Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail: A Great RV Tour

Looking for a fascinating and fun RV road trip? Camp and taste your way along Bourbon Trail!
In the heart of central Kentucky—not far from its famed bluegrass country—is an area known as the Bourbon Trail, a confluence of numerous distilleries that produce the bulk of the world’s bourbon.

The distilleries are roughly in a circle between Lexington on the east and Louisville on the west with the town of Bardstown smack dab in the middle.

Formally designated by Congress as America’s Official Native Spirit, the bourbon distilleries offer tours and tastings and a perfect RV getaway.

Jim Beam American Stillhouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The History of the Bourbon Trail and the Beam family

Kentucky Bourbon has a rich history and proud tradition that dates back to the late 1700s.

For more than two centuries, no family has influenced bourbon-making more deeply than the Beam family.

The tour of the Jim Beam distillery near Clermont offers an up-close look at how they make the world’s best-selling bourbon from grain to barrel to bottle and beyond.

Here, you learn that bourbon is unique among whiskeys because, by law, it must be at least 51 percent corn.

Why is it called Bourbon? One of Kentucky’s original counties was Bourbon County which was established in 1785 when Kentucky was still part of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Farmers shipped their whiskey in oak barrels stamped from Bourbon County down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. The long trip aged the whiskey with the oak wood giving it the distinct mellow flavor and amber color. Pretty soon, whiskey from Bourbon County grew in popularity and became known as Bourbon whiskey.

Allow at least three hours for the Beam tour which always ends in the tasting room where visitors can sample some of the 12 different brands the company makes.

But remember, the Beam operation is just one of many distilleries on the Bourbon Trail.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your central campground on the Bourbon Trail: Bardstown

Recently designated by USA Today as America’s most beautiful small town, Bardstown is a great place to use as your RVing base while touring the Bourbon Trail.

It’s a delightful town, steeped in history. Abraham Lincoln walked its streets. So did Daniel Boone. Upstairs at the Old Talbott Inn, built in 1779, are bullet holes reportedly fired by Jesse James. Bardstown has museums and quaint shops.

Just outside of town, we used the My Old Kentucky Home State Park as our camping base, named after the famous Steven Foster song celebrating the mansion the state park is home to.

Just down the road from the State Park is the Heaven Hill Distillery. It, too, offers great tours and lots of history. Oh yeah, they have tastings, too.

It was founded by the Heavenhill family. One word. Heavenhill.

But rumor has it that when a teetotaler’s daughter saw a typo referring to the place as Heaven Hill—two words—she let the mistake stay so as to distance the family name from the whiskey business.

Maker’s Mark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About a half-hour drive from Bardstown is the Makers Mark Dstillery. Situated on gorgeous grounds with Whiskey Creek running right through it and providing the pure water used in making of its bourbon, I was offered a tin cup sip straight out of a distilling tank before the product had aged.

My tongue burned.

At Maker’s Mark, visitors have the opportunity to hand dip a bottle themselves sealing it with the brand’s distinctive melted red wax.

Four Roses Bourbon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each distillery is unique. Each distillery has a story. Take Red Roses, for example. Seems its founder was smitten by a beautiful young lady.

He asked her to marry him. She refused to answer immediately but said, if the next time he saw her she was wearing a corsage, the answer was yes.

The next time he saw her she was wearing a corsage of four red roses. Thus a bourbon brand was born.

The Bardstown Brewing Company bills itself as the most sophisticated and technically flexible distillery in the nation. Touring this new distillery is very easy. Everything is in the open—all processes are done in open spaces behind clear glass.

This distillery makes private-label bourbons for a number of different brands including Jefferson’s, High West, Belle Meade, Hirsch, Calumet, James E. Pepper, and Cyrus Noble as well as its own in-house brand, Bardstown Brewing Co.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Can’t make the trip just yet? Check out a virtual tour. Over in Frankfort, the Buffalo Trace Distillery has put together an awesome app that features a virtual reality tour of its historic distillery.

