by Taylor M. Vogel
I was working part-time at a liquor store and eavesdropping on my customers. “It was amazing,” the regular said to my manager. “The guys and I had a great time.” I was dusting the counter, and we had no other customers, so I interjected my question. “Where did you go?
“The Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” he replied. I smiled and nodded as though I had any idea what he was talking about and promptly returned to needlessly dusting while my mind spun around this concept. I had just begun drinking bourbon seriously, and had fallen hard for it. And although I was extremely familiar with branding, I hadn’t taken time to learn how it was produced, where it specifically came from, or that actual humans made it from… something? I was busy at the time, trying to keep my head above water financially while once monthly allowing myself to indulge in a glass of something deemed nice at my favorite bar in order to experience what I could afford to. But it sounded to me like there was this entire world out there waiting to be discovered. I wasn’t that excited about Disney World when I was a kid, but at 9 o’clock when my shift was over, I ran out that door and straight home to the ever-educational arms of Google with the same level of enthusiasm as a seven year old wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
Maps appeared, with little barrels and stars marking a collection of fantastic distilleries. I had never even thought about Kentucky, truly, as I spent most of my geography and history classes flipping through whatever copies of National Geographic were on the shelf beside me or avoiding the spontaneous dodgeballs the boys would occasionally hurl over the heads of the girls to freak us out. Kentucky was interesting. The Kentucky Derby happened there. There were horses. Cool. But, more interestingly, there was bourbon, a fact which would have been skipped over in school anyway, and that was spectacular and motivation for me to plan a trip.
I had been saving to go on a road trip, somewhere, anywhere, and Kentucky locked an itinerary into place. I drew a large circle around the eastern half of the United States, plotting stops around visits to family and friends, and tucked part of it perfectly over Kentucky for three days. I found a bed and breakfast where I hopefully wouldn’t be murdered (or worse) while staying by myself. I researched which distilleries were open and where they were located, and that was enough information for me. I didn’t really even know what was going to happen at each distillery when I went. Before I knew it, I was experiencing my first proper tasting at Four Roses, inhaling angel’s share in the Woodford Reserve rickhouse (a memory that my dog, Woodford, is affectionately named after), and looking at all manner of things dipped in wax at Maker’s Mark.
My second trip was centered on a visit to Kentucky as well, where I visited much larger and much smaller distilleries than I did the first go around. I soaked up the quiet expanse of Heaven Hill, chatted with the new tour guide at Willett, stayed longer than everyone else at Wild Turkey, and squealed with delight at Buffalo Trace. I also swung by Jefferson’s facility, where they blend found bottles (I nerded out, hard).
My time in Kentucky has been slow and beautiful, simple and focused, and worthy of every penny I’ve spent. If you decide to go, below are my top five must-visit distilleries, in no particular order.
Four Roses: Best Bourbon 101
I’m one of those people who hates watching Youtube videos to learn something. I’ll read every item description at a museum, ask any tour guide any question, but if you expect me to go into a room and watch an “informative film” about pretty much any topic while I’m visiting in person? No, thank you. So, I was a little disappointed when, after wandering around the giftshop for the first 15 minutes at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, KY, I was expected to sit in a room on a wooden bench and watch a film. Boy was I surprised when that film told me a bunch of information I had no clue about. I had no idea about the grain composition of bourbon, what the distillation process looked like, and what any of the legal requirements for barrel-aged spirits were. This part of the tour was concise, informative, and the best educational tour film I have seen. It was proceeded by a walking tour of the quality control facility (so very tiny) and the distillery proper. The rickhouse was not on-premise, which I was bummed about, but I was extremely thankful to have received such an informative tour that commingled the history and process of bourbon production. Even after having visited many other distilleries and receiving talks about bourbon basics, I still feel that Four Roses did the best job by far introducing me. I would suggest stopping by Four Roses early on in your trip, if not first.
Bonus Fun: Four Roses was allowed to remain open throughout prohibition because they sold prescription product, and still have bottles reflecting this era in their tasting room. They’re a definite must-see.
Wild Turkey: Best Big Player
I went from the tiny blending-only facility of Jefferson’s to the magnificent presence that is Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg. I wasn’t sure if it was going to feel like a cheesy, touristy experience (even though I was a tourist--I always hate feeling like one), but loved reading the distillery history displayed outside of the gift shop as I waited for my tour to start. Wild Turkey has a magnificent, mostly-automated system that, if you’re mostly visiting smaller locations, you need to see. It’s almost overwhelming, and I can really only liken it to touring any other large manufacturing facility: massive, mechanized, and efficient as hell. My tour guide did an excellent job of ensuring that all of us had our questions answered and that we were exposed to the large-production aspects of the Bourbon industry we might not be getting at other facilities--including how product was shipped overseas.
