Bourbon whiskey, or bourbon, is the only spirit native to the United States. Unlike Champagne or tequila, which must come from specific regions, "bourbon" is not a protected name in the usual sense, and bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. Yet 95% of bourbon comes from a 90-mile region in the center of Kentucky. This is attributed to an abundance of corn (the primary source of grain in bourbon), limestone in the ground producing pleasant spring water, and alternating hot summers and cold winters, which help the bourbon seep in and out of the barrels to age quickly. Touring bourbon distilleries can take you from urban centers to the scenic Kentucky countryside, let you brush up on a bit of history and science, and gives you a chance to enjoy some of Kentucky's liquid gold.
- See also: Whiskey
Pretty much all distilleries offer tours, most lasting about an hour, where they teach you about how they make their bourbon. The process is nearly the same at each one; it's subtle differences that give each its distinctive flavor. The tour guides will explain the basics of bourbon, but they also love answering detailed questions, especially if it gives him a chance to explain why they think their bourbon is better than everyone else's! And of course, tours invariably end with a tasting of their products. For most people, this is the highlight of the tour, as you finally get to experience the complex flavors the tour guides were talking about.
The Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau runs the Bourbon Country website and printed guide, which has up-to-date listings of essentially every operating distillery in Kentucky, as well as suggested itineraries and recommendations for restaurants and bars. The Kentucky Distillers' Association promotes participating bourbon distilleries on their Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which is just an advertising name with a officious trademark; distilleries not on the Trail are absolutely worth a visit, while two stops on the Trail are actually just showrooms with small artisanal distilleries, not the actual production headquarters.
These days, due to massive consolidation in the industry and consumer demand for a wide variety of premium products, quite a lot of "craft", "heirloom", or "small batch" bourbons — including many that you may not think of as such — are actually industrially-produced bourbon (many from a factory distillery in Indiana) that's blended, sometimes with finishing touches like additional aging in special barrels, and labeled as unique brands. A few of these labels intend to or have used this as a stepping stone to starting their own distillery, but most do not. Even after doing so, they may continue to mainly use the industrially-produced whiskey to keep up with demand. This is not to imply that those brands are bad; if you enjoy a particular bourbon, by all means, drink it! But for the purpose of touring distilleries, this article only lists working distilleries that mash, distill, and age at least some amount of their product.
Lexington is, in some ways, a better choice, since four distilleries (Town Branch, Barrel House, Bluegrass, and James E. Pepper) are downtown and five others are within a 45-minute drive.
On the other hand, Louisville could be said to be the superior starting point not only because it's home to several distilleries and showrooms (which run small artisanal distilleries on site) but also because it originated many bourbon cocktails and has a strong connection to bourbon and bourbon lore.
However, an ideal home base for touring Bourbon Country might be Bardstown. Whereas Louisville's connection to distilling in modern times is mainly economic, Bardstown is home to five distilleries that have been open since Prohibition was repealed, and many others have their large-scale distilling plants or aging warehouses nearby. Its central location between Lexington and Louisville puts most distilleries within 1 hour's drive. With all that, it's easy to see why Bardstown calls itself the "Bourbon Capital of the World".
If you're planning on visiting the distilleries on your own, you'll need a car. All but a few are well out in the open country. You won't be bored by the drive, though, as Kentucky's scenic rolling hills are beautiful at any time of year. Only the most lightweight of drinkers will need a designated driver; the samples given at distilleries don't add up to more than one drink, and by the time you drive to your next stop and do their tour, it will long since have worn off.
There are also several tour and limousine services offering packages for visiting distilleries.
There are maps for getting around by bicycle, but it's quite a long trip.
Except for clusters in some cities, few distilleries are near each other. Even with the best planning, it would be impossible to visit more than four in a day due to tour schedules. Two per day is quite easy to achieve; you can usually manage three if you're dedicated, but probably not for the most remote ones.
- 1 Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, 114 N 5th St, Bardstown, ☏ . Nov-Apr Tu-Sa 10AM-4PM, Su noon-4PM; May-Oct M-F 10AM-5PM, Sa 10AM-4PM, Su noon-4PM. An extensive collection of the liquor memorabilia of Oscar Getz and other distillers from the 1700s to today. On display are George Washington's mill stone, Prohibition prescriptions, a replica of Lincoln's Tavern in Illinois and Carrie Nation's hatchet.
