Take a JOY RIDE to Three Iconic Kentucky Bourbon Distilleries

Starting surrounded by horse farms in Woodford County and culminating at Lexington’s Distillery District, it’s easy to see why the Federal Highway Administration named Old Frankfort Pike a National Scenic Byway

Remember when the term Joy Ride had a negative connotation? When it was thought that taking a Joy Ride meant you were frivolously enjoying yourself rather than getting to the task?

Kentucky Tourism is all about forgetting the task at hand and enjoying yourself with their new Joy Ride campaign. On outings across the 16-county Bluegrass Region, weekend road warriors are encouraged to become less warrior-like and slow down to enjoy all the region has to offer: Horses, bourbon, historic homes, nature preserves, wineries, and world-class views down every winding byway.

“The Joy Ride campaign encourages people to travel like they did in the ’50s and ’60s,” says VisitLEX president Mary Quinn Ramer. “When they took time to stop at scenic sites along the way and enjoy the experience of getting to their destination.”

Woodford Reserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get to Kentucky distilleries: Three Joy Rides from Lexington

November and even parts of December have plenty of brisk, sunny days left to experience the beauty of the Bluegrass adorned in its wardrobe of gold, orange, and scarlet. And what better way to enjoy a road trip on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with brisk, sunny days and fall colors than the commonwealth’s signature spirit?

So, when you ask for directions don’t ask for the fastest way to get to the distillery. Instead, enjoy the journey just as much as you’re going to enjoy the bourbon at the end of the road trip. Here are three Joy Rides to take from Lexington around Central Kentucky, each with a bourbon-themed destination in mind. These road trips will navigate you on the back roads to three iconic Kentucky bourbon distilleries.

Woodford Reserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lexington to Woodford Reserve Distillery, Woodbridge County

Sure, we all know that Woodford County offers some of the best scenery in the state but when was the last time you took time to stop and take a long look? Crossing the county line the Kentucky Castle looms on a hill beckoning you to a 21st century Camelot. You may not be planning to overnight at this luxury hotel but you can detour for a peek at the lovely gardens at the back of the Castle. From the Castle, eschew US 60 in favor of Old Frankfort Pike which in 2021 was designated a National Scenic Byway. It’s easy to see why.

The scenery on both sides of the road is eye-popping—a lush tapestry of Thoroughbred horse farms framed by the region’s iconic rock fences (a horse farm tour always makes for a good stop.)

A brief detour—and on a Joy Ride you are free to take as many detours as you want—will get you to the Instagram-worthy Weisenberger Mill with its cascading waterfall. A stop at the red brick Romanesque Mt. Vernon Baptist Church will introduce you to an architectural style not usually found in the Bluegrass and a plaque in the churchyard will tell you that it dates back to 1822 and is still welcoming congregations.

You may have come to the intersection of the Pike and US 62 and wondered what the story was behind the white Colonial-style Offutt-Cole Tavern. Well, the story is a good one as it dates back nearly 250 years and at various times has been a tavern, a stagecoach stop, and the home of Zerelda Cole, mother of outlaws Frank and Jesse James.

Midway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From here you can either stop in Midway for a leisurely lunch or perhaps take an even more winding road to Nonesuch for lunch at The Glitz at Irish Acres Antiques but be sure you have a reservation. History buffs will want to stop at Huntertown Community Interpretive Park, the former site of an African-American freetown settled after the Civil War. No structures remain but the setting honors Huntertown’s history.

By now, you’re ready for a tour and tasting at Woodford Reserve Distillery on picturesque Glenn’s Creek (if you booked in advance, that is.) Should you want to extend your stay, book a room at the Woodford Hotel, a new property in downtown Versailles. The hotel’s eight suites are named for some aspect of the bourbon industry—from the Wild Turkey Suite to the EH Taylor Suite.

Four Roses © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lexington to Four Roses Distillery, Lawrencburg

Lawrenceburg offers Joy Riders multiple opportunities to appreciate all the Burg offers. If you’re into historical preservation there’s no better example of it than the Ripy Mansion completed in 1888 by bourbon baron T.B. Ripy. The 11,000-square foot, 24-room mansion, a mix of Queen Anne/Victorian/Romanesque Revival styles is available for tours (with a reservation) and as a bonus you can wander through the gardens lush at peak season with roses, tiger lilies, hydrangeas, phlox, irises, and viburnum.

