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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cool, hidden, and unusual things to do in the Bluegrass State
I know what you’re thinking: Kentucky is all about bourbon and horses, right? There’s no denying that many memorable days do start with these storied activities but there are so many more reasons to visit Kentucky.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Kentucky. It isn’t all horse racing, bourbon distilleries, and bluegrass music—although it’s got all three in abundance. Kentucky’s incredibly diverse array of geological features and ecosystems means it offers opportunities for all your favorite outdoor activities, too.
Here are the best places to visit in Kentucky.
Lexington is known as the “Horse Capital of the World.” Situated deep in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country, Lexington has several main attractions including the Kentucky Horse Park, The Red Mile, and Keeneland race courses. Outside of the equestrian scene, the city is known for Rupp Arena, Transylvania University, and the University of Kentucky.
Lexington has imposed a unique urban growth boundary to protect the miles of pastures where horses are kept. This means that large swaths of green fields can be found throughout Lexington. In the heart of the city, visitors will find plenty of intriguing places to explore, including the Aviation Museum of Kentucky, Kentucky Theatre, the Mary-Todd Lincoln House, and Martin Castle.
This famous and historic horseracing arena attracts visitors year round. Even when races are not in session, Keeneland’s significance and extensive history make it a popular Lexington destination. Horses began racing at Keeneland, one of the top Lexington attractions in 1936 and since then, annual races have become a traditional event.
Keeneland is also host to practice meets for jockeys and horses preparing for the Kentucky Derby as well as a series of horse auctions throughout the year. Visitors to Keeneland are able to view the racecourse, visit the indoor facility, and tour the sales complex. Keeneland’s website offers a calendar of upcoming events and ticket purchasing options.
Keeneland is located at 4201 Versailles Road, Lexington.
If Kentucky can be described as the state of horses and bourbon its capital Frankfort is at the heart of it all. Located on the banks of the Kentucky River, it is a quintessential river community with small-town charm, rich history, and typical Southern hospitality. Stroll through the city to admire its fabulous architecture, especially the new and old capitol buildings as well as the new and old governor mansions which are open to the public. Get a sense of 200 years of city history at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History and learn about the way of life in old Kentucky at the Liberty Hall Historic Site.
Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History
The Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History is a 167,000-square-foot modern research facility and a museum. It also serves as the headquarters of the Kentucky Historical Society. The center has a range of permanent and temporary exhibitions and an extensive research library. The main permanent exhibit is called “A Kentucky Journey” and it provides insight into Kentucky and its inhabitants from prehistoric times to today. The Martin F. Schmidt Research Library is a history and genealogy research library.
The Center offers resources such as manuscripts, books, oral histories, and graphic collections about the places and people that made Kentucky what it is today. The library is popular among family historians who are trying to trace their genealogy. The center also has the Keeneland Changing Exhibits Gallery which hosts various temporary exhibitions and a collection of Lincoln memorabilia.
The Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History is located at 100 W Broadway Street, Frankfort.
Kentucky Capitol Building
Completed in 1910 in the Beaux-Arts style the beautiful, stately building of today’s Kentucky Capitol is the fourth building to be the home of the Kentucky government since 1792. Its predecessor still stands in downtown Frankfort. The building, designed by architect Frank Mills Andrews has an elegant façade covered with Vermont granite and Indiana limestone.
The interior is decorated with brilliant white Georgia marble, dark green Italian marble, and gray Tennessee marble. The Capitol’s State Reception Room is used as a place for ceremonies and has hand-painted walls with murals and scagliola created to look like Gobelin tapestries. There is a huge amount of art displayed throughout the building. One of the most popular pieces is the Lincoln statue in the rotunda. There is also an interesting collection of dolls that belonged to various First Ladies.
The Kentucky Capitol Building is located at 700 Capital Avenue, Frankfort.
