A Practical Guide to Touring the Bourbon Trail
From July 7th to July 10th in the year of our Lord 2021 my wife and I visited eight distilleries across the great state of Kentucky. And while researching the trip I found lots of tours I could take, shuttle services to get me around, and tips on which of the many tours offered by Bourbon makers to go on. What I didn’t find was any practical articles, listicles, or guides on what visiting a distillery is like. I’m sure there’s an r/Bourbon post out there that covers some things, and I bet there’s some YouTube channel with 325 subscribers that has a shakey iPhone tour but I couldn’t find them. So here, now, for you, is my practical guide to touring the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is Bullshit
The first thing you need to know is that the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a bunch of horseshit. Distilleries pay to be on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail. There are 65 makers of fine Bourbon Whiskey in Kentucky but you’ll only find 18 on the trail. While this makes things convenient for people who aren’t deeply into the spirit and are just looking for something to do, the tour excludes one of the biggest and definitely the most sought after distillery in Kentucky, Buffalo Trace. Trace doesn’t need to be on the Bourbon Trail, in fact their lone ad in the 2021 Visit Kentucky guidebook is a quarter page near the back.
I used a website called Bourbon Country to plan my trip. Scouting out areas near where we were staying to decide which distilleries to visit. This website not only showed every distillery in a town but also places to stay, eat, and visit. So if you’re a bit more of a Bourbon enthusiast skip the trail and blaze your own path.
You Need to Sign Up for Tours in Advance
This is especially true of the aforementioned Buffalo Trace who puts their tours “on sale” (all tours at Buffalo Trace are complimentary) on the 1st of the month before the month you want to go. (ex. A tour in August will become available on July 1). I waited in a 45 minute queue at 8am on June 1st to get the “Trace Tour” that I desired. At nearly every other distillery that we visited we were greeted with giant signs proclaiming that day’s tours sold out. Luckily we had purchased all of our tours in advance.
The prices of tours vary wildly but as no surprise the smaller the distillery the more expensive the tour. Just try to get all your tours booked before you leave for your trip and you’ll avoid a potential headache when you get there.
You Don’t Need to Book an “Experience”
“Don’t get a DUI” “The Best Way to See the Bourbon Trail” there are several companies in Kentucky that will load you onto a bus and take you around to 3 distilleries for 4 times the price of just booking the tours yourself. Here’s the first thing you need to know. You don’t need a designated driver. The tastings BY LAW are not allowed to serve you more than 1.75oz of Bourbon. By the time you’ve completed a lengthy tasting, and exited through the gift shop you’ll be fine to drive.
Now on the flip side of this you can drink on the tour bus. So, buy a bottle, crack it open on the bus and make some new friends. However, every tour we did after 3pm was full of a crew of people who fell off their tour bus and were HAMMERED. Making the experience pretty obnoxious for those of us who were trying to learn something. If your goal is to get rip roaring drunk off Bourbon, book an experience, but for me the week I spent in Kentucky was honestly the least I’ve drank in a long time.
Don’t Leave a Huge Gap Between Tours
Easily one of the biggest mistakes I made when booking my distillery tours was putting large gaps of time between them. Thinking that the tour would be 1+ hours, a leisurely stroll through the gift shop, checking out the premises, and then needing to drive a long distance to get to the next one I put hours long buffers between tours.
Most of these places want you in, out, and on the road. We spent 2 hours of our trip wandering around Walmart just to kill some time. Now maybe this is completely my fault as the way our trip worked we “home-based” out of Frankfort, KY picked a town, drove there, and then did 2-3 distilleries in that town before driving back to home-base. So the first thing you need to know is that most distilleries in a town are less than 10 minutes from each other. Next, these places operate with deadly efficiency. Everything that is for sale is visible in one glance. You pick out your bottle(s), your shirt(s), your glass(es), etc, and you are rung up and done. There is nothing more to see, take a selfie with the sign out front, and get out.
You (Probably) won’t Find Rare Bourbon
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but I thought for sure I would be picking up a couple bottles of Bourbon I could only dream of getting my hands on, but alas the rivers do not run with Pappy 20, and you don’t pick Booker’s off a tree in the Booker’s fields.
There are some exceptions to this, first is a place called Toddy’s Liquors which is a run down shack on the side of the road. I drove past this “mecca to Bourbon” TWICE not even considering what treasures it could have inside. Now had I gone in, I would have found some rare Bourbons. However, Toddy charges near secondary pricing, and while that may be exciting to you it’s a turn off for me and I’m pretty glad I didn’t stop after all.
If you are very desperate for potentially rare bottles there’s waiting in line at a distillery before it opens. This routinely (every day) happens at Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill. We actually went and did it at Buffalo Trace since it was only 5 minutes from our AirBnb. They open at 10:00am and we got in line behind 70 or so people at 9:15am. After getting checked in, and given wristbands for the gift shop we entered the shop at 10:00am with about 50 other people. No, I don’t know where those 20 people vanished to. However, once inside there was no rare Bourbon to be found. Just the same bottles that were lining the glass shelves the day before.
After our Heaven Hill tasting (they weren’t offering tours) we were told by our guide that people line up outside as early as 6am and according to social media we missed being able to obtain a bottle of Old Fitzgerald 16 year. Oh well.
Now this doesn’t mean you wont bump into something unique or rare. At Peerless Distilling Co. you can ONLY buy their single barrel offerings at the gift shop. And they are part of the tasting, meaning you get to try them before you commit $125 on a bottle. And this is honestly one of the best parts of the tastings. You’ll try something you’ve never had before, and potentially be able to purchase a bottle of it in the gift shop. This is how I discovered Heaven Hill’s Bernheim 7 Year Aged Wheated Whiskey which honestly rivals one of my favorites (and also very hard to get) WL Weller Special Reserve.
So while you probably aren’t going to go home with an allocated release you may just find your new favorite.
Sexism Runs Through The Trail
This is something that blew my mind every time it happened. All but 2 of our tours and tastings were led by old white men. And at each one of these something along the lines of “oh did your husbands drag you here” or “the women are probably gonna make a face when we try this one” was said. It was cringe inducing every time. One tour had a male tour guide with a female trainee and he was easily one of the worst offenders of this, I quietly hoped that she was there to replace him.
I know this kind of stuff is no big deal for some people but I just can’t figure out how we’ve come this far, with the Bourbon market booming so big, and we have tours like this. In 10 years of craft beer being one of my hobbies I never saw as much sexism as I saw in four days of being in distilleries.
That’s it, hopefully I’ve filled you with enough info to help you have a great experience discovering how they turn the clear liquor into the brown liquor. I don’t know if I would ever go back, but I was very happy to check this off my list of places I’ve visited. And I think you’d have a good time if you went.
Buffalo Trace – Frankfort, KY
Bulleit – Shelbyville, KY
Wild Turkey – Lawrenceburg, KY
Barton 1792 – Bardstown, KY
Heaven Hill – Bardstown, KY
Bardstown Bourbon Co – Bardstown, KY
Peerless Distilling Co – Louisville, KY
Angel’s Envy – Louisville, KY