If one of you is into historic preservation and the other is an adrenaline junkie you can both be happy on a Joy Ride to Lawrenceburg. Nothing gets the juices flowing like a plunge from the 240-foot Young’s High Bridge spanning the Kentucky River in the shadows of Wild Turkey Distillery. You will have to do a little planning as bungee jumping through Vertigo Bungee is only offered one weekend a month (May through October.)

Four Roses © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

However, tours and tastings are offered year-round at Four Roses Distillery whose unique Spanish-style architecture is more reminiscent of southern California than Central Kentucky. You will love the romantic story about how the distillery got its name almost as much as you will love the silky taste of its single-barrel bourbon. Settle in for a bourbon flight and if you don’t feel like driving back afterward you can overnight in a bourbon barrel. Well, at least the only accommodations in the U.S. are shaped like bourbon barrels. Bourbon Barrel Retreats is a collection of seven barrel-shaped cottages 16 feet in diameter that can sleep two people (plus a furry companion should you wish to bring one.)

Each cottage has a kitchenette equipped with a refrigerator, coffee pot, and hot plate for cooking, a full bath, and a small sitting area (three cottages also have an outdoor hot tub). The most impressive feature, however, is the large circular window mimicking a barrel top that is the focal point of the bedroom. The Bourbon Barrel Retreats’ common area allows guests to sit around the fire pit and swap bourbon stories.

Buffalo Trace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lexington to Buffalo Trace, Frankfort

By now, you’re aware that a tour of Buffalo Trace distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail requires some planning (well in advance.) But once you’ve got that treasured ticket don’t be in a hurry to get there. Before your assigned time check out Franklin County’s non-bourbon offerings.

Rebecca Ruth Chocolates © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

US 60 with its stunning horse country scenery is the perfect location for a joy ride. Once you cross the county line stop at Rebecca Ruth Candy for a bourbon ball (just to whet your appetite for what’s to come.) If you want to enjoy a spirit other than bourbon detour to Prodigy Vineyards and Winery and belly up to the onyx bar for a sampling of this family-owned winery’s vintages from semi-sweet to dry reds. If your sweet tooth extends beyond wine, B’s Bakery in downtown Frankfort is a must. “B” aka Beth Carter who once catered for Taylor Swift and Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman has a selection of scones, cookies, and cupcakes that will leave your mouth watering for days.

If you need a refresher course in Commonwealth history, check out the burial site of Daniel Boone. The jury is still out as to whether Dan’l is buried here but the grave is impressive and the view from the overlook even more impressive. Or you could take a tour of Liberty Hall, an oft-overlooked slice of history that encompasses not only that of Frankfort but of Kentucky and Colonial-era America.

To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, “it’s about the journey as much as the destination.” Take a Joy Ride and find out for yourself.

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

The Ultimate Guide to Kentucky Bourbon Trail

The craftsmanship and history behind America’s bourbon distilleries that reside along the bourbon trail

Good morning and Happy National Bourbon Day. Might as well use the occasion to clear up a few things about America’s classic spirit.

  • All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. For example, whiskey that’s made in Scotland is called scotch
  • Among other requirements, bourbon must be distilled from a mash that’s at least 51 percent corn along with malt and rye
  • Kentucky produces 95% of all bourbon

Got it?

The fact that bourbon distilleries give away free samples of their product on their distillery tours isn’t the only reason I visit these landmarks—it’s the history!

Kentucky is an often overlooked and beautiful tourist destination that offers way more than just bourbon. There are also thoroughbred horses, a ton of civil war historical landmarks, and renowned hiking and rock climbing destinations. But you’ve come here for one thing, to learn about the bourbon trail, so the bourbon trail we will cover.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail now consists of 18 whiskey distilleries. Some of them are new kids on the block and others have been around since bourbon’s inception. In fact, if you visit every distillery on the trail, you’ll probably hear more than one say it’s the oldest. This is because there are no definite records of how generic “whiskey” became bourbon. So distilleries are known to take liberties to be seen as the oldest and sell more bottles of bourbon at the end of their tours.

