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Toasting the American Spirit

A tour of America's only Bourbon Trail

The bluegrass state of Kentucky with the Appalachian Mountains is indisputably known as the Mecca of bourbon and the location of America’s only Bourbon Trail.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, established in 1999, is dotted with a total of 37 distilleries scattered throughout the regions of Louisville, Western Kentucky, Bardstown, Lexington and North Kentucky.

For bourbon aficionados and road trip lovers alike, the trail promises scenic country drives, historic architecture, and an abundance of restaurants and tasting rooms with some distilleries spanning more than 100 miles apart.

The most popular bourbon distillery locations one might expect to see along the trail are: Angles Envy, Maker’s Mark, Michter’s, Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Lux Row, Old Forester, Four Roses, Evan Williams, Bulleit, and Jim Beam. 

Within each distillery and on its grounds, bourbon lovers can expect to find a variety of bourbon price points, flavor profiles, distilling and aging techniques, and historical points of interest. Each location offers a variety of tour options: some focusing on the chemistry of bourbon distillation, the art of tasting, the barrel charring process, or the rich (and checkered) history of bourbon’s origins. 

One constant seems to remain—most Kentucky distilleries cannot broach the topic of their favorite drink without also offering a glimpse of its history. The name “bourbon” hails from the original Bourbon County, which was a region carved from a portion of the Fayette County of Virginia in 1785. The county, which belonged to the then-brand-new state of Kentucky, was named in honor of the French House of Bourbon to show gratitude to King Louis XVI for his vital assistance during the American Revolutionary War.   

Prior to its exodus from the region, loads of white oak barrels cut from the forests of Arkansas were first branded with the Bourbon County label. The county logo branded on the barrels soon gave way to its shorthand references: Bourbon. The rest is, quit literally, history.

The oldest operational distillery in Kentucky is Maker’s Mark, which began distilling in 1805 and has since been recognized as a National Historic Landmark. In 1964, a Congressional Resolution declared bourbon to be an indigenous product of the United States. This distinction renders bourbon as the official American Spirit. To be recognized as a bourbon, a spirit must meet specific and strict requirements set forth by law. In fact, bourbon distillation marks one of America’s very first examples of a consumer protection law with the establishment of the “Bottled-in-Bond” Act in 1897 (The Bottled-in-Bond designation have bourbon standards which supersede those of single-malt Scotch).

All bourbon starts as what distillers refer to as White Lightning—an uncolored, unaged, and unflavored whiskey. Whiskey functions as the stem cell of bourbon—it’s the bare bones and the foundation. This whiskey must be made with mash consisting of at least 51% corn. As long as that ratio is met, the mash may also include other grains such as rye and barley. During the distillation process, the liquid must not supersede a proof of 160, and must not supersede a proof of 125 at the time it’s poured into barrels to begin the aging process. All bourbon must be aged in new, charred, white oak barrels for a minimum of two years before it is finally bottled at 80 proof or higher. No other dyes or flavors may be introduced into the distilling or aging process if a bourbon is to retain its namesake. 

Even though 95% of bourbon is distilled in Kentucky, bourbon does not need to be distilled in the state to be considered authentic. Most bourbon was historically made in Kentucky due to its geography. The rich source of limestone in Kentucky earth acts as a natural aquifer, purifying the water and removing the more peaty flavors one would find in spirits distilled with earthier water quality, such as Scotch. The varied temperatures, humidity levels, and weather patterns in the Kentucky region cause the white oak barrels to contrast and swell. This unique aging process gives bourbon its signature amber hue as well as its sweet and dynamic flavor. 

Guests interested in seeing each distillery along the trail should plan on the trip taking at least 7 days, according to the updated schedule provided on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail website. 

While the tour itinerary is flexible enough to have many starting points, the official ‘start’ of the trail can be found at the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center located at the Frazier Museum on Historic Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville. The destinations along the trail can be planned a number of ways: by distillery, by region, or by organized tour itinerary. Some distillery locations are packed as tightly as an 8-mile radius, with the average tour lasting about 90 minutes. 

Guests who schedule an official KBT tour receive a Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport at the beginning of their journey and have the pleasure of watching stamps fill their pages as they makes their way through the Kentucky countryside. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passports do not expire, so travelers may rest assured that they can complete any unfinished portions of their tours at a later date if the tastings become too rigorous. Each distillery along the trail has its own admission fee for tours but offer more than one tour option at each location. Some Distilleries, such as Four Roses and Jim Beam, offer two distillery tour locations. Guests are welcome to visit both locations if they desire but will receive only one stamp in their Bourbon Trail passports. 

For those who want to travel off the beaten path, several famous distilleries in the area do not appear on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail list. One of the more famous of these is the Buffalo Trace Distillery, responsible for distilling bourbon of that name as well as the more rare and sought-after bottles of Blanton’s and E.H. Taylor. The Buffalo Trace distillery is located on a national landmark and offers free tastings, as well as Ghost tours for those who are interested in a different kind of spirit.