Picture this: Idling away the afternoon, sipping premium spirits while taking in the scenic beauty of the southern U.S. Well, if you travel to Kentucky, you'll have plenty of options to make this a reality.
That's because the state is world famous for its bourbon distilleries, dozens of which dot the rural landscape. You can check out the most famous by trekking the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, an experience that gives visitors a firsthand look at the art of crafting bourbon, along with lessons about the rich history of the spirit. Here's all you have to know about this iconic experience.
A Brief History
In Kentucky, the history of bourbon is almost dates back to the founding of the United States. An influx of German, Scottish and northern Irish immigrants brought their whiskey-distilling knowledge to Kentucky in the late 1700s, thanks to the Corn Patch and Cabin Rights Act, which offered 160 hectares to settlers to build homes and plant corn in the territory. Although rye had been the dominant ingredient in whiskey, the plethora of corn crops inspired distillers to change their recipe to a corn-based whiskey. By the 1780s, a distinctive style of whiskey was being distilled in Kentucky, eventually getting its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, once the major shipping site for spirits heading south on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, Louisiana. On the long journey, the whiskey aged in their oak barrels, creating its distinctive mellow flavor and amber coloring.
In 1964, the United States Congress declared Kentucky bourbon as an official product of the United States, or, its preferred moniker, “America's Official Native Spirit." In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers' Association formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour to educate visitors from both near and far on the art of crafting bourbon, and pass down stories from the spirits rich tradition. Today, more than 95 percent of the world's bourbon is distilled and aged in Kentucky, with around 5 million barrels of bourbon always aging in the warehouses of Bourbon County.
Where to Drink
The easiest way to experience 10 of the most celebrated bourbon distilleries in Kentucky is by taking four or five days to follow the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Although the trail has no official starting point, you'll want to start in Louisville, one of the most vibrant cities in Kentucky. On day one, enjoy the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller (and don't forget to pick up your free Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport), then head back to Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville for a tour of Angel's Envy, where you'll see the distillation process from beginning, to barreled, to poured, concluding with a tasting at The Finishing Room bar. At Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, you can participate in the production process and even bottle your own Jim Beam Product. Other stops along the trail include tours and tastings at globally-recognized names such as Maker's Mark, Woodford Reserve Distillery and Wild Turkey. Collect stamps from all 10 distilleries, and you'll receive a complimentary Kentucky Bourbon Trail souvenir T-shirt to commemorate your visit.
You'd be mistaken to think that the only way to try bourbon is by sipping it. Bourbon culture seeps into the cuisine in many local restaurants along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, like Dish on Market in Louisville, where the Bread Pudding French Toast is served with vanilla bourbon sauce. At Bourbon Raw, try the classic Southern dish, Shrimp & Grits – jumbo shrimp, country ham and white cheddar grits served in a tomato and bourbon cream sauce, or the tender, braised short ribs at Bourbons Bistro, covered in a rich, rye bourbon demi-glace.
If you find you've had one sip too many, ride-hailing apps Lyft and Uber offer on-demand safe ride services along the trail with promo code KYDISTILLERS for new users. To avoid the planning and driving altogether, consider booking a tour with Mint Julep Tours, or creating your own custom itinerary with R&R Limousine Service.