- 2 Barton 1792 Distillery, 501 Cathedral Manor, Bardstown, ☏ , toll-free: . Tours on the hour M-F 9AM-3PM, Sa 10AM-2PM. Located on the site of historic Tom Moore bourbon. Tours free.
- 3 Buffalo Trace Distillery, 113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, toll-free: . Tours M-Sa; call for times. Perhaps the oldest continuously running distillery in the USA, as it remained operational during Prohibition to make whiskey for "medicinal purposes". Besides their flagship Buffalo Trace whiskey, the site also distills and bottles smaller batches of other famous brands such as Blanton's, W. L. Weller, and the rare and highly sought after Pappy Van Winkle. There are multiple one-hour tours to choose from. The basic Trace tour is open to all on arrival, but suffers from overcrowding. Call ahead to book limited spots for the Hard Hat tour to see more behind-the-scenes action. Tours free.
- 4 Corsair Artisan Distillery, 400 E Main St #110, Bowling Green, ☏ . Tu-F 10AM-4PM, Sa 10AM-5PM; tours on the hour, last tour 1 hour before closing. Free. F-Sa open to public; reservations required on other days.
- Silent Brigade Distillery, 426 Broadway St, Paducah, ☏ . Tu 11AM-5PM, W 11AM-11PM, Th F 11AM-1AM, Sa 11AM-2AM; tours Tu-F 11AM-5PM.
Kentucky Bourbon TrailEdit
The promotional Kentucky Bourbon Trail comprises 18 distilleries — or rather, 16 distilleries and 2 showrooms. You can get a passport book at any of them, in which you can collect stamps from each distillery you tour. Once you have all the stamps, you can get a free official tasting glass from any of the three trailheads in Lexington, Louisville, or Bardstown, or by mail. Passports never expire, but you have to have completed all the current stops at the time you redeem your passport, even new ones, which go in the "notes" section.
- 1 Angel's Envy, 500 E Main St, Louisville, ☏ . M W-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su 1-5PM, Tu retail only 10AM-5PM. 1-hour tours every hour until 4PM (every half-hour F-Su). Tour $20. Reservations required; tours limited to groups of 12 or less (book multiple tour times for larger groups).
- 2 Bardstown Bourbon Company, 1500 Parkway Dr, Bardstown, ☏ .
- 3 Bulleit Distilling Company, 3464 Benson Pike, Shelbyville, ☏ .
- 4 Four Roses Distillery, 1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, ☏ . Tours M-Sa 9AM-3PM on the hour; Su noon-3PM on the hour. Four Roses' main building was built in the early 1900s in a Spanish mission style, complete with arches, red tiled roofs and even a bell tower. The tour starts with a video providing a good overview of the basics of bourbon making, followed by a trip through the plant, but if you're looking for a lot of details you may be disappointed. Tour $5, or free with receipt from Warehouse tour within 60 days; price includes a souvenir rocks glass.
- 5 Coxs Creek Warehouse & Bottling Facility, 624 Lotus Road, Coxs Creek (approximately one hour from the distillery by car), ☏ . Tours M-Sa 9AM-3PM on the hour; Su noon-3PM on the hour. Tour $5, or free with receipt from Distillery within 60 days.
- 5 Heaven Hill Distilleries, 1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown, ☏ . M-Sa 10AM-5PM (last deluxe tour 3:40PM); Su March-December noon-4PM. Mini tour ½ hour, $3; Deluxe tour 1¼ hours, $5; Trolley tour ½ hour, $5; Behind the scenes tour 3 hours (by appointment), $25.
- 6 Jim Beam Distillery (Jim Beam American Stillhouse), 526 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont, ☏ . M-Sa 9AM-5:30PM, tours every half hour 9:30AM-3:30PM, except 12:30PM; Su noon-4:30PM, tours every half hour 12:30PM-3PM. Adults (21+) $8; under 21 years old free.
- 7 Lux Row Distillers, 1 Lux Row, 3050 E John Rowan Blvd, Bardstown, ☏ . W-Sa 9:30AM-4PM, Su 12:30PM-4PM; tours every hour on the hour. Makers of Rebel Yell, Ezra Brooks, Blood Oath, and David Nicholson. Occasional VIP tours with the head distiller. Tour $12; reservations required. VIP tour $50.
