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Kentucky Bourbon Trail


By Russ Heaps
Drive Time: More than 5 hours.
Fly: Delta Airline 4 hours or less to Lexington, Ky – Greenville/Spartanburg to Atlanta and Atlanta to Lexington or 4 hours or less to Louisville, Ky also via Atlanta

For a lover of bourbon (and history), there’s no better way to wade into this distilled spirit than spending a day or three in and around the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (KBT). It’s the ideal starting point for any bourbon adventure.

Bourbon is America’s spirit: born, bred and made famous in this country. And, Kentucky is its cradle. It’s not true that to call a S0476499distilled spirit bourbon, it must not only pass the ingredient and aging muster, but must also be made in Kentucky. Nope, bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the U.S., but more than 95 percent of it is distilled in Kentucky. And while on the topic of where bourbon is made, Jack Daniels is not a bourbon. Although it bears many similarities to bourbon, Jack Daniels uses maple-charcoal filtering that is not part of the legal definition of the bourbon-distilling process. Jack Daniels is Tennessee whiskey.

A number of well-known distilleries are crowded into an area between Lexington and Frankfort just off of I-64. All but one are members of the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail. (Absent from the list is Buffalo Trace, which I’ll address later.) Consequently, the KBT Web site provides an informative starting point for seeking out and visiting bourbon distilleries. No more than a two-hour drive separates the most far-flung KBT distilleries from one another.

A very animated tour guide at Buffalo Trace.

A very animated tour guide at Buffalo Trace.

Among the KBT members in the immediate Frankfort/Lexington area are Four Roses, Town Branch, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. Expand the radius by 50 miles or so and you add Jim Beam, Makers Mark and Heaven Hill. Drive on into Louisville to find tasting rooms for Bulleit and Evan Williams.

There are distilleries that aren’t KBT members scattered about the the region as well. Paramount among them is Buffalo Trace – my personal favorite. Its resume of labels is long and storied: Elmer T. Lee, Eagle Rare, Colonel E.H. Taylor, Blanton’s, W.L. Weller, Van Winkle and others in addition to Buffalo Trace. Its tour is fun and informative, winding up – as most distillery tours do – in the tasting room. Located close to Frankfort, it offers several different tours including a ghost tour.

To begin planning your bourbon getaway, go to the KBT Web site and download its brochure. To help keep track of your distillery visits, pick up an official KBT Passport. You may headquarter your trip anywhere in the region, but begin your hunt for

Just a portion of the bourbon selection at a downtown Louisville restaurant.

Just a portion of the bourbon selection at a downtown Louisville restaurant.

accommodations in Louisville, Lexington and Frankfort. Bourbon is a big deal in Kentucky and many hotels provide some form of bourbon-tour package. Some hotels, like the Louisville Marriott East, go so far as describing themselves as bourbon themed.

If you want to put your bourbon experience in the hands of experts, there are some KBT-recommended outfits to do just that. Louisville’s R&R Limousine Service and Mint Julep Tours are two such tour planners.

If all you want to do is sample some new bourbons, most area restaurants and bars typically feature 20 to 30 bourbons or more.

Of course there are a lot more things to see and do in this area beyond touring distilleries. Church Hill Downs and the H&B Louisville Slugger Museum and factory are must-sees for Louisville visitors. There are a number of horse farms in the Lexington/Frankfort area that invite visitors as well. Check out Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park, billing itself as an equine theme park.

Yep, for any student or lover of bourbon, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail may not be the promise land, but it’s pretty darn close.


Hand dipping the wax caps at Maker’s Mark.