The bottom line is, if you’re a fan of bourbon, it doesn’t matter which distillery is the oldest. Each distillery on the bourbon trail (new or old) makes a fantastic product. Each one brings its own unique aspect to the buttery-brown spirit.

Whispering Hills RV Park at Georgetown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Very few people visit every distillery on the trail since it encompasses nine different cities/towns—some 70 miles apart. I’ve mapped out a bourbon trail itinerary that includes the distilleries we’ve visited during our several visits to the Bluegrass State. This guide will help you choose the ones you want to visit the most. There are some important logistics to note before we get into our guide.

Grandma’s RV Camping in Shepherdsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home Base

It’s up to you where you stay during your trip but I suggest you set up camp near Louisville and Lexington. Being the two largest cities in Kentucky they provide the most options when it comes to campgrounds, food, outdoor recreation, and other non-bourbon-related offerings. Two excellent options for RV camping are Grandma’s RV Camping in Shepherdsville (20 miles south of Louisville) and Whistling Hills RV Park at Georgetown (20 miles north of Lexington). We’ve also stayed at My Old Kentucky Home State Park Campground in Bardstown.

My Old Kentucky Home State Park campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Transportation

If you’re planning on trying the samples at the end of the distillery tours (and why would you not?), you’ll want to make sure you have a designated driver. Kentucky doesn’t mess around with driving drunk and the last thing you want is a DUI. Alternately, check out local tour companies with different bourbon trail tour packages.

Woodford Reserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tours

When planning your trip, keep in mind that you don’t have to go on every tour that each distillery offers. In fact, to be able to get in as many distilleries as possible, I’d suggest you don’t. Each distillery tour takes about an hour. In peak season (spring/summer), they can take even longer due to the high volume of visitors and COVID protocol.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can get a good idea of any distillery’s history by strolling the grounds open to visitors and visiting the gift shop. If you decide to use a tour company for transportation, they can tell you everything you need to know about each distillery. We suggest saving the tours (and saving money) for your favorite distilleries. Now, break out your favorite whiskey glass, pour your favorite bourbon, and you’re ready to learn about Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.

Note: Many of the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail have limited tour schedules or have canceled tours altogether, due to the pandemic. Check each distillery’s website for tour availability and safety guidelines.

Jim Beam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home Base: Louisville (Shepherdsville)

Jim Beam

Leaving Shepherdsville and heading southeast to Bardstown your first stop is in Clermont at the home of one of the world’s most noted whiskeys—the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. Although it’s now owned by Japanese mega-conglomerate Suntory, the seven-generation family-owned company’s rich history is still evident. The Jim Beam name dates back to before Kentucky was even a state. Their German immigrant ancestors settled on the land to grow corn that would soon after be used to make their original-recipe whiskey. You would be remiss to pass up on one of its most influential brands.

Heaven Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heaven Hill

Continue your journey to historic Bardstown—the Bourbon Capital of the World and an Official Gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Heaven Hill is the world’s largest family-owned spirits producer making brands such as Elijah Craig, Larceny, Henry McKenna, Fighting Cock, and Evan Williams. The Heaven Hill distillery has been family-owned and operated since 1935 making it fairly young for a distillery of its size. With some help from a notable Kentucky distilling family member, Earl Beam (Master-Distiller from 1946-1975), Heaven Hill got its operations off the ground. Heaven Hill produces more than 400,000 barrels annually and has won multiple world spirit awards. At the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center you can choose from their tour options and enjoy your samples in their barrel-shaped tasting room.

Old Talbot Tavern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wind down in Bardstown as you peruse the shops and start planning your nightcap destination. Take a stroll through the past at the newly renovated Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. Don’t miss an opportunity to dine on classic Kentucky fare in the Old Talbott Tavern (fried green tomatoes is recommended), have a nightcap in the “world’s oldest Bourbon bar”, and even spend the night if you feel so inclined.