But if you can visit the actual distillery, it’s well worth the trip. It sits on 400 acres of beautiful Kentucky countryside and is a National Historic Site.

They make many different brands here including the infamous Pappy Van Winkle, a brand that is aged from 10 to 23 years and is considered a rare, limited edition bourbon. It commands a very high price. 

The folks who own the brand and bottle it at Buffalo Trace—the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery—sell a 15-year-old aged bottle for $119. The 20-year-old reserve is $199. The 23-year-old is $299.

By the way, there really was a namesake for the brand. His was is Julian Pappy Van Winkle who was a traveling whiskey salesman who wanted to make a decent bourbon so he started distilling his own over 100 years ago.

The business has been passed on through the generations to family members.

Even if you don’t drink alcohol or bourbon is not your thing, the bourbon trail is a fascinating look at history in some of the most beautiful country you can find.

If you decide to visit Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, allow at least a week to really take it all in.

Woodford Reserve Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are lots of campgrounds servicing the area.

I can’t stress how much fun we had on The Bourbon Trail and we think you, too, will find it one of the most enjoyable trips around.

All of the distilleries have plenty of parking for RVs.

Most tours have an age limit, so check before bringing kids. And pets, as expected, are not allowed.

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

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

Horses Are the Heart of Kentucky’s Unbridled Spirit

A ride through the Bluegrass State reveals a legacy of thoroughbred horses and horse racing, bourbon, intriguing history, natural attractions and beauty, and much more

Kentucky bills itself as a place of Unbridled Spirit. After numerous RV trips around this diverse state, I have to agree.

Kentucky scenic byway past horse farms © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lexington and Georgetown

Horses, the royalty of Lexington, live in barns of beauty surrounded by velvety green fields of Kentucky bluegrass. Miles of fences and traditional hand-laid limestone dividers partition the farms where they reside. A few horse farms even open their doors to visitors—truly a worthwhile stop.

The Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington showcases thoroughbred equines with live horses in numerous venues and informative exhibits in the American Saddlebred Museum. Retired racehorses reside in the park and they and their histories are introduced to visitors. Costumed equestrians ride various breeds around an outdoor ring during the Parade of Breeds show, accompanied by commentary.

Horse Farm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors have an opportunity to take photos, pet the horses, and chat with the riders at the end. Guests can board a horse-drawn wagon for a tour and catch a glimpse of the sculptures that dot this 1,200-acre working farm.

The Kentucky Horse Park Campground offers 260 campsites with electric (50, 30, 20 amps) and water hookups. All sites are 55-foot paved back-in spots. In addition, some electric-only and primitive sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Two dump stations are provided.

The campground makes a great base for exploring the Lexington area which boasts one of the largest concentrations of horse farms in the world. Driving along the Bluegrass Country tour route takes you past many of them. Intricate iron entrance gates and impressive homes stand on many farms in the rolling green countryside.

Keeneland © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a morning visit to the Keeneland racecourse, you can rub elbows with equestrians during breakfast in the Track Kitchen and observe the athletes’ workouts on the track. 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 can 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.

Horse farm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Kentucky Horse Park Campground’s proximity to nearby cities and towns also proved to be very convenient. Interested in seeing how cars are manufactured? Explore the visitor’s center at the Toyota assembly plant in Georgetown, the largest Toyota manufacturing facility in the world which offers free 45-minute tram tours on weekdays (reservations required).

Historic Georgetown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Georgetown boasts more than 200 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places making it an interesting and visually appealing place to stroll. Download the walking tour map or pick one up at the visitor’s center.

Yuko-En on the Elkhorn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the northern edge of Georgetown 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.

Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Kentucky State Capitol © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Frankfort and Harrodsburg

A flower-lined boulevard in Frankfort leads to the Kentucky State Capitol building. Its murals, sculptures, and columns artfully combine to make it one of the most beautiful capitals in the United States. Broad steps ascend to the entrance which leads into a grand rotunda under a seven-story dome where a large Abraham Lincoln statue greets you.