The Floral Clock
On the grounds of the state capitol in Frankfort stands the beautiful Floral Clock. Its face stretches 34 feet across and is covered by flowers exclusively grown in the state of Kentucky. Beneath the clock is a pool of water that is often used as a wishing well and the coins thrown into the well are used to fund scholarships. The Floral Clock is one of the most-visited attractions in Frankfort and is open to the public every day from dawn until dusk.
The Floral Clock is located at 700 Capital Avenue, Frankfort.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
A national historic landmark and home of the world’s most award-winning bourbon, Buffalo Trace Distillery is a true Kentucky Landmark. The state’s native spirit has been distilled and aged at Buffalo Trace for over 150 years. The distillery offers five different tours from behind the scenes of the whiskey making process to a tour of the barrels used to store and age the product.
All tours are free and include a sample of Buffalo Trace’s award-winning bourbon at the end. The distillery is open every day except for major holidays. Groups of over 25 people are required to reserve the tour in advance.
Buffalo Trace Distillery is located at 113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort.
Rebecca Ruth Candy Tours and Museum
Two former schoolteachers, Ruth Booe and Rebecca Gooch, started Rebecca Ruth Candies in 1919. Their business has survived fires, family tragedies, two world wars, and the Great Depression and it is now a Kentucky institution.
Rebecca Ruth’s is home of the famous “bourbon balls,” a treat that mixes chocolate with Kentucky’s best-known liquor. The candy factory and museum is open for tours Monday-Saturday for a $5.00 admission fee. Children 5 and under get in free. After the tour, guests can purchase these sweet treats to take home with them at the company store.
Rebecca Ruth is located at 116 East Second Street, Frankfort.
Home to 30,000 people, Elizabethtown is the 10th largest city in the state of Kentucky. The town was once home to the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln’s daughter Sarah was born in 1807.
Elizabethtown was also the site of a dramatic Civil War battle in 1862. Modern Elizabethtown boasts a variety of cultural and natural attractions. There is a cluster of museums and event centers in the downtown area and for outdoor adventures, visitors can check out the Bourbon Trail and the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Another popular attraction in town is Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home.
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest
At 15,625 acres, Bernheim boasts the largest protected natural area in Kentucky. Bernheim contains a 600-acre arboretum with over 8,000 unique varieties of trees. Take a scenic drive through the forest on paved roads or bicycle around the Arboretum, a living library of trees.
Over 40 miles of trails with varying degrees of ease and difficulty weave their way through the forest at Bernheim; no matter what level you are looking for, there’s a trail for you. Some are handicap accessible. Hang out on the tree tops in the Canopy Tree Walk. This short boardwalk extends into the forest canopy, suspending visitors an astonishing 75 feet above the forest floor.
Bernheim Arboretum is located 20 miles northeast of Elizabethtown off Clermont Road.
Jim Beam American Stillhouse
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 one of its most influential brands.
Jim Beam is located 22 miles northeast of Elizabethtown off Clermont Road.
Kentucky’s second-oldest city, Bardstown was first settled in 1780. Nearly 200 buildings in the historic downtown district are listed on the National Register of Historic Places including a 1779 stagecoach stop that today is the Old Talbott Tavern, the oldest bourbon bar in the world.
Bardstown was described by Rand McNally and USA Today as the Most Beautiful Small Town in America and it is hard to argue with that description. The county seat of Nelson County, Bardstown is famous around the world for its bourbon while its eclectic shops are well worth exploring too.
The Bourbon Capital of the World is home to six notable distilleries. Kentucky’s “Official Outdoor Drama,” one of the country’s most highly regarded Civil War museums and one of the most recognized structures in the world is here at Federal Hill, better known as My Old Kentucky Home.
Distillery tours are a good way to get up close and personal with the beloved oak-aged liquor. By staying in Bardstown you’re roughly a half-hour drive from Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Four Roses. You’re practically spoiled for choice right in Bardstown, as well: The Barton 1792 distillery is a stone’s throw from downtown while Lux Row (which produces Rebel Yell, Ezra Brooks, and more), Willett, and the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center aren’t much farther.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
For whiskey lovers, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a bucket-list trip, full of opportunities to visit distilleries and learn about bourbon—plus, of course, plenty of sampling along the way. Kentucky is the spiritual home of bourbon, an American whiskey made with at least 51 percent corn and aged in charred new American oak barrels. Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries are sprawled across the state with most of them between Louisville and Lexington.