Bonus Fun: The tasting room had a spectacular view of a (terrifying) bridge that soars over the Kentucky River. Also, if you stick around until the end and ask a lot of good questions, they might be willing to answer them over a drink with you.
Maker’s Mark: Best Cheesy Fun
I hate being a tourist, you hate being a tourist, but that’s what we are when we’re touring all of these facilities. Why not strap on your neon fanny pack and embrace it? Maker’s Mark in Loretto, KY, is commonly discussed by myself and many friends who have visited as “the Disney World of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.” It’s newish, but meant to look old fashioned and quaint, which is all just fine. What I really enjoyed about Maker’s Mark, besides the manufactured quaintness (the bottle’s shape is cut into all of the shutters!), was the bottling facility. Every employee on the bottling line was smiling and having fun, which isn’t always the case. The grounds were beautifully kept, and Maker’s spent more time than any other facility on the importance of bottle shape and label design than any other distillery. It might be because I was on a tour with two bachelor’s parties, but Maker’s was a highly manufactured, yet fun, experience.
Bonus Fun: Um, you can dip stuff from the gift shop into Maker’s signature red wax. What’s more of a delightful tourist trap than that?
Woodford Reserve: Best Behind-the-Scenes Tour
The visitor’s center at Woodford Reserve in Versailles, KY, is a different ball game. Like, a fancy ballgame with excellent design, top notch food, and intimidatingly pristine angles everywhere you turn. The gift shop is curated with only the finest merchandise and there’s a restaurant on-site that… smelled fantastic. I was late getting to my tour. And by late, I mean right on time--which, to the other five people in my group, seemed late.
Woodford Reserve is the distillery where you want to take a longer, smaller tour, if for no other reason than to stay on the property for that expanse of time. If Maker’s Mark is Disney World, Woodford Reserve is sipping cappuccino outside of a cafe in Paris. It is refined, it is relaxed, it is everything that I personally feel a distillery should be. Book one of the two-hour tour options--whichever floats your boat--well in advance, because they are small groups and will be full if you try to go the day-of. As of publishing this article, they offer two: Corn-to-Cork and National Landmark. I did the Corn-to-Cork tour in 2014 and had the wonderful experience of helping actually distill mash in the quality control room, relaxing along a beautiful leg of Glenns Creek, experiencing the soft afternoon light and overwhelming angel’s share in the rickhouse, and making eyes at the cat that lived on the premises and was estimated to be around my age at the time.
Bonus Fun: Woodford Reserve’s tasting room was gorgeous, and had the best tasting wheel to follow along with for newcomers to the experience.
Buffalo Trace: Best Historical Beauty
Along the edge of the Kentucky River in Frankfort, KY stands Buffalo Trace Distillery. They offer a variety of tours, a newly expanded visitors center and second-floor tasting room that you would never know are new, and the richest historical context of bourbon in America. They will point to the color gradation on the building’s brick to show you how high the Kentucky River has flooded. They will speak with proud reverence about the experiences of generations of employees at every level. They will make you climb stairs and cross sky-walkways from building to building, and you’ll feel cramped at times. But you’ll get to see where they make the stuff that everybody wants and the newest mystery brews. This was the least crowded of all the tours that I have been on without making an advance reservation, possibly because it’s tucked away in Kentucky’s first capitol city. I’m not a history nut, but this place feels like the warm, welcoming America that I want to be a part of. You can also look at generations of Van Winkle, ones you’ve never seen before, tucked away behind glass. For nobody to sample. Sigh. Frankly, these guys know their stuff, and you should not miss this for anything.
Bonus Fun: While the entire property is covered in beautiful multi-level rickhouses, and the history is rich, they also offer a really fun Buffalo in a can in the gift shop that will make your nieces giggle to pieces.
While the time it takes to drive from distillery to distillery can be daunting, accept that this trip is worth making a few different drives. Start early and maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to see the fog blanketing the pastures in the morning. Take the right paths and you’ll see some of the world’s most beautiful horses grazing on a blanket of blue. Plan well, and you won’t have to stop by the Louisville Zoo--even though you should also do that (award winning bear habitat, my friends). Whichever distilleries you choose to visit, I hope they satisfy your desire to learn and love this American beverage. I can’t wait to go back again!
Have you taken a road trip to Kentucky? What was your experience? Comment below--we’d love to know!
Also be sure to check out Episode 13: The Drive, where Taylor mentions this very trip!
Hi! I'm Taylor Vogel, one of the hosts of SHELTERED: the Podcast and each week, I'll be bringing you some written content along with the podcast that connects you and yours more deeply with the topics discussed on the show.