Six Tips for Visiting the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky

The Bourbon Trail in Kentucky is a bucket list trip for whiskey lovers around the world

Kentucky is home to some of the most famous whiskey distilleries on the planet and touring them is a treat. But there are some things to know before visiting the Bourbon Trail that will make your trip hiccup-free.

Before we set out on our trip I did a ton of research and even still learned many things once we arrived. Here are the best tips for visiting the Bourbon Trail.

Woodford Reserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. The Bourbon Trail is not a singular trail so plan accordingly

The Bourbon Trail may sound like a singular, simple road connecting all of Kentucky’s distilleries but the distilleries are actually quite spread out. They are loosely categorized into four regions: Central (Louisville and Bardstown), Bluegrass (Lexington), Western (near Tennessee), and Northern (near Cincinnati). It’s best to organize your itinerary into those regions as well focusing on one region (or partial region) a day.

The Central and Bluegrass regions are the most popular consisting of the best-known whiskey brands. We used two bases for our touring: Grandma’s RV Park in Elizabethville (20 miles northwest of Bardstown) and Whispering Hills RV Park in Georgetown (22 miles north of Lexington).

Which leads me to my next point…

Willett Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. The best way to get around the Bourbon Trail is a car—or a tour

Because the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky is so spread out the only way to get from region to region—and even distillery to distillery—is a car. Ubers and carshares are unreliable or nonexistent in the small towns and many distilleries are an hour’s drive or more from main areas like Louisville and Lexington.

3. Plan your distillery tours early and carefully

Distillery tours must be booked in advance. And a word of warning: they fill up fast, so book early! Organize the distilleries based on the area you’ll be in and keep an eye on the travel times between each one. Some are farther away than you think! Also, most require visitors to check in 15-20 minutes before the tour starts so make sure to plan extra time into your day.

If you’re planning to cover a lot of ground, divide your distilleries into different areas on different days.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Don’t forget to eat

When planning your distillery tours, don’t forget to schedule time for lunch. You don’t want to spend an entire distillery tour with your stomach growling and it’s always best not to drink on an empty stomach.

Some distilleries have on-site cafés or restaurants. Check distillery websites beforehand. One place that comes highly recommend is The Bar at Willett. It’s a beautiful place for a great cocktail and some food. But it’s no secret, so make reservations in advance. Open Wednesday through Saturday from 11:00 am.-5:30 pm.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Don’t overbook yourself

Obviously you want to see all your favorite distilleries while you’re in Kentucky but don’t overbook yourself. It’s tough to visit more than two distilleries a day because of the tour times and the distance between them.

Plus distillery fatigue is real! While distillery tours are definitely fun they require paying careful attention and some even require a lot of walking. Plus you’ll be drinking at each one. All that adds up to an exhausting day, so give yourself some down time to reflect on your adventures.

And know that it will probably take more than one trip to see all the distilleries you want.

Burton 1792 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. The whiskey distilleries aren’t all the same

Even though there are distinct differences between bourbons, I half expected the whiskey distilleries in Kentucky to be similar to each other.

So I was surprised to learn that the whiskey distilleries in Kentucky are quite different from one another. Most distilleries make whiskey using a column still (typical of bourbon and rye production). And even those using column stills varied in size from Barton 1792’s 55-foot high still to Angel’s Envy’s 35 foot still. Then there are those using pot stills instead of column stills like Michter’s, Woodford Reserve, and Willett.

There were old, historic distilleries on huge campuses like Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace compared with Angel’s Envy’s modern, petite downtown distillery that looks like a cathedral. There were really good tours (like Barton 1792) and not-so-good tours (Four Roses). So every day—and every distillery—was a different experience.

Makers Mark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. When is the best time of year to do the Bourbon Trail? 

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is open year-round except for a few weeks in the late summer (usually August) when the distilleries close for routine maintenance. Plan your trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail around this routine closure. 

Here’s a breakdown of visiting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail during each season: 

  • Winter: Winter is a great time to visit the distilleries if you’d like to dodge the crowds and don’t mind the cooler weather. However, if you’re planning on doing a self-guided driving tour, be prepared to potentially drive in rain, ice, and snow. 
  • Spring: Spring is a beautiful time to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail because the crowds are still slim and the weather is pleasant. However, remember that the Kentucky Derby takes place in May and hotels and RV parks will book up quickly. Early spring is the ideal time to visit! 
  • Summer: Summer is one of the busiest (and least pleasant) times to embark on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. If you can handle the heat and humidity, it may be tolerable. However, keep in mind the distilleries close in late August so plan your trip accordingly. 
  • Fall: Thanks to the beautiful weather, fall is the most popular season to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. If you’re planning an autumn distillery trip, tours will book out quickly, so book the tours you want to go on a month or so in advance. 
Jim Beam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. There’s more to Kentucky than just whiskey

For whiskey nerds, it’s easy to forget that Kentucky contains more than just whiskey distilleries! Louisville is also home to Churchill Downs, the home of the famous Kentucky Derby horse race. If there’s not a race while you’re in town, you can also tour the racetrack. Or check out the Kentucky Derby museum.

Speaking of museums, there are dozens in Louisville including the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Muhammad Ali Center. There’s plenty of history in Kentucky, so seek out some historical spots in between distillery tours.

As for food, Kentucky is home to more than just fried chicken (although don’t miss that while you’re there!). It’s famous for the Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich topped with Mornay sauce. And, the Derby Pie, a chocolate and walnut tart.

Heaven Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to know before you hit the Bourbon Trail

  • Book your tour reservations in advance—at least a week, if not more.
  • Leave plenty of time between tours to assure you arrive 15 minutes before your tour starts.
  • Children can attend tours as long as they’re accompanied by an adult. You must be 21 to participate in tastings.
  • Some distilleries offer samples of other products during tastings such as moonshine or vodka.
  • Some distilleries sell cocktails before and/or after tours.
  • Most distilleries sell bottles and other merchandise at their Visitor’s Centers.
  • Plan on spending at least 90 minutes at each distillery for the tour and tasting although some specialty tours may take longer.

Here are a few links to related articles I’ve previously posted on the Bourbon Trail:

Not only are there hundreds of distilleries in Kentucky, there’s plenty to do and to eat. So take your time, enjoy your trip, and keep a running list of what to do on your next visit—because your first trip likely won’t be your last!

Worth Pondering…

I take with me Kentucky

embedded in my brain and heart,

in my flesh and bone and blood

Since I am Kentucky

and Kentucky is part of me.

—Jesse Stuart