The Complete Guide to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

There’s a big world out there to explore in your RV. In this article I’ll teleport you to an interesting location—and hopefully give you travel ideas in the process.

The whiskey industry has had a time rough time of late with reports of whiskey fungus that feeds on alcohol vapors and mucks up outdoor surfaces. Ethanol vapor released through porous whiskey barrels during the aging of bourbon might bring a smile in the heavens—the fumes are known as the angel’s share—but it can mean misery for local mortals. A strain of black whiskey fungus feeds on the alcoholic gases coating neighborhoods around distilleries with a stubborn mouldy crust.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The spread of the fungus has become such a problem in southern Tennessee that a local court has halted construction of a new barrel warehouse for the world’s biggest-selling brand of American whiskey: Jack Daniels.

The fungus, Baudoinia compniacensis, is a familiar pest in the vicinity of barrelhouses which rely on wooden casks. Up to 2 percent of the volume of the alcohol can evaporate through the barrels each year as the drink matures sending vapor into the air and encouraging the fungus.

A French scientist named Antonin Baudoin first studied this plague of soot in 1872 after noticing it on distilleries in Cognac, France. It was misidentified until 2007 when Canadian mycologist Dr. James Scott re-classified the new fungi through DNA analysis and named it Baudonia, honoring the scientist who first took notice of the mold. In 2011, a lengthy article in Wired magazine detailed the discovery, unmasking the mystery soot as whiskey fungus.

Woodford Reserve Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many people who live near Kentucky’s distilleries say the problem has worsened as bourbon’s popularity has soared. According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, 68 distilleries dot Kentucky, a 250 percent increase in one decade. While many of those are small-batch distilleries, large operations such as Jim Beam and Buffalo Trace have also grown. Last year, Kentucky distillers filled 1.7 million bourbon barrels. Not all those barrels age in Kentucky but hundreds of thousands do.

But a little whiskey fungus probably won’t slow down the surge of tourists flocking to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Bourbon tourism reached new heights last year in Kentucky where visitors flocked to distilleries as the whiskey-making attractions shook off any pandemic-era hangover.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Attendance at distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail exceeded 2.1 million last year easily beating the pre-pandemic record of 1.7 million in 2019, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a genius bit of marketing from the Kentucky Distillers’ Association which in 1999 predicted (correctly) that people would want a behind-the-scenes look at how their favorite amber beverage was made. Now, tours of distilleries such as Bulleit, Woodford Reserve, and Maker’s Mark have become a popular activity for bachelor parties and young people more broadly.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is bourbon?

I know you’re wondering: How is bourbon different than whiskey?

Bourbon is an American whiskey distilled mostly from corn. The distilling of bourbon began in Kentucky in the 1700s in Bourbon County. Bourbon can be brewed anywhere in the United States although 95 percent of bourbon is currently distilled in Kentucky.

All bourbons are whiskey but not all whiskeys are bourbon. There are five rules that distinguish bourbon from all other whiskeys:

  • It must be made in the United States
  • Aging must take place in new, charred oak barrels
  • It must be distilled from at least 51 percent corn
  • The whiskey cannot be distilled higher than 160 proof, enter the barrel higher than 125 proof, and it must not enter the bottle less than 80 proof
  • Nothing can be added to the whiskey other than water
Willet Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bourbon contains at least 51 percent corn with different proportions of wheat, malted barley, or rye. This grain mixture is referred to as the mash bill. What distinguishes one bourbon from another is the mash bill, the strain of yeast used by each distillery (some strains dating back decades), and how long the whiskey ages in the oak barrels.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour launched in 2012 to showcase smaller distilleries also had its best year. Now featuring 24 distilleries, its total attendance last year was 738,287.

Spirit companies have invested huge sums into new or expanded visitor centers to play up the industry’s heritage and allow guests to soak in the sights and smells of bourbon-making.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the height of the pandemic, distilleries in the region were closed temporarily to visitors.

Some producers eased back into tourism by allowing a limited number of visitors. Once virus restrictions were lifted, bourbon tourism bounced back with a full resurgence.

Research shows that bourbon tourists tend to be younger, spend between $400 and $1,200 on their trip, travel in large groups, and stay longer than the average visitor to Kentucky, reports the distillers’ association. More than 70 percent of visitors are from outside Kentucky.

Jim Beam American Stillhouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To help visitors plan trips, the organization is promoting a new Bourbon Trail Passport and Field Guide, a 150-page guide to participating distilleries with cocktail recipes and suggested itineraries.

To encourage responsible drinking on the tour, distilleries offer water and nonalcoholic beverages and many have food or snacks available. The association said it promotes the use of designated drivers and transportation companies to stem impaired driving. Also, state law restricts free sample sizes at distilleries and many voluntarily limit cocktail sales at their in-house bar or restaurant.

The growth in bourbon tourism has created some challenges. Most distilleries now require reservations, so booking stops in advance is crucial, said Mandy Ryan, director of the association’s Kentucky Bourbon Trail experiences.

Maker’s Mark Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kentucky now boasts more than 11.4 million barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses across the state, the most in its storied distilling history, the association said. Distillers filled more than 2.6 million barrels last year, marking the fourth straight year production topped the 2 million mark.

>> DIG DEEPER

Worth Pondering…

Let dreamers whine

Of the pleasures of wine

For lovers of soft delight

But this is the song

Of a tipple that’s strong

For men who must toil and fight.

Now the drink of luck

For the man full of pluck

Is easy to nominate

It’s the good old whiskey of old Kentuck

And you always drink it straight… 

―The Ballad of Whiskey Straight, a 19th-century Kentucky poem

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