We knew very little about the Bourbon Trail and its entities before arriving in Kentucky over Memorial Day weekend without a plan. The trail comprises six distilleries, and while we hadn’t planned on visiting all of them, when we found out there was an official “passport” to get stamped at each spot—which entitles you to a free T-shirt once you’ve collected one stamp from each and mailed it in, yee-haw!—then we were sold. Just call us suckers for free stuff.
And yet, while you’d think visiting a number of distilleries in a 48-hour period could get pretty monotonous, each one was interesting for different reasons. Here’s the rundown in the order we visited them; a full map and visitor information can be found on the official Bourbon Trail website.
Distillery: Jim Beam
Address: 526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont
Superlatives: Most Convenient Access
Tour fees: None
Lowdown: Jim Beam is right off of I-65, so this was the first one we hit up. The grounds were pretty, and the two types we tried (and the chocolates!) were quite tasty. But given that we didn’t do the tour, I don’t have much more to say about the experience.
Distillery: Four Roses
Address: 1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg
Superlatives: Best Barrel Swing
Tour fees: None
Lowdown: This was the only of the seven we visited that I wasn’t wild about. I’d skip it if we went back (or simply stop by to get the stamp en route to Wild Turkey, which you definitely should do). The tour was lackluster, and there wasn’t much to the distillery. That said, my cousin John, who knows far more about bourbon than I do—I just like to drink it—said the single barrel was his favorite of all the ones we sampled, so there’s that.
Distillery: Wild Turkey
Address: 1525 Tyrone Road, Lawrenceburg
Tour Fees: None
Superlatives: Best Photo Opp, Best Smelling Store, Snarkiest Souvenirs
Lowdown: We didn’t actually go on the tour here—or even do a tasting—due to time constraints, but we did a bit of shopping in the store, meandered about the grounds and rode the turkey, natch.
Distillery: Woodford Reserve
Address: 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles
Superlatives: Most Expensive, Most Scenic
Tour fees: $7
Lowdown: I’m still not entirely sure why this tour is so pricey, but we went on it anyway. It was an hour-long and very informative. And you get to keep your shot glass after the tasting, so I guess it was worth the money? Regardless, the setting out in Versailles, amid all the famed horse farms, is just stunning—and the Woodford bourbon doesn’t suck either.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
Address: 1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown
Superlatives: Best Shop, Best Museum, Best Tasting Room
Tour fees: $3
Lowdown: Heaven Hill came close to tying Maker’s Mark for best overall distillery, even though we didn’t go on the tour (though we spent ample time looking around the Heritage Center). The tour is supposed to be pretty cool, visiting Distillers Row, William Heavenhill’s original spring, Jim Beam’s historic home and downtown Bardstown (all by trolley!)—we just ran out of time. The tasting room was inside a large barrel, the guides were funny and knowledgeable, and the museum with all of its fun perks was just plain awesome. You can still drop by, poke around and taste without paying for the tour itself.
Distillery: Willett Distillery
Address: 1869 Loretto Road, Bardstown
Superlatives: Best Small Distillery, Best Rye
Tour fees: None
Lowdown: It was a pure stroke of Twitter luck that we got to visit Willett. The master distiller, Drew, found and Tweeted me the night before, inviting us out. Tours to the public open in August, and we loved the intimate experience. We also left having purchased several bottles of the single barrel, which is divine—oh, and an actual (empty) barrel itself! John, our spirits connoisseur, promises to write a full-on guest post about Willett for me in the future, so stay tuned for that. The family is also adding a B&B, which they’re breaking ground on this summer. How cool will that be, to sleep on the grounds of a distillery?
Distillery: Maker’s Mark
Address: 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto
Tour Fees: None
Superlatives: Best Perks, Most Remote, Favorite Overall Experience
Lowdown: You get to hand-dip your own bottle here, but sadly that’s only applicable on non-holidays, Monday through Friday (we were there on a weekend). Even though we didn’t get to see the bottling process, we got to visit the room and watch a video and it looked pretty awesome. After that, we went into a classroom-like setting to sample three types of Maker’s; whatever you do, don’t let them talk you into tasting the Maker’s White (unless you just really like tequila straight!).
Some fun facts to know before you go:
- All bourbon is whiskey; not all whiskey is bourbon.
- Bourbon has to be made in the United States and aged for at least two years to be classified as such.
- Ninety-five percent of all bourbon is made in Kentucky.
- There are more barrels aging in the state than there are people.
- There are four defining characteristics to consider when bourbon-tasting: clarity, color, aroma, smoothness.
- Many of the buildings in the area are painted black to cover the mold. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. It’s simply an occupational hazard.