Exploring Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail

Tasting Kentucky’s Famous Bourbon in the Drive Through

By Leslie Patrick

Kentucky liquor store
Liquor World in Bardstown has a more than an admirable selection of bourbon. Photos by Leslie Patrick

Kentucky may be in the limelight because of its gleaming thoroughbreds racing down a track to glory in the annual fashionable gala that is the Kentucky Derby, but there is another draw the state is famous for: bourbon.

I have never before been to a liquor store that has an entire wall devoted exclusively to bourbon or driven through a drive-through liquor window until I visited the bourbon-loving state of Kentucky.

Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown

I sat at the bar in the Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown, Kentucky, sipping a glass of Fighting Cock bourbon while listening to fellow patrons tell tales of duck hunting and moonshine and it was apparent that I wasn’t in California anymore.

The Old Talbott Tavern (502/348-3494), though a bit rough around the edges, is an ideal place to begin your tour of Bourbon Country.

Located in Bardstown, the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” the tavern boasts numerous varieties of bourbon to sample, and the southern hospitality of the bartenders means they are always willing to offer guests their expert whiskey recommendations.

If you want to experience the spirit and history of distilling at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, then September is the best time to make the journey to Bardstown.

The Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown is a good place to begin your tour of Bourbon Country. Photos by Leslie Patrick
Thirsty? The Old Talbott Tavern is a great place to learn more about bourbon. Photos by Leslie Patrick

Bourbon History

Since the late 18th Century, Kentuckians have taken advantage of their natural surroundings by using the bountiful limestone spring water and prevalent grains grown on their surrounding fertile farmlands to distill fine Kentucky bourbon.

Bourbon was born in a place called Bourbon County, Kentucky, in 1786, and was named after the unique corn-spirit distilled specifically in this county.

Bourbon is unique to the US and must follow a strict set of rules to be labeled as such (Jack Daniels is not technically bourbon, for instance, because it uses a different process).

Although any US producer who follows the rules can label their whiskey bourbon, nearly all of it comes from the state of Kentucky. Today, most bourbon is now distilled in Nelson County, but the product still bears the name of its Bourbon County heritage.

What makes a bourbon?

All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. Kentucky bourbon is unique in that the formulation must contain at least 51% corn, with the other 49% may be comprised of any mixture of barley, wheat or rye. Whiskey, on the other hand, can be concocted of any percentage or combination of the aforementioned grains.

The barrel people welcome visitors to Heaven Hill Distillery.
The barrel people welcome visitors to Heaven Hill Distillery.

Heaven Hill – Bardstown, Kentucky

Bright and early on day one of the Bourbon Trail, my husband and I set out like new world explorers, determined to discover the secrets and intricacies behind bourbon distilling.

As our car crests a hill a few miles outside of Bardstown, we are greeted by an expanse of verdant fields, dotted with scores of behemoth warehouses looking as docile as oversized sheep.

I have surmised that the name of this distillery came from the beauty of the landscape in which it resides, but my assumption was incorrect. The distillery is named for its founder, William Heavenhill.

Home to the Bourbon Heritage Center, Heaven Hill boasts a large museum dedicated to preserving the history of this fine tradition.

After the tour, you can enter the giant barrel, aka tasting room, to sample a smattering of their delicacies including the lush and spicy Evan Williams Single Barrel and light-bodied yet complex Elijah Craig Single Barrel.

Maker’s Mark – Loretto, Kentucky

Dipping a bottle into the famous red wax at Maker’s Mark
Dipping a bottle into the famous red wax at Maker’s Mark

If you see a red wax seal dripping down a bottle of amber liquid, you can bet it’s Makers Mark. The drive to the Maker’s Mark Distillery (270/865-2099) seems interminable. But if you can make it past the dilapidated farmhouses and rusting tractors, it is well worth the excursion.

Maker’s is located roughly 20 miles south of Bardstown in Loretto, Kentucky. The grounds are manicured to perfection and the quaintly rustic buildings are painted black with red shutters; a stark yet eye-catching contrast to the emerald green of the surrounding hills.

The tour begins in an old farmhouse scattered with photos of the Samuels family, who began distilling bourbon back in 1780.

The tour winds through the distilling, aging, bottling, sealing and labeling buildings, ending up at the sparkling, modern gift shop that seems slightly out of character with the rest of the distillery’s countrified feel.

The highlight of the gift shop is dipping your own bottle of Makers in the prestigious red wax. Did someone say photo op?

Four Roses – Lawrenceburg, Kentucky

The Four Roses Distillery (502/839-3436) is as elegant as the name suggests. Located in pristine Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, the distillery is a study of contradictions.

The mash tubs at Four Roses
The mash tubs at Four Roses

The Spanish Mission-style buildings were constructed in 1911 and are located in the midst of rural Kentucky, while being owned by a Japanese parent company. Talk about a multi-national corporation.