Marble staircases lead to the judicial floor and the Supreme Court chambers which are adorned in rich mahogany and burnished with gold leaf. The Senate and House of Representatives chambers occupy opposite ends of the third floor.

Near the capitol rotunda is a doll display depicting each of Kentucky’s first ladies in her inaugural ball gown. It is incredible how fashion has changed through the centuries.

Floral Clock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the grounds of the state capitol 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.

Old State Capitol Building © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors also can tour the Old Capitol Building in Frankfort which served the state legislature from 1830 until 1910 when the larger capitol was built in south Frankfort. The old and new capitol buildings have striking differences. The old capitol was constructed in 1830 in the Greek revival style. Of architectural interest is the curved, self-supporting stone staircase. The first-floor library houses old books, implements, and furnishings from the 1800s.

Rebecca Ruth Chocolates © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rebecca Ruth’s is home to 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.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill founded in Harrodsburg in 1805 by members of a celibate religious sect allows visitors to immerse themselves in Shaker culture.

About 45 minutes south of Frankfort in Harrodsburg, visitors can enjoy a glimpse into the lives of the Shaker people. In 1805, members of this celibate religious sect established Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill which grew to 500-plus members.

Today, there are 34 surviving buildings of the 260 that were constructed during 105 years. In the Shaker faith, men and women had equal status—but everyone still had gendered roles, even eating on different sides of the dining rooms. Self-guided and staff-led tours of the village are available.

Horse farm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State and national parks

Feeling energetic? Hike up the trail at Natural Bridge State Resort Park in Slade. To get to the top of the bridge, you squeeze through a narrow fracture and climb some steps. For an easy ascent, you can take the skylift. Once at the top, you will be within walking distance of the 30-foot-wide sandstone structure known as Natural Bridge. If you want to extend your adventure, follow the 1,200-foot flat trail to Lookout Point for an incredible view of the bridge and the valley. Choose from among a dozen hiking trails that range from one-half mile to 7.5 miles.

Plenty of other fun activities beckon in and near the park. Lively music fills the air at outdoor hoedowns that take place at Hoedown Island within the park as dancers perform line dancing, Appalachian square dancing, two-stepping, and other lively dances. Throw in a fishing line or go canoeing on nearby Mill Creek Lake—maybe you will catch a largemouth bass.

Two campgrounds in the state park offer a total of 52 sites with electric hookups plus several primitive sites for tents. While here, drive to the adjacent Red River Gorge geological area for an immersion into nature. The Red River is Kentucky’s only National Wild and Scenic River. The erosive forces of wind and water have sculpted 100 arches in this area. Some of these natural phenomena will show themselves to you on the 70 miles of hiking trails.

One of the most popular attractions in Kentucky is Mammoth Cave National Park. Kentucky lays claim to the longest known cave system in the world—Mammoth Cave National Park. Before tourists started coming to the cave, mining saltpeter to make black gunpowder was conducted in the 18th century. Park rangers give cave tours that range from 30 minutes to six hours long. Some are strenuous, requiring many steps and steep grades.

Horse farm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors can negotiate tight tunnels and view huge domed spaces, slot canyons, and historic structures in the park. Enjoy the waters of the Green and Nolin rivers by going fishing, canoeing, or kayaking. Or ride a bike along the 9-mile Railroad Bike and Hike Trail to visit scenic overlooks and historic sites. Other hiking trails ranging from 0.1 to 1.3 miles lead to a variety of sights.

Backcountry trails beckon adventurers to miles of forested hikes and horse trails. Everyone can find an outdoor trek that suits them. Two campgrounds here offer sites that accommodate RVs up to 40 feet with limited electric and no water hookups.

Cumberland Gap offers stunning scenery. Nestled on the border of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia is Cumberland Gap National Historical Park which offers an attractive campground. Pioneers heading west traveled through this natural pass in the mountains.