- 8 Maker's Mark Distillery, 3350 Burks Springs Road, Loretto, ☏ . Tours M-Sa 10:30AM-3:30PM every hour on the half-hour; Su March-December 1:30, 2:30, 3:30PM; closed some holidays. Aside from the usual distillery tour perks, Maker's Mark offers a unique souvenir: you can purchase a small bottle of bourbon and dip it yourself in their signature red sealing wax (must be 21 or older). Free.
- 9 Mitcher's Fort Nelson Distillery, 801 W Main St, Louisville, ☏ . M, Th noon-8PM, F noon-11PM, Sa 11AM-11PM, Su 1-6PM, closed Tu-W; tours on the hour, last tour M-F 6PM, Sa 5PM, Su 4PM. Regular tour (1 hr) $20; Founders tour (1½ hrs) $50; Legacy tour (2 hrs; must reserve in advance) $100.
- 10 Old Forester Distilling Co., 119 W Main St, Louisville, ☏ . Tu-Th 10AM-6PM, F Sa 10AM-7PM, Su noon-5PM, M closed; tours every 15 minutes, last tour 1 hour before closing. Tour $18; $14 on Su when the distillery doesn't operate.
- 11 [dead link] O.Z. Tyler Distillery, 10 Distillery Road, Owensboro, ☏ . M-F 10AM-3PM, Sa 10AM-4PM; tours M-F 11AM, 2PM, Sa 11AM, 1PM, 3PM. Tour $10; designated drivers 50% discount and soda in place of whiskey tasting.
- 12 Rabbit Hole Distillery, 711 E Jefferson St, Louisville, ☏ . Tu-Th noon-7PM, F Sa 11AM-8PM, Su 1PM-7PM. Adult $23, senior/military $20, youth (11-20) $18, children free. Reservations required.
- 13 Town Branch Distillery (Alltech's Lexington Brewing & Distilling Company), 401 Cross Street, Lexington (downtown Lexington, near intersections of Versailles Rd. / W High St. and W. Maxwell St.), ☏ , ✉ TownBranchTours@alltech.com. M-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM; tours every hour, last tour at 4PM; Jan-Feb no tours on Tuesdays. Touring Town Branch, you'll get a double-header of beer and whiskey. From its roots as an agricultural company started by yeast expert Dr. Pearse Lyons, Alltech began brewing beer with the intention of making slightly more than its employees could drink. Ten years later, they now produce 5 beers and 3 spirits and are Kentucky's largest brewery, working 24 hours a day to keep up with demand, 80% of which is for their signature Bourbon Barrel Ale. Tour $8.50, 18 and under free.
- 14 Wild Turkey Distillery, 1417 Versailles Rd, Lawrenceburg, ☏ . Tours M-Sa 9AM-4PM on the hour; closed some holidays. $11.
- 15 Wilderness Trail Distillery, 445 Roy Arnold Ave, Danville, ☏ . Tours Th-Sa 10AM-4PM on the hour (Jan-Mar, Sa tours only on the first and third Sa); VIP tours Tu-W. Gift shop M-F 10AM-5PM and Sa during tours. Tours $7, children 12 and under free.
- 16 Woodford Reserve Distillery, 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, ☏ . M-Sa 9AM-5PM, tours hourly 10AM-3PM; Su noon-4:30PM, tours Mar-Dec hourly 1PM-3PM. One of the more popular distilleries (expect a crowd), their tour covers a lot of the fine details that go into bourbon making, and explains why their particular choices make their bourbon some of the best. Tours $14 (reservations only for large groups); Special tours by reservation (history tour W 2:30PM, $25; manufacturing tour Tu Th 2:30PM, $30).
Two of the "distilleries" on the Trail are just showrooms; the actual product is distilled elsewhere. Both do run small artisanal distilleries on site, although what they do with the spirits they produce there is unclear.
- 17 Stitzel–Weller Distillery, 3860 Fitzgerald Road, Louisville, ☏ . Tours W-Su 10AM-4PM; last tour 3PM. A historic distillery, this facility is now used by Bulleit mainly as a warehouse for aging. One still operates on site, but produces only about a barrel a day, used for experimentation and research. Tour adult $10, under 21 free.