The tour is quite extensive, allowing visitors to view the mash tubs and taste the “white dog” or pure, distilled corn liquor. But be duly warned – “white dog” is not for the faint of heart! Our tour guide recommended that after we took a tiny taste to use the rest of our sample as hand sanitizer.

From this pure form, the liquid is pumped into charred American white oak barrels –- the only type of wood that produces genuine bourbon.

The tour ends, as all tours do, at the tasting room. Guests are given multiple samples of the finished product and are welcome to discuss any aspect of bourbon making they may still be curious about with the knowledgeable tour guide.

Woodford Reserve – Versailles, Kentucky

The official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, Woodford Reserve (859/879-1812), may be the most distinguished of the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail.

A stately mare at Woodford Reserve
A stately mare at Woodford Reserve

To get to Woodford Reserve, we drove through open fields filled with majestic thoroughbred horse farms. By the time we reached Woodford, I was certain that due to its location it too would be imbued with the air of old money.

Woodford is certainly the most genteel of its distillery brothers. Ivy-covered brick buildings nestle against quiet nooks in this valley seemingly chiseled by a divine hand specifically for the purpose of distilling bourbon.

The visitors’ center is equally grand; a wide-open space comprised of shiny glass, hardwood and compelling history. Friendly guides offer coffee and to-die-for bourbon truffles, whether you take the tour or not.

Buffalo Trace – Frankfort, Kentucky

If bourbon had a hip little brother, it would be the trendy Buffalo Trace. The Buffalo Trace Distillery (800/654-8471 – Reservation required in advance for the hard hat tour), located in Frankfort, Kentucky’s somewhat lackluster capital city, is well worth the hour-long drive from Bardstown to get there.

Bottling Blanton’s at Buffalo Trace
Bottling Blanton’s at Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace is the oldest continually operating distillery in the US, operating even during prohibition under the auspices of distilling bourbon for medicinal purposes.

The sprawling buildings look as though they sprang from a bygone era, but the intricate workings of a world-class distillery occupy their ramshackle exteriors.

There are two types of tours available at the Trace; the regular tour and the hard hat tour. The regular tour is fairly similar to many of the other distilleries, boasting a historical video narrated by a sonorous male voice, a glimpse into one of the multifarious barrel houses, and of course ending with a taste of the glorious liquid gold.

A tongue-in-cheek warning by the mash tubs at Buffalo Trace
A warning by the mash tubs at Buffalo Trace

If you have the time and inclination, the hard hat tour, which I was talked into taking but ended up loving, takes you into the heart of the distillery. A tour guide leads you through the guts of the distilling process, allowing visitors to gawk into the enormous empty mash tubs that nearly gave me vertigo from their sheer massiveness.

Some tubs contained fermenting, chartreuse-colored cornmeal mash, bubbling and spewing as though it could possibly ooze its way out of a Harry Potter book.

When notified by our guide that we were welcome to taste this swampy looking concoction, I was slightly horrified as it looked like something had crawled in there and died.

Though the hard hat tour was pretty darn cool, it is not for those fearful of heights or small spaces. Many steps need be climbed and many small spaces need to be squeezed through in order to successfully complete this tour, but it is well worth the effort.

Jack Daniel’s – Lynchburg, Tennessee

Though not located on the Bourbon Trail, and really not even bourbon but a Tennessee Whiskey, Jack Daniel’s (931/759-4221) is the Disneyland of distilleries.

Once you work your way through the labyrinthine parking lot and past the multitude of tour buses, you can view a photo gallery and museum outlining the history of Jack Daniel’s before taking the tour.

The man himself – Jack Daniel’s statue in the museum at the distillery
The man himself – Jack Daniel’s statue in the museum at the distillery

If you do decide to brave the crowds, the tour is quite informative, though understandably not as hands-on as some of the smaller distillery tours. A bus will drive you to the farthest reaches of the grounds, first forcing you to take a group photo for posterity.

The tour then meanders back to the starting point through the various warehouses and outbuildings.

The most interesting aspect of Jack Daniel’s distillery is that it located in a dry county; dry meaning alcohol cannot be purchased within the county lines. The distillery had to get a special dispensation from Moore County to allow visitors to purchase limited-edition bottles of Jack in the tiny gift shop.

Distillery Details

All of the distillery tours on the Bourbon trail are free, and most (except Jack Daniel’s due to the dryness of the county) include free tasting. The best time to visit is spring through fall, but tours generally run daily year-round.

The distillery gift shops all sell bottles of their bourbon and similar knick-knacks boasting their particular label, but must-purchase items include the delicious smelling bourbon candles at Four Roses for $12 and the decadent bourbon-infused chocolates at Buffalo Trace for $20.

Even if you don’t particularly like bourbon, the tours are historically informative and the drives between distilleries are about as tranquil as you can get. After exploring the Bourbon Trail, I felt as though I had truly experienced an American tradition.

Leslie Patrick


Leslie Patrick is a freelance writer and world explorer who gets restless staying in the same place for too long. Her goal is to visit every continent in the world before she turns 30. Visit her website at lesliepatrick.com.

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