Volunteers leave the visitors center at 9:00 a.m. to lead a four-hour tour of Hensley Settlement, a remote mountain enclave founded in 1903 and occupied until 1951. After riding a shuttle up a steep gravel road through the woods, visitors embark on a stroll around the historic Appalachian farm community. Split-rail fences outline plots Hensley family members called home. The reconstructed one-room schoolhouse and log homes will transport you to simpler times.

The Old Talbott Tavern, Bardstown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bourbon in Bardstown

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.

Bourbon distilleries are synonymous with Kentucky. Some offer tours and others offer only tastings.

My Old Kentucky Home © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

While staying at My Old Kentucky Home Campground in Bardstown we stopped at Heaven Hill Distillery and toured its small museum which tells the story of the only original U.S. spirit.

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

The Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loredo. After deciding on Maker’s Mark Distillery for a tour, we sipped coffee mixed with bourbon while gazing over the lush landscape. We then bought a gift bottle and hand-dipped it in the company’s traditional red wax.

Heaven Hill and Maker’s Mark are among the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Kentuckians add this spirit to many dishes. On Route 49, to and from Bardstown, large buildings house hundreds of thousands of barrels of aging bourbon—barrels that are used only once by the distilleries.

Horse farm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Kentucky Derby in Louisville

Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, in Louisville. Choose from several behind-the-scenes tours for an up-close look at this legendary track and the equine athletes who thrill spectators here. On the 30-minute Historic Walking Tour included with admission you visit the paddock and grandstand to learn about the history of the track and horses.

A second tour visits such non-public areas as the workers village, Millionaires Row, and the Turf Club. Stable operations begin as early as 5:00 a.m. and these beautiful animals are treated like royalty.

Watching The Greatest Race on a 360-degree screen gives you the feeling that the horses in the Kentucky Derby are galloping straight at you. Colorful exhibits regarding jockeys, Derby attendees, and horses fill the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Quilt Barn Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Something for Everyone

Kentucky is fortunate to have so many attractions worth visiting. It seems as though there is an attraction for everyone. Quilters can visit the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, sports-car enthusiasts can tour the Corvette factory and museum in Bowling Green, bluegrass music fans can visit Owensboro, history buffs will appreciate Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, and there are plenty of national parks such as Mammoth Cave and Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

Visitors to this beautiful southern state will be rewarded with happy memories of the unbridled spirit of Kentucky.

Worth Pondering…

Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.

―Daniel Boone

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

23 of the Best Places to Visit in Kentucky

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.

Horse farm near Lexington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lexington

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.

Keeneland © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keeneland

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

More on Kentucky: Escapes in Kentucky for Bourbon, Horses & History

Frankfort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Frankfort

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 State Capitol © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Floral Clock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

More on Kentucky: Discovering the Joys of Kentucky Bourbon

Buffalo Trace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Grandmas RV Camping, Elizabethtown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elizabethtown

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 Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

More on Kentucky: Historic Frankfort: Kentucky Distilled

Bardstown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bardstown

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.

Old Talbott Tavern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Barton 1799 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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.

Maker’s Mark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maker’s Mark

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.

More on Kentucky: The Ultimate Guide to Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Maker’s Mark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Historic Georgetown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Georgetown

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 on the Elkhorn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Versailles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Versailles

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Woodford Reserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Midway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Midway

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.

Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Berea

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.

Boone Tavern Hotel, Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.

―Daniel Boone

Bardstown Sets the Stage for Spirited Memories

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.

The Old Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

The Old Talbott Tavern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Makers Mark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Four Roses Bourbon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Willett Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.)

Distillery tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

My Old Kentucky Home © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Jim Beam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,

Weep no more, my lady,

Oh! Weep no more today!

We will sing one song for the old Kentucky Home,

For the old Kentucky Home far away.

—Words and music by Stephen Collins Foster, 1853

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

Road Tripping in Bourbon Country

Everything you need to know about the ultimate U.S. liquor and where to learn more

America’s Native Spirit can be made anywhere in the U.S. and still be called bourbon but some 90 percent is Kentuckian. In the Bluegrass State, there are, as every tour guide says, more bourbon barrels aging (nearly 5 million) than residents (4.5 million).

