In Kentucky, bourbon is king. Sure, mint juleps are fine to sip at occasional events, like maybe a world-famous horse racing derby. But if you want to taste the real boozy soul of the Bluegrass State, then you need to order the whiskey that shares its name with the famous county where many believe American whiskey was born.
To be fair, there is some contention as to the actual genesis of the name “bourbon,” but what we know for sure is that during the late 1800s American southerners had begun distilling a form of whiskey made from corn and aged in charred oak barrels, giving it a distinct amber color and mellow flavor and was called “bourbon.” Some believe that it was named after the street in New Orleans, where ships carrying the barrels were unloaded, but the most popular origin story is that it came from a region (named after a French royal house) that originally was part of Virginia and covered what is today more than 30 counties in Kentucky.
Today the state now cooks up 95% of the world’s bourbon. And if you want to learn more about, and probably most importantly, taste some of the state’s rich boozy liquid gold, then you need to take on the Bourbon Trail.
What’s the Bourbon Trail?
Started in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the Bourbon Trail is a program originally meant to promote the state’s bourbon industry and has since become a challenge to all whiskey lovers, the completion of which is a declaration of their dedication to bourbon. A mapped 225-mile swath from Lexington to Louisville, the Bourbon Trail marks 9 stops that distil the state’s most well-known bourbon and which you can visit. These include Four Roses, Jim Beam, Bulleit, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Evan Williams, Heaven Hill, and Town Branch.
How Do I Do the Bourbon Trail?
Before you get started with your Kentucky Bourbon Trail you’re going to need a passport. Don’t take this one with you into customs, because the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport is a free souvenir that’s given to you at your first distillery stop. Every time you stop at one of the 9 distilleries, you will receive a stamp on your passport and when you’ve finished the trail, you will be honored with an exclusive Kentucky Bourbon Trail t-shirt! Making your love for bourbon internationally recognized.
You can then start in either Lexington or Louisville and just follow the route from either point. But the suggested itinerary for a journey on the Bourbon Trail is to start in Louisville and head on to Lebanon, then double back to hit Bardstown and Shepherdsville, before making your way to finish up at Lexington,
Each distillery offers tours that last about an hour and a half. While the self-guided tour is an option, at all of the locations, the basic tour will set you back between $5-$10, but what comes out of your wallet, you’ll make back with a complimentary bourbon tasting. You can find the tours details on each participating distillery’s website.
How Long Does It Take?
To fully experience the Bourbon Trail takes about three days, but it could be done (with an early enough start on Friday) over a weekend.
Is There a Time of Year That’s Best to Do the Bourbon Trail?
You can do the trail and visit the distilleries throughout the year, but according to the Bourbon Trail website some of the distilleries shut down for maintenance in the summer — meaning you might not be able to see the bourbon being made. So if that matters to you, be sure to check with the distilleries you want to visit.
I Heard You Can Run the Bourbon Trail or Something, What’s Up With That?
The Bourbon Chase is an overnight relay road race that covers most of the Bourbon Trail, starting at the Jim Beam Distillery near Bardstown and spanning 200 miles to finish with a celebration in downtown Lexington. But don’t let the word “race” fool you, because just like fine bourbon, the journey focuses on quality rather than quantity.
I’m More into Smaller Craft Bourbons, So I Guess I Wouldn’t like the Bourbon Trail, Huh?
If you do want to delve deeper into the unrivaled craftsmanship of the Kentucky Bourbon industry, then the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour is for you. Targeted more for the enthusiast, you will be able to try new handcrafted brands from 13 distilleries and really get to the core of what makes world-renown Kentucky grade bourbon. This tour is designed to savor the experience, so it’s recommended to take as long as you’d like. And, don’t forget to bring your official Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport with you, because these distilleries offer stamps. Just when you thought you were a well-travelled bourbon connoisseur.