Visiting The Kentucky Bourbon Trail – Tips & Tricks For Your Visit!
Updated: Apr 19
If you know me and follow my blog, you know that wine is my drink of choice. Sure, I’ll have a beer from time to time. And, when I’m in Jamaica, I love to drink rum drinks.
But bourbon is not really my thing. I can appreciate it, but I’m definitely not going to order it at a bar or restaurant.
So, when my husband informed me that since we were going to be in Cincinnati for a Dave Matthews Band show, he really wanted to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and some of his favorite bourbon makers, I wasn’t thrilled.
But, we were only two hours away from the trail, and since we do a lot of wine trips, it was only fair that he get one day of bourbon.
So, did I survive? Did I like any of the bourbon? Keep reading to find out!
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SO, TELL ME ABOUT BOURBON
Bourbon is to the United States what Champagne is to France. You can make it somewhere else, but you can’t call it bourbon. In addition, bourbon is a type of whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Confused yet? Keep reading to learn more.
THE HISTORY OF BOURBON
People have been making bourbon since the 18th century. Some people believe that the name came from a French royal family whose surname was Bourbon. Others believe it was named after Bourbon County in Kentucky.
Whichever is true, bourbon was first made in the U.S. by Scottish and Irish settlers, who brought their knowledge of distilling with them. However, rather than distilling with some of the ingredients they used back home, they started distilling with corn, which was cheap and abundant from their farms.
The popularity of bourbon began to grow until it came to an abrupt halt in 1920 due to Prohibition. Many original bourbon distilleries were shut down, never to be opened again. Those that could convince the government that they were making bourbon for “medicinal purposes” were able to continue. Once Prohibition was repealed in 1933, some of the bigger distilleries came back online.
Buffalo Trace is one of the original distilleries that survived Prohibition. Several of the buildings, including this warehouse, are very old.
Today, the bourbon industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and bourbon is the most widely exported spirit in the U.S. Several of the big bourbon distilleries are growing at an unbelievable pace!
WHAT MAKES IT BOURBON?
As I mentioned above, bourbon is a kind of whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. There are specific requirements that make it bourbon:
It must be made in America. While most bourbon (95%) is made in Kentucky, it is not a requirement that it is made in Kentucky.
It must be created from a mash that is at least 51% corn.
The spirits must be aged in new American oak barrels.
Bourbon must go into the barrel at 125 proof and must go into the bottle at no less than 80 proof.
Nothing other than water can be added. The brown color of the bourbon is not from any sort of coloring that has been added. It’s from aging in the charred barrel.
We learned on our visit to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, that each distillery has their own take on making bourbon within these requirements. Some distilleries use a higher percentage of corn. Others leave the bourbon in the barrel for longer or shorter periods of time.
NOT EVERY BOURBON IS THE SAME
When making bourbon, the aging process is a science in itself. Not only is it a question of how long the bourbon sits in the barrel. It is also a question of what temperature the bourbon is aged at, and how the bourbon is blended before being put in the bottle.
Each barrel at every distillery is positioned in the warehouse based on what the master distiller is trying to do with the bourbon.
In addition to using different techniques to make the bourbon, distillers make different versions of their bourbon.
Small batch bourbon means it’s a blend of a small number of barrels – typically less than 100.
Single barrel bourbon is exactly what it sounds like – bourbon made from a single barrel.
Unfiltered bourbon means that they don’t filter it before bottling. Unfiltered bourbons typically have a hazy look to them.
VISITING THE KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL
If you are into bourbon and want to visit where the best bourbon is made, you should visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Most of the distilleries are generally located in the Lexington, KY area, which is just a 1 1/2 to 2 hour drive from Cincinnati.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail features 16 signature distilleries and 20 craft distillers.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN DURING MY VISIT?
I am a wine drinker and I’m used to doing wine tastings. Doing bourbon tastings is much different. Every distiller we visited either required you to do a tour with your tasting, or do a guided tasting.
Tip #1: Doing a bourbon tasting is a time commitment. If you are doing a tour with a tasting, plan on 90 minutes at the distillery. If you are doing a guided tasting, plan on 30 minutes. The tastings are scheduled (you can’t just walk in and start tasting), so it’s important to really schedule out your day so you can maximize your time.
Tip #2: While it’s very interesting to do the tour and see the process, I would recommend doing the tour at the first distillery you visit only. While each distillery has a slightly different process, you will get the gist of the bourbon making process on one tour. During your guided tasting, that particular distiller will explain the nuances of their specific bourbon making process.
Tip #3: All of the distilleries we visited were family friendly. Clearly, the kids can’t taste the end product, but they are allowed on the property and can do the tours as well.
Again, each distillery is a bit different, but most give you a small pour (2 ounces) of 4 or 5 different bourbons. As you are tasting each bourbon, the person doing the tasting will explain how each one is made, including how long it is aged in the barrel.
OUR KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL VISITS
During our visit to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, we were able to visit four distilleries. My husband chose these particular distilleries because they make some of his favorite bourbons.
FOUR ROSES DISTILLERY
Our first stop was to Four Roses Distillery. Because it was our first stop, we opted to take the tour which ended with a tasting. The tour starts with a movie that talks about the bourbon making process and Four Roses bourbon. From there, we moved out into the facility to learn more about the distillation process. Our tour guide was excellent and we learned a lot!
