The keyword here is BOURBON! A few weeks ago, I hit the road to Louisville, Kentucky, right in the middle of Bourbon country. This trip started with the Bourbon & Beyond Festival and led to a weekend of distillery tours and tastings.
I have experienced a Bourbon Trail weekend from two different perspectives, this past edition of the trip was with a group of friends from college catching up together after several years apart. I have also experienced Louisville and the Bourbon Trail through a couple of different stops when my wife was completing her residency in Frankfort, Kentucky. No matter the company, this trip is perfect for the Bourbon enthusiast, the fan of agro-tourism and history, or just a plain Travel Addict.
Where To Stay In Louisville
If looking for a weekend getaway in Louisville, I strongly recommend a stay at the Seelbach Hotel in downtown. This Renaissance-inspired design was built in 1905 and is on the Historic Hotels of America registry. It is even believed that Seelbach was an inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hotel described in The Great Gatsby. We leaned toward this now-Hilton property in 2015 for its beautiful design and also curiosity about its haunted past.
For a gathering of friends, it can be more economical (and fun) to look towards websites like Airbnb and Vrbo. We found a wonderful 4-bedroom house centrally located for our distilleries on Valhalla Golf Course that was marketed towards the Bourbon Trail experience.
The Bourbon (and Beyond) Trail
Mid-September is the perfect time to visit Louisville to capture its full Bourbon pride. Not only is it an official Bourbon Week where many of the distilleries put out special batches and bottles, but it also features the Bourbon and Beyond Music Festival. I was able to catch the first day of the festival this year which included performances by Alanis Morisette, Jack White, The Revivalists and more. I am a listener and fan of all three and all delivered high energy sets for the sold out crowd. Later days of the festival were headlined by Pearl Jam, Kings of Leon, and Chris Stapleton.
On top of some of the best festival acts touring this year, it was also a bourbon lover’s paradise. The most well-known brands (and up-and-coming brands you have never heard of) had featured tents. My highlights included a hosted tasting of George Dickel’s (a Tennessee Whiskey Interloper) newer Bourbon offerings and my discovery of Kiamichi, a collaboration between the Followill Family (Kings of Leon) and Willet. The premium price tag was well worth the discovery of a new great bourbon.
Now for the main event – the actual Bourbon! I’d like to highlight some of my favorite distilleries in Kentucky. While most of the distilleries have a bit of uniformity about them, as bourbon must follow a specific set of distilling rules, each one has something uniquely its own (much like their bourbon offerings) that makes the visit worthwhile. Check out the list of recommendations below.
If familiarity and comfort are your choice, I would suggest Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark. Jim Beam is the most popular Kentucky Bourbon in the world and because of this their tours book out over 90 days in advance. Short on time, you can usually book a tasting where you can try their classic taste options and other offerings including hard-to-find Bookers.
Maker’s Mark is known for their red-wax-encased bottle. Their Ambassador Program allows you to get your name on a barrel which entitles the Ambassador to a private tour and up to 6 bottles once the barrel ages.
Informative Bourbon Tours
Most of the tours you take do a great job describing the distilling process and the story of how their offering fits into Kentucky’s storied past. I recommend heading to Stitzel-Weller where their tour guides focus more on their story rather than their distilling process in a manner that takes you across their entire property. They offer a deeper historical context of their creation, near downfall in the 90s and recent resurgence.
At the end, you will also enjoy a tasting of bar mixing favorite Bulleit and lesser-known gem Blade and Bow. Another interesting tour is my personal favorite Bourbon at Four Roses. You will learn about their Mission-Inspired Architecture as well as enjoy their classic flavor, Small Batch, and Single Barrel.
What to do in Louisville
If you don’t want to travel outside of the Louisville city limits you don’t have to miss out on the fun. Angels Envy restored the old American Elevator & Machine Company into their urban distillery in the mid-2010s. Even though it may be a younger brand, it has become instantly popular with a wide reach.
Also downtown, the Evan Williams Experience tells the story of the first licensed distillery in the form of a multimedia experience. After the tours and tastings, you can continue the bourbon experience on Fourth Street Live, a street of lively bars and entertainment in the downtown district where bars serve up your favorite whiskey cocktails.
The Beautiful Bourbon-y Landscapes of Kentucky
Located off the beaten path in Versailles (not pronounced like the French namesake but Vur-Sails) is one of the finer bourbons made in the state, Woodford Reserve. The tour will take you throughout the property offering dynamic landscape views and at the end enjoy their popular classic offering as well as a treat in their Double Oak.
Up the road a bit in the capital city of Frankfort is another picturesque parcel at Buffalo Trace. It offers the widest variety of tours including a tour of their amazing gardens and a Haunted History Tour in the Fall. If you’re lucky, you may be fortunate to find a bottle of their highly coveted Blanton’s or Pappy Van Winkle collection. If not, you can’t go wrong with Eagle Rare or their non-alcoholic option Freddie’s Root Beer (literally the best Root Beer I have ever had).
The examples above just scratch the surface of the distilleries to visit in Kentucky. On my most recent trip, we visited five distilleries over two days which seemed about perfect considering the distance between locations. The trip was such a success, our group has committed to make the trek again next year to find more treasures through the Bluegrass State and add to the list above. And remember to please drink responsibly and designate a driver for your own Bourbon Tour experience across the Bluegrass state.