that time each day so we had to content ourselves with watching it once we had reached the base station again.
Cape Town is known for its many world-class restaurants and we chose one to eat at for our final meal in Cape Town – the Shortmarket Club. We booked weeks ahead – you can’t just arrive! Read the rave reviews on Tripadvisor!
The restaurant is tucked away upstairs on a pedestrian-only street and we needed to use our GPS to find it. But once you do find it, you step into a world of excellent service and memorable food. Each dish was unique in the way it combined ingredients, and in the presentation. We each chose different starters, entrees, and desserts and no one was disappointed with their selections.
It was the perfect ending to an amazing 5 days in Cape Town.
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