The entrance to Four Roses Distillery.
The outside of the distilling facility at Four Roses.
The bourbon is tasted at various points in the process at stations like this.
The tour ended in the tasting room, and we got to taste several different bourbons. Because I’m not a bourbon drinker, I’m not sure I fully appreciated what I was tasting. To be honest, my tongue felt numb after sampling the first bourbon. But, my husband enjoyed it and it was a great experience!
Tip #4: Four Roses has two facilities you can visit. The Lawrenceburg location is the distillery, and the tour focuses on the distilling process. Their other location is in Cox’s Creek, KY. That is their warehouse and bottling facility. Pick the right location for you depending on which part of the process you are most interested in.
The tour at Four Roses focused on the distilling process.
Four Roses does take reservations for their tours and tastings, or you can show up and it’s first come first served. Tours start on the hour every hour. The last tour starts at 3:00 p.m. Tastings are offered every half hour, with the last tasting starting at 3:30 p.m.
BUFFALO TRACE DISTILLERY
Buffalo Trace was the distillery that my husband was looking forward to most. He’s a big fan of both Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare (which is one of many brands they make).
The Buffalo Trace facility is quite large and you could spend hours there. Manage your time wisely!
We again opted to do the tour. This time, the tour focused more on the aging and bottling part of the process. We were able to go into one of the warehouses and see the barrels.
In addition, we were able to go into one of their bottling facilities.
Empty Eagle Rare bottles waiting to be filled!
The tour ended with a tasting. I opted to skip the tasting (I had enough bourbon for one day), although I did sample the Bourbon Cream. They added some root beer to it, and it tasted just like a root beer float!
Tip #5: Looking back, we should have skipped the tour at Four Roses and just did a tasting. The Buffalo Trace tour was more informative. But be aware, it took a full 90 minutes to do the tour and tasting, so plan your time accordingly.
Be sure to check out the history of why the distillery is called Buffalo Trace.
Tours and tastings at Buffalo Trace are free. The Trace Tour is their standard tour (and the tour we did). Those tours leave at least hourly. Buffalo Trace offers several specialty tours as well, but those tours do require reservations.
WOODFORD RESERVE DISTILLERY
By the time we made it to Woodford Reserve, we got smart and opted to only do the tasting. Even with the tasting, plan on at least 30 minutes as they guide you through their bourbons.
The entrance to Woodford Reserve. Note that this is the buiding they do the tastings in. If you would like a tour, go to the other building.
Once again, I opted out of the tasting. However, my husband quickly became the teacher’s (or tour guide’s) pet during his tasting. Every time the tour guide asked if someone had tried a certain bourbon that they were tasting, my husband was the only one to raise his hand every time.
The nice thing about the guided tasting, was the guide did a great job explaining how to taste the bourbon and recommending different things to maximize the experience.
Tip #6: There are two buildings on the property. The new building is where the tours start. The older building is where you do the tasting. Save yourself some time and go to the right building depending on what you want to do. Also note that the tasting was done outside on the deck of the building and it was HOT! The couple of ceiling fans trying to circulate air was not enough to stop the sweating.
The standard tour at Woodford Reserve lasts an hour. They also offer a Bourbon Legacy Tour as well as a Friday Night Tour. Reservations are strongly encouraged for all of the tours and can be made online.
LEXINGTON BREWING & DISTILLING COMPANY
Our last stop of the day was at the Lexington Brewing & Distilling Company. We arrived late in the afternoon, and we were hoping to just be able to taste a few of the Town Branch bourbons, as we had to get back to Cincinnati for a baseball game.
Unfortunately, they do not allow you to taste the bourbon without taking the tour. And, the tour is two parts – part one is the brewery and part two is the distillery. Because the last tour had already left, we missed the brewery part, but they allowed us to join in for the distillery portion.
By this point, I felt like I could be a tour guide and explain how the bourbons were made. I understand that each distiller has their own take on the process and wants to explain why their bourbon is the best, but it was honestly too much.
My theory is that they make you take the tour and/or do the guided tasting because they want to slow people down and limit the number of distilleries that a person can visit each day. Unlike a wine tasting where you can typically go as fast or slow as you’d like, there is no way to speed up the process. y
Tip #7: While my husband wasn’t as impressed with the Town Branch bourbons, they did have some unique things that they let you taste. In addition to the bourbon, they had several different whiskeys. They also had a rum. So, if you are looking to try some other types of spirits and to try some beers as well, this may be the place for you.
Tours start on the hour. The last tour of the day leaves at 4:00 p.m. At the end of the tour you will receive four tokens. This allows you to choose four of their numerous spirits to taste. The tour starts in the brewery and ends in the distillery. Each tour lasts about an hour and fifteen minutes.
SUMMING IT UP!
So, I survived my day on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. While bourbon is still not my drink of choice, I did learn a lot. Plus, my husband thoroughly enjoyed his day on the trail. I hope after reading this, you learned more about bourbon too and are ready for your own Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience!
Are you a bourbon fan? Have you visited the Kentucky Bourbon Trail? Tell us about your experience. Please comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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