The official Kentucky Bourbon Trail exists under the auspices of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and it includes 18 distilleries as well as 23 smaller distilleries designated as the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. This official trial doesn’t include every bourbon producer in the state. But it’s still a pretty comprehensive overview and provides a useful way to organize a visit—including a website with plenty of maps and links.
With 11 unique distilleries within 16 miles of Bardstown’s court square, the Bourbon Capital of the World is a logical starting point for the journey.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park
My Old Kentucky Home State Park consists of many elements including a 39-site campground, an amphitheater, an 18-hole golf course (the Kenny Rapier Golf Course), and wedding and conference space. But what it is most famed for is Federal Hill more lovingly known as My Old Kentucky Home. Visitors can explore the historic mansion that was once owned by US Senator John Rowan.
It was an important site in US politics but was most famously known for its association with Stephen Foster’s ballad which the home inspired. Visitors can explore the mostly-brick structure and its amazing architecture which includes hand-carved windowsills and mantels, a stable, and a garden house. Guides dressed in period costumes who are full of fun facts lead the tours to take visitors back to another time.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park is located at 501 East Stephen Foster Avenue, Bardstown.
Visit the campus-like setting of the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto on the banks of Hardin’s Creek. Established in 1805 as a gristmill distillery, Maker’s Mark is the oldest working distillery on its original site—and a National Historic Landmark. The historic charm is not the only reason to visit the Maker’s Mark distillery; the beautifully manicured grounds are a functioning arboretum; hosting more than 275 species of trees and shrubs and making for an ideal picnic spot.
Tours allow guests to experience the entire bourbon-making process first-hand from the processing of the grains to the rotating of the barrels to the purposely inefficient process of hand-dipping every bottle in signature red wax (visitors even get the chance to dip their very own!). Maker’s Mark promises a truly unique, intimate experience that sheds light on the specialness and tradition of making Kentucky bourbon.
Maker’ss Mark is located 20 miles south of Bardstown in Loretto.
The picturesque town of Georgetown is often noted for providing “pure small town charm” within Scott County’s country setting of rolling hills. This charming area offers a diverse assortment of things to do for both visitors and locals alike, both indoors and outdoors. From taking in history and art to getting up close and personal with Thoroughbred horses to sampling some of the best bourbon around, Georgetown and the surrounding Scott County is home to a variety of interesting things to do in the Kentucky horse country.
Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm
The Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm is a farm for retired Thoroughbred horses that encompasses nearly 140 acres. The unique home for horses offers an opportunity for guests to get up close to several Thoroughbreds including winners of the Kentucky Derby like War Emblem and Silver Charm and Breeders’ Cup Champions Amazombie and Alphabet Soup as well as stakes winners Ide and Game On Dude. The Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm offers daily public tours for a fee, private tours by appointment, and a visitor center.
Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm is located at 1841 Paynes Depot Road, Georgetown.
Yuko-En on the Elkhorn
The Yuko-En on the Elkhorn is a symbol of friendship between the nation of Japan and Kentucky State. As a four-season garden, travelers and locals alike are welcome to visit the Yuko-En on the Elkhorn all year round. Access to the park is via the Tokugawa Gate along Cincinnati Pike which will lead visitors into the lush 5.5-acre garden.
Yuko-En features gorgeous Bluegrass landscaping that is presented in the style of a Japanese stroll garden. Stroll along the garden’s many pathways to explore Japanese-style bridges, a serene pond, and several other elements that make the Yuko-En a unique and enjoyable recreational destination.
Yuko-En on the Elkhorn is located at 700 Cincinnati Pike, Georgetown.