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2012, the Kentucky Distillers Association launched the Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. It’s essentially a map of seven micro-distilleries to complement a similarly self-guided tour of seven larger ones. Each has its own passport. Fill with stamps for a free T-shirt. That achievement briefly intrigued. Assessing geography and open hours, however, led us to five, plus one not on the sanctioned trail.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Per federal law, bourbon is whiskey consisting of at least 51 percent corn produced at each stage within a range of proofs (too high or low and you’re back to whiskey) aged in new (one-time use only) white oak barrels. Throughout the trail, you’ll hear about Kentucky’s mineral-rich limestone water but there’s no bourbon without a barrel.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A barrel is really an ingredient. Without it, you’d be drinking White Dog, the clear grain distillate (aka moonshine) that enters a barrel. What exits is brown (darkest when aged longest) and hopefully multidimensional. Whiskey is pretty simple. It’s a function of recipe, barrel, warehouse, and time.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbons are made in limited quantity at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, along with other lauded labels—Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, E.H. Taylor, George T. Stagg. They’re not pouring or selling anything Van Winkle there, but following a walk through the park-like property’s architectural timeline of two centuries of distilling, you can sip up to three ½-oz tastes of other products including the distillery’s namesake.

Tasting laws are strict. Fortunately, these counties are now wet; Woodbridge was dry on our first visit over a decade ago. They’re also flowing with another type of spirit.

Jim Beam American Stillhouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prior to our first trip to Bourbon Country I had heard of Jim Beam, and little else. Fittingly, Jim Beam’s Fred Noe, the company’s seventh-generation Master Distiller is the great-grandson of Jim who protected their yeast (think sourdough bread starter) by driving it back and forth to work in a jug. They’ve used that same strain since 1935. You can see the jug on the tour at the company’s American Stillhouse in Clermont, under padlock.

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

We’ve also been to Maker’s Mark (actually, twice), the first distillery to reach out to visitors. At the time, people said ‘what the heck are you doing’ when they put a lot of money out just for show. That’s what people did for horses, not bourbon. But every year they sold everything they made and the rest of the industry took notice.

Willett Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Wild Turkey, we meet Jimmy, legendary Master Distiller, more than 60 years in. Similar to our other tours, we enter a massive, unfriendly-looking warehouse (think prison or horror film), holding some 20,000 barrels. These “rack houses” can have a 50-degree temperature variance between top and bottom floors. That’s part of the mystique of bourbon: Most warehouses are heated and cooled by nature’s whims, resulting in barrels of differing nature. The challenge is to blend and create a consistent taste.

Barrels at Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reaching for a visible wet spot on a barrel our guide says, “Leaks prove bourbon is getting into the most porous parts of the wood. That’s how you get the syrupy goodness.” As the weather changes and the wood expands and contracts, the bourbon flows in and out. Mostly it stays in. The greatest amount of loss is attributed to evaporation and referred to as Angel’s Share.

Bourbon needs to be in the barrel for two years to be bourbon, but most are aged for six or more. At a loss rate of about 5 percent a year. No wonder ghosts linger about. You get your share too when you enter. It’s delicious.

Woodford Reserve Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Woodford Reserve, where you’re most reminded you’re in thoroughbred territory—gigantic, fenced, hilly, and grassy farms surround the picturesque national landmark—the warehouses are temperature-controlled, a somewhat controversial modernization. Buffalo Trace has some of these, too.

Woodford Reserve Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some 20 years ago, Brown-Forman renovated the vacant buildings and started mixing up what’s now the world’s only triple-distilled bourbon. Everyone else does two. Woodford emphasizes the harmony of five areas of flavor: sweet aromatics, fruit and floral, spice, wood, and grain.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best Kentucky bourbon country trip includes both large and small distilleries. Visit four and you’ll return home with an understanding of the product, the process, and the history. And you’ll have taste, but not a full glass. There are no bars on any property.