- 18 Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, 528 W Main St, Louisville, ☏ . Tours M-Sa 10AM-5PM; Su 1-5PM; last tour 4PM. Their actual product is distilled at Heaven Hill. Tour adult $12, kids 11–20 $9, 10 and under free.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft TourEdit
For the true bourbon enthusiast, the Craft Tour showcases 19 micro-distilleries with an emphasis on innovative and handcrafted bourbons. Like the regular Trail, a passport is available; this one costs $3, but comes with lots of information, cocktail recipes, and more. The reward for completing a regional group of distilleries is a challenge coin, and for the whole passport, a tasting glass plus a barrel stave to display your coins. Like the regular Trail, you have to have completed all the current stops at the time you redeem your passport.
- Northern region
- 1 Boone County Distilling Co, 10601 Toebben Dr, Independence, ☏ .
- 2 Neeley Family Distillery, 4360 KY-1130 (Kentucky Speedway Blvd), Sparta, ☏ . M-Th 11AM-6PM, F-Sa 11AM-7PM, Su 1-6PM; tours on the hour, until 1 hr before closing. Tour $10.
- 3 New Riff Distillery, 24 Distillery Way, Newport,, ☏ . Tours Th-F 4PM and 6PM; Sa noon, 2PM, 4PM and 6PM; Su noon, 2PM, and 4PM. Tours last 45-60 minutes. Reserve tours online to guarantee admission.
- 4 The Old Pogue Distillery, 716 W 2nd St, Maysville (entrance is on W Germantown Rd). Tours by appointment W-Sa 10AM-2PM, Su 2PM. Book tours online.
- 5 Second Sight Spirits, 301 Elm St, Ludlow, ☏ . M Tu 7AM-noon, W-F 7AM-10PM, Sa 8AM-10PM; informal tours (20 min) W Th, distillery tours (1 hr) F Sa. Cocktails available W-Sa 5-10PM. Free.
- Central region
- 6 Jeptha Creed, 500 Gordon Lane, Shelbyville, ☏ . Jan-Mar Th noon-5PM, F Sa noon-6PM, Su noon-5PM; Apr-Dec Tu-Sa 11AM-6PM; Su noon-5PM; tours on the half-hour, last tour 1 hour before closing. Tours $10, children 12-20 $8.
- 7 Kentucky Artisan Distillery, 6230 Old Lagrange Rd, Crestwood, ☏ . Tu-Fr 10AM-4PM, Sa 10AM-2PM; tours on the hour. The home of Jefferson's Bourbon, as well as Whiskey Row Bourbon and Highspire Rye Whiskey. Tours $12.
- 8 Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company, 120 N 10th St, Louisville, ☏ .
- 9 Preservation Distillery, 426 Sutherland Rd, Bardstown, ☏ . Tu-F 10AM-5PM, Sa 9:30AM-5PM, Su noon-4PM. Tour $15, designated driver $10, military $7.50, under 21 $5.
- 10 Willett Distillery, 1869 Loretto Rd, Bardstown, ☏ . M-F 9AM-5:30PM, Sa 10AM-4:30PM, Su noon-4:30PM; tours M-F 10AM-4PM hourly, Sa 10AM-3PM hours, Su Mar-Dec 12:30PM, 1:45PM, 3PM. Tour and tasting $7; tour, tasting, and souvenir glass $10. Reservations recommended F-Su.
- Western region
- 11 Boundary Oak, 2000 Boundary Oak Dr, Radcliff, ☏ . M-Sa noon-6PM, Su 1-6PM. Tour $8, children (20 and under) free.
- 12 Casey Jones, 2815 Witty Ln, Hopkinsville, ☏ . M-Sa 10AM-6PM, Su 1-6PM; tours on the hour.
- 13 Dueling Grounds Distillery, 208 Harding Rd, Franklin, ☏ . M-Sa 10AM-6PM, Su 3-7PM. Unique cocktails every Sunday. Tour $6, distillery founder's tour (Sundays only) $30. Reservations required.
- 14 MB Roland Distillery, 137 Barkers Mill Rd, Pembroke (I-24 exit 89, north on KY Hwy 115 towards Pembroke), ☏ . Tu-Sa 10AM-6PM; tours every hour. Free.