Located just off the Martha Layne Collins Blue Grass Parkway, the charming town of Versailles in Kentucky is the beating heart of Woodford County. Surrounded by magnificent rolling farmlands and world-renowned bluegrass horse farms, Versailles offers a range of attractions and activities from the impressive Stonewall Farm to the Woodford Reserve which produces one of Kentucky’s finest bourbon whiskeys. Versailles’ beautiful landscapes also offer excellent hiking, horseback riding, and fishing.
Bluegrass Railroad and Museum
The Bluegrass Railroad and Museum is a traveling museum dedicated to the history of the Bluegrass Railroad and the rail transport industry in the region. Based in Woodford County Park, the mobile museum was founded in 1976 by members of the Bluegrass Railroad Club and offers visitors a unique experience that delves into the history of the railroad on an 11-mile round trip excursion. The train journey travels through the beautiful horse farms of Kentucky to Young’s High Bridge in the town of Tyrone where passengers can disembark and soak up spectacular views of the Kentucky River valley area.
Bluegrass Railroad and Museum is located at 175 Beasley Road, Versailles.
Woodford Reserve Distillery
Woodford Reserve Distillery is an award-winning distillery that produces a range of whiskeys including limited-edition releases like the Kentucky-only Distillery Series. Established by Elijah Pepper in 1812 the distillery is one of the oldest distilleries in Kentucky and is listed as a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.
Formerly known as the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery and later the Labrot & Graham Distillery, the distillery produces several whiskeys including Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Woodford Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, and Woodford Reserve Wheat Whiskey. Visitors can enjoy guided tours and tastings at the facility which is eight miles from Versailles.
Woodford Reserve Distillery is located at 7785 McCracken Pike, Versailles
Historic Midway was the first town in Kentucky founded by a railroad. Electricity was introduced in 1911. During the railroad’s heyday, the 1930s, and 40s, up to 30 trains, a day rumbled through the middle of town. Revitalization and rebirth began in the mid-1970s when several antique shops and galleries were established. In 1978, 176 buildings in Midway were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now, Historic Midway once again thrives and enjoys its present reputation as one of Kentucky’s favorite spots for antiques, crafts, gifts, restaurants, and clothing.
The Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, Berea is ranked among the top art communities in the U. S. Nestled between the Bluegrass region and the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, Berea offers visitors over 40 arts and crafts shops featuring everything from handmade dulcimers and homemade chocolate to jewelry stores, art galleries, quilt-makers, and glassblowing studios.
Sculptures of mythical beasts, vibrantly painted open hands, and historic architecture are a few of the delights as one wanders the town and college. Berea offers a public art experience on multiple levels. You can enjoy the sculptures, architecture, galleries, and shops, or you can enter the studios of working artists and watch art being created.
The self-ascribed “Bourbon Capital of the World” offers fine spirits and a welcome change of pace
Rand McNally and USA Today called it the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America.” But Bardstown, Kentucky, is much more than just a pretty face.
This “Bourbon Capital of the World” is home to six notable distilleries. Kentucky’s “Official Outdoor Drama,” one of the country’s most highly regarded Civil War museums, and one of the most recognized structures in the world is here at Federal Hill, better known as My Old Kentucky Home.
Whiskey connoisseurs and history buffs probably already know Bardstown, a small town about 45 minutes south of Louisville. Europeans crossed the Appalachians and settled in the area in the 1770s. The town’s charming and walkable downtown area incorporates significant historic features of the time. Bardstown is also home to or within a short drive of a ton of distilleries including some of the biggest names in bourbon. The self-ascribed moniker, “The Bourbon Capital of the World” is pretty accurate. Like a lot of small towns, Bardstown is a rewarding destination. If you’re looking to get away and take it easy for a couple of days or longer or for a home base for your pilgrimage along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, this is the ideal location.
Your options for lodgings in Bardstown run the gamut from chain hotels to centuries-old establishments and nearby RV parks and campgrounds. Some portions of the original 1779 structure housing The Talbott Inn on Court Square in the heart of downtown are still in use; a larger section dates to 1913. Among other historic figures, the inn and its tavern (now a restaurant and bar called Old Talbott Tavern) hosted Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesse James.