Boundary Oak Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s essential to remember that open hours are limited—and that Covid-19 is impacting travel and tourism—3 p.m. is the last tour most everywhere. Sundays don’t start until 1 p.m. Some distilleries are neighbors; many are a good hour apart. Choose your favorite label, and work around it.

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

Our trail was more or less a 200-mile oval between Shepherdsville (20 miles south of Louisville) and Lexington. We used two RV parks for our home base: Grandma’s RV Camping in Shepherdsville and Whispering Hills RV Park north of Georgetown (20 miles north of Lexington).

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

Discovering the Joys of Kentucky Bourbon

Each distillery along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has a unique story to tell

Bourbon is big.

Along with Willie Nelson and his country music classic, “On the road again. Just can’t wait to get on the road again…” we headed southeast to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stretching from Louisville to Lexington, then southwest along the Bluegrass Parkway, the trail is a trademarked destination made up of nine member distilleries. Over several days, we toured four of the chosen nine and then veered off to a new craft distillery. Like the four that are featured here, each had a unique story to tell, interlaced with a rich history and distinctive style.

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

Bourbon “distinctive,” you say? Heck yes. While once considered the drink of the common man, bourbon’s status has swelled in recent years, as sales have surged. Production has exceeded 1 million barrels annually for the past five years, driven by the demand of younger customers and an appreciation of small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, the premium equivalents of a single-malt scotch.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the uninitiated, a primer: All bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon. There are stringent regulations, set by Congress in 1964, that make bourbon exclusive within the spirits world. To be labeled a bourbon, it must be made in the United States using a grain mixture that’s at least 51 percent corn; it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof (62.5 percent alcohol); and it must be bottled at 80 proof or more.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rolling through verdant hills, Kentucky is a blend of genteel traditions—Churchill Downs, mint juleps, the stately white fences that frame the horse farms—and pure Americana: Louisville Slugger, Muhammad Ali Center, and Bill Monroe.

Barton 1792, Bardstown

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a sleepy valley in Bardstown lies the sprawling Barton 1792, an old school distillery with an old school charm. The tour is informal, the buildings unadorned.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 so smooth as it goes down the back of your throat. It has a long finish. Our glasses seemed to empty themselves.

Maker’s Mark Distillery, Loretto

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

From Bardstown, we headed down the winding roads to the home of Maker’s Mark Distillery a National Historic Landmark nestled in the rolling hills of Marion County. Any bourbon tour would be incomplete without a stop at Maker’s Mark who has been producing its bourbon whiskey (they spell it “whisky” in honor of the company’s Scottish roots) since 1840.

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

There are plenty of signs along the way to get you there in time to dip your own souvenir bottle in their signature red wax.

Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buildings from 1881 still stand, used in the production of brands such as Blanton, Stagg Jr. and Van Winkle, whose rare 23-year-old bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle, fetches more than $1,000 a bottle.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Founded in the late 1700s, Buffalo Trace claims to be the oldest U.S. distillery that has continuously produced bourbon. The reason being, during Prohibition (1920 to 1933), it was one of six distilleries licensed by the federal government to sell whiskey for “medicinal purposes.”

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“A person could get a prescription from his doctor and receive 2 quarts per month,” says our tour guide.” And when Prohibition was canceled, Kentucky was the healthiest state in the Union.

Wild Turkey Distillery, Lawrenceburg

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Wild Turkey Distillery tour reveals an intriguing combination of tradition and modern mass production. In the fermentation room, for example, 70-year-old cypress tanks stand next to modern stainless steel ones.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our visit began and ended in the new visitor center with a gift shop and tasting room. Inspired by the silhouette of Kentucky tobacco barns , the two-year-old visitor center has an unbeatable view of the Kentucky River and its bridge and unique railroad trestle (the turnaround point for the Bluegrass Scenic Railroad).

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ll be back. Our well-practiced taste buds will demand it.

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