- Bluegrass region
- 15 Barrel House Distilling, 1200 Manchester St, Building 9, Lexington (Old Frankfort Pike, in a gravel parking lot), ☏ . W-F noon-5PM (tours at 15 minutes past the hour 12:15PM-4:15PM), Sa-Su 11AM-3PM (tours 11:15AM-2:15PM). Their history ties back to the James E. Pepper Distillery, the former owner of their building 50 years prior. Current products include a vodka, moonshine, rum, and bourbons. Tours free (samples of vodka, moonshine, and 1 other spirit) or $5 (samples of all spirits, plus souvenir shot glass).
- 16 Bluegrass Distillers, 510 W Sixth St #165, Lexington, ☏ . Tu 10AM-noon, 1-5PM, W-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM. Tour $5.
- 17 Hartfield & Co., 320 Pleasant St, Paris, ☏ . Tu-Sa 8AM-10PM. Short tours (10-15 min) Tu-F throughout the day, long tour (1 hr) Sa 6PM by reservation (limit 8 people). The first distillery to operate in Bourbon County, Kentucky, in 95 years, when Prohibition was enacted in Kentucky. Tours free.
- 18 James E. Pepper, 1228 Manchester St, #100, Lexington (enter parking lot off Manchester Rd (Old Frankfort Pike); go to far end of parking lot; distillery has smokestack and "1776" water tower; entrance on the patio). Summer (Apr-Oct) W-Sa 10:30AM-3:30PM, Su noon-4PM; winter (Nov-Mar) W-F 12:30PM-3:30PM, Sa 10:30AM-3:30PM, Su noon-4PM; tours on the hour. Tour $20, veteran $10, military and children under 10 free.
- 19 Limestone Branch Distillery, 1280 Veterans Memorial Hwy, Lebanon, ☏ . M-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su 1-5PM; tours every hour, last tour 5PM. Evening and private tours by request.
A cooperage is a workshop that makes wooden barrels and casks. This old profession, while largely replaced by plastics and metals in the 20th century, is indispensable for aging liquor as most of the flavor comes from the charred wood on the inside of the barrel.
While there's no whiskey involved at these locations, tours may be interesting to those who enjoy a modern factory tour and want to learn more about this specialized occupation and the effects it has on bourbon and other aged spirits.
- 6 Brown-Forman Cooperage, MacLean Ave, Louisville. The factory where wooden barrels are crafted for the likes of Jack Daniel's, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, El Jimador and Herradura. Guided tours available from Mint Julep Tours from $75.
- 7 Kentucky Cooperage (ISC Barrels), 712 E Main St, Lebanon, ☏ . M-F 9AM, 10:30AM, 1PM. In addition to manufacturing barrels (and yes, you can custom-order one for yourself), their subsidiaries also offer used barrels, oak chips, and other wood and barrel products. Tours take 30-45 minutes. Closed-toe shoes required. No cameras. Free.
All distilleries allow you to purchase bottles of alcohol to take home. While convenient, prices are the same or even a bit worse than the average retailer as distilleries don't want to undercut them. (And by law, sales have to go through an independent distributor, so there's no middleman being cut out.) If you want to stock up (e.g. because your home state has high taxes or limited availability), you'll get a better deal from a liquor store. Most products are readily available, and the airports in Lexington, Louisville, and Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati have bourbon shops inside security so you can make last-minute purchases. However, if the distillery has a limited release, those are either hard to find or not available at all through normal retailers, so you should definitely purchase it at the distillery if you liked it.
If you're flying home, alcohol under 140 proof (70% ABV) is allowed in your checked baggage; do not carry it through security, as it will be confiscated (even if unopened)! Alcohol purchased after security can be carried on the plane.
New laws allow shipping liquor out of Kentucky (for both individuals and retailers), but only a handful of states allow receiving interstate shipments of alcohol. You must use UPS or FedEx, since the U.S. Postal Service doesn't allow alcohol.
In the same vein as the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the Louisville Visitors Bureau promotes their Urban Bourbon Trail, an advertising list of several dozen bars and restaurants mainly in downtown Louisville, all of which stock their bars with anywhere from 50 to 150 bourbons. Making a purchase (which needn't be bourbon or even liquor) at any of them gets you a stamp in your "passport", and with 6 stamps you can redeem your passport for a T-shirt and a certificate.