Of course, you’re bound to get hungry on any road trip. The best road trips are the ones that involve delicious food, am I right? America is full of so many amazing bakeries that it’s impossible to try all of them in a lifetime. Always on the lookout for fresh doughnuts, delicious regional specialties, and amazing cookies and cakes, brings us to Hadorn’s Bakery, a Bardstown institution that comes highly recommended.
Hadorn’s is a third-generation family bakery founded in Louisville in 1935 and has been Bardstown’s family bakery since 1977. From yum yums, one of the local favorites, to fresh doughnuts, seasonal cookies and cakes, and a whole host of others, everything at Hadorn’s is mouthwateringly delicious. If you’re going to have just one, make it a Yum Yum—a sort of cinnamon bun that’s braided instead of rolled, then glazed and topped with streaks of gooey icing.
As you might expect, most bars around town have walls lined with shelf upon shelf of bourbon and most barkeeps are adept at showcasing the local spirit.
Bourbon, as you might know, has developed a cult following that can be kind of intimidating for the uninitiated. Distillery tours are a good way to get up close and personal with the beloved oak-aged liquor. By staying in Bardstown you’re roughly a half-hour drive from Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Four Roses. You’re practically spoiled for choice right in Bardstown, as well: The Barton 1792 distillery is a stone’s throw from downtown, while Lux Row (which produces Rebel Yell, Ezra Brooks, and more), Willett, and the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center aren’t much farther.
Many of these firms have been distilling for decades or longer. The massive operation at Bardstown Bourbon Company, 10 minutes from downtown, was launched in 2016. They offer a one-hour From Distillate to Barrel Tour in which a knowledgeable guide leads you through a tasting that included fresh distillate (aka moonshine) as well as aged whiskeys.
The tour also takes you through the distilling plant and then out to one of the company’s rickhouses where your guide may thieve (that’s a technical term for dipping with a giant copper straw-like device) some samples from a barrel of BBC’s own bourbon. It’s been aging since 2016 and won’t go to market until next year. (Bardstown Bourbon Company has sold very little whiskey under its own label so far but through its custom distilling program you may have tasted some of their handiwork in what Belle Meade Bourbon and other newer distillers offer while their own whiskey ages.)
In addition to being fun and delivering the mildest hint of a buzz, a distillery tour will leave you with some more tools in your kit for deciding what you truly enjoy in a bourbon rather than going on name reputation.
You can easily fill a week with distillery tours in and around Bardstown. But you could also pay a visit to the Old Bardstown Colonial Village featuring a collection of frontier cabins spread over a verdant park. It’s very close to Museum Row which includes the Women’s Museum of the Civil War.
Located less than a mile from the Old Historic Courthouse, My Old Kentucky Home State Park embodies the antebellum South and was the inspiration for Stephen Foster’s world-famous composition, “My Old Kentucky Home,” Kentucky’s official state song. Guides in period costume tell the story of the esteemed Rowan family who called the plantation home from the late 18th to 19th centuries. During the summer visitors can enjoy America’s favorite outdoor drama, “The Stephen Foster Story,” which features Stephen Foster’s best-known works brought to life by performers in period costumes among beautiful sets.
There’s no trip to Bardstown that’s complete without a visit to the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, and there’s no better time to visit than the morning! Comprised of more than 15,600 acres of protected wildlife, forest, and natural landscapes, the Bernheim property is a virtual must-see. Since its founding in 1929, this sustainable woodland ecosystem has existed as a proven habitat for diversified flora and fauna providing refuge for so many local species. It’s also one of the area’s premier recreational venues, ideal for those individuals who enjoy strolling through nature while taking life at a pace conducive to easy enjoyment.
If you’ve got the time on the way back to the downtown district, stop by the Jim Beam Distillery, unique in its own right as a location that can effectively rival any distillery in the area.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Home Base: Louisville (Shepherdsville)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
Home Base: Lexington (Georgetown)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love coffee in a cup, little fuzzy pups, bourbon in a glass, and grass.