Bourbon is undergoing something of a renaissance. It’s almost impossible to step into a bar and not notice someone holding a rich amber libation. But this isn’t not your father’s bourbon.
From centuries-old distillers to small-batch bourbon producers, artisans are sourcing new grains and playing with the science behind the process of making bourbon to create new flavor profiles. American whiskey sales were up 7.7 percent in 2016, and, thanks to the easing of some laws allowing distillers to launch on-site restaurants and cocktail programs, there’s never been a better time to experience the bourbon renaissance firsthand along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trails
First, things first, there are several bourbon trails within Kentucky. There is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail established in 1999, there is the newer, 2012-established Kentucky Bourbon Craft Trail, which features the state’s micro-distilleries, and then are smaller trails, such as Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail. Visiting distilleries on each trail will help introduce you to the different types of bourbons.
A Beginner’s Guide to Bourbon
The basics of bourbon are simple enough. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. In order to be bourbon, the whiskey must be made in the U.S., be at least 51% corn, aged in new, charred, white oak barrels, distilled at less than 160 proof, and contain no artificial color or flavor. While Kentucky is what comes to mind when you think bourbon, it doesn’t need to be made in the state to be called bourbon.
How To Travel Along The Kentucky Bourbon Trails
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail isn’t accessible by public transportation. Depending on how long you stay and what you want to see you could limit yourself to one area, and, in the case of Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail, walk to most of the distilleries. Further from the city, you can use Lyft, thanks to a new partnership between the company and the Kentucky Distiller’s Association, you could hire a car service or sign up for one of the tours that includes a car, or you could plan on making a long weekend of it, rent your own car and visiting a few places.
Must Visit Stops Along the Kentucky Bourbon Trails
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
Fly or drive into Louisville, and head to Whiskey Row and the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. Evan Williams was reportedly Kentucky’s original bourbon maker and today, visitors and locals can stop by the distillery for a tour where you watch as bourbon as made before enjoying a tasting. Go.
Save your appetite as you go from Louisville to Loretto, home of the Maker’s Mark Distillery. The distillery opened a fast-casual restaurant this spring. Star Hill Provisions, led by Newman Miller, is a farm-to-table restaurant sourcing produces and proteins from farmers, managed by some employees, and the drinks menu features handcrafted, seasonal bourbon cocktails and other spirits. Go.
Wilderness Trail Distillery
Take in Kentucky’s idyllic countryside as you travel to Danville, where you’ll come to one of Kentucky’s oldest distilleries, the Wilderness Trail Distillery. Most of the corn and wheat used in their bourbon is grown on farms that date back to the late 1700s, but it’s their signature sweet mash fermentation process that makes their vodka, rum, bourbon, and rye whiskeys that is worth the trip. Take a tour and learn all about the process. Go.
Barrel House Distilling Co.
Everything old is new again, at least at this distiller on the outskirts of Lexington. It calls the former house of the James E. Pepper Distilling Company, a bourbon distiller that ran from 1879-1958, home. It’s also one of the founding members of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail releasing its first spirit, a vodka, back in 2008. Today, they make bourbon, moonshine vodka, and a dark shine, and come this spring you’ll be able to taste the spirits in cocktails when they open a new lounge and taproom. Go.
Three words: bourbon ice cream. Locally known as “the bread box,” Bluegrass Distillers, also on the outskirts of Lexington, is one of the newer additions to the Kentucky Bourbon Craft Trail and is located in an old bakery. Learn about the organic and locally-sourced Kentucky ingredients that make up their bourbons and follow them on Instagram to find out when they have their bourbon cake (see image) and ice cream. Go.
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Hartfield & Co. Distillery
Locavores won’t be able to get enough of Hartfield & Co. Distillery. Not only is it the first active distillery to open in Bourbon County since prohibition, almost all the grains they use to create their bourbons come from within 10 miles of the distillery. And in addition to bourbon they produce a white whiskey you’re going to want to try. Go.