Barton 1792 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Barton 1792

The sprawling Barton 1792 is an old-school distillery with an old-school charm. The tour is informal, the buildings unadorned. The distillery’s flagship brand pays tribute to the year Kentucky gained statehood. Rye recipe bourbon, 1792 is handcrafted in small batches, aged 8 years, and bottled at 93.7 Proof. It is very high in rye, so it’s going to give you a lot of spicy flavor upfront. Buttery on your tongue and oh so smooth as it goes down the back of your throat. It has a long finish. Our glasses seemed to empty themselves. Can you tell it’s one of my favorite bourbons?

Willett Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Willett

We moved on to Willett Distillery, where Johnny Drum, Willett, Noah’s Mill, and other small-batch bourbons are made. Production here is 20 barrels a day, compared to Beam’s 5,000 or so. Entering the fermenting room, we noted seven uncovered 10,400-gallon tanks of bubbling brew—beer before liquor, literally.

Maker’s Mark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maker’s Mark

From Bardstown we headed 25 miles southeast to Lebanon and Maker’s Mark. Maker’s Mark is quite possibly one of the most recognizable whiskey brands in the world thanks to the six-generation Samuels family recipe and its distinctive wax seal on every bottle. On the tour, you’ll have the option of sealing your very own bottle in wax which is a unique experience you can’t find anywhere else. Trust me, it is great fun!

Four Roses © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Home Base: Lexington (Georgetown)

Four Roses

The beautiful Four Roses Lawrenceburg distillery reflects the story of the brand. The bourbon was named after founder Paul Jones Jr.’s romantic gesture of giving a four-rose corsage to his sweetheart before a ball in 1884. Now the distillery boasts gorgeous Spanish architecture and a mellow vibe.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wild Turkey

After visiting the Four Roses facility, we headed to their neighbor, the ever-intriguing Wild Turkey, another distillery on the trail with a ton of heritage and family influence. Their main claim to fame is Jimmy Russell, the world’s most tenured master distiller. He’s been crafting bourbon for over 60 years. He now makes bourbon next to his son Eddie who has more than three decades of experience.

Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey joined Jimmy and Eddie Russell as Creative Director in 2016. The relationship very quickly turned into an opportunity to collaborate on both marketing campaigns and product development. This is most evident in Longbranch bourbon which carries McConaughey’s name and is refined with mesquite from the actor’s home state of Texas to form a unique flavor profile.

Buffalo Trace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buffalo Trace

It’s not clear why Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792 were pulled from the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) and thereby out of the bourbon trail in 2010. It’s likely because at the time they were Kentucky’s largest bourbon producer and didn’t want to pay the dues (more about that at the end). A part of the bourbon trail or no, the Buffalo Trace distillery is considered a Mecca for bourbon lovers around the globe. The facilities are enormous and house a total of 19 brands of bourbon. If you can’t make their highly informative and still free tour simply strolling around the grounds and picking up a rare bottle of whiskey in the gift shop is worth it.

Woodford Reserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Woodford

If you’re looking for Kentucky majesty, you’ll be hard-pressed to find grounds more beautiful than those of the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles. Woodford can claim that it is the “oldest” distillery in Kentucky because it’s been located in the same place since 1812. Other distilleries have moved their operations over the years. Because of this, Woodford Reserve is a national historic landmark.

Woodford holds special significance for me as being the first bourbon distillery visited and one of only two distilleries we have visited on two separate occasions, the other being Maker’s Mark.

Woodlord Reserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How Does a Distillery Get Featured on the “Official” Bourbon Trail?

It’s not entirely clear how distilleries are selected to be featured on the bourbon trail. You probably already know that there are more than 18 distilleries in Kentucky. Currently, there are close to 100. For a distillery to be considered a part of the bourbon trail, they have to be recognized as a Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA) member. The KDA is a non-profit association established in 1953 to ensure that its members followed the best distilling practices.

Woodford Reserve Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overall, 37 members of the Kentucky Distillers Association operate one or more distilleries in Kentucky. However, when it comes to who gets picked for the trail, it is probably left to closed-door KDA dealings.

Worth Pondering…

I love coffee in a cup, little fuzzy pups, bourbon in a glass, and grass.

―Tom T. Hall