Jody turned 30 last month, and as an avid bourbon enthusiast, it only seemed fitting to celebrate on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. While Kentucky isn’t the only place that makes bourbon, it does produce 95% of bourbon in the United States due to its geographical location. Considering that and its rich history in the state, visiting the collection of distilleries along the trail where we could tour the facilities, learn about the distilling process, and of course, taste the bourbons seemed like a no-brainer. However, narrowing down which distilleries to visit during our weekend getaway can be overwhelming.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail runs from Lexington to Louisville, but the distilleries are pretty spaced out throughout the countryside. There are 18 distilleries officially a part of the KBT, as well as many additional ones that aren’t (include Buffalo Trace!). Since we knew we only had two days (really more like 1.5 days), we had to be intentional about choosing which distilleries to visit. We also took location into consideration – we chose to drive to Kentucky from Maryland, which made choosing to make Lexington our home base since it was over an hour closer than Louisville. If we had more time, we would have loved to also visit Louisville, but we decided it was more important to us to visit the distilleries near Lexington and Bardstown, known as the “Bourbon Capital of the World”.
Prior to arriving, I had heard that visiting 2-3 distilleries a day was the recommended amount, but you could definitely do closer to 4-5 if you aren’t touring. I’ll share our itinerary below, but you’ll also want to consider driving time between distilleries when creating your own plan. On the note of driving, we decided to drive versus taking a tour bus, which allowed us more flexibility in spending more time at any distillery or grabbing a bite to eat. The tastings really only consist of a couple small sips, not enough to get drunk, so driving was still quite safe.
One last important thing to mention is that booking tours in advance is a must. We were unable to secure tours at all of the the distilleries that we had originally wanted to see, due to limited availability and tickets because of covid restrictions, but even outside of that, it does allow you to plan your schedule and know you have a spot on the tour, in case the tours sell out.
Day 1: Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, James E. Pepper, Barrel House
12:00pm: Woodford Reserve
We had driven halfway the day prior, which allowed us to arrive in Kentucky a little before lunch time. We didn’t book any reservations until later in the afternoon in case we didn’t make as good of time as we did, so we had a bit of time to kill. While Woodford Reserve currently isn’t holding tours, they are offering guided tastings. I had initially tried to book a tasting, since it is one of my personal favorite bourbons, but their availability was fully booked. Happily, reservations aren’t required to visit the gift shop or outdoor cocktail bar, so we thought there was no better way to kickoff our weekend than with a delicious cocktail. Jody ordered a Kentucky Mule, which was a bourbon version of a Moscow Mule, and I had the Spire, their lemonade-cranberry official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby.
1:30pm: Buffalo Trace
This was another distillery that I had tried to make reservations at but unfortunately were fully booked. When planning, I had reached out to add ourselves to the waitlist in the event that a spot opened up. Like Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace encouraged us to stop by to visit the gift shop, where I could also see if they had any last minute cancellations for a tour. While no tour stops opened up (hint: they did say your best chance a securing a last-minute opening was early in the morning), we shopped around the gift shop for bourbon-themed treats and trinkets. We wished were able to secure a tour, but are looking forward to visiting this beautiful campus again during our next visit to Kentucky.
3:30pm: James E. Pepper Distillery
For our first official tour of the day, we headed to our tour at James E. Peppery Distillery. This was not an official stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, it is a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, and also conveniently located in Lexington. This is one of the stops that I never would have thought of visiting if it hadn’t been for the lack of available reservations elsewhere, but I’m so glad that we did. Surprisingly, this little distillery has so much history, dating back to the late 1700’s! We learned about the story behind the brand, our first look into the distilling process, and maybe most interestingly, they were able to keep their original distillery number (DSP-KY-5), indicating that they were the fifth distillery to be registered in Kentucky. At the end of the tour, we enjoy a tasting, including a taste of bourbon straight off the still, which we joked burned off all of our tastebuds for the rest of the trip!
5:00pm: Barrel House Distilling Co.
Our last stop of the day was at Barrel House Distilling, conveniently located right next to James E. Pepper in part of their old barreling house, hence the clever name. This area is now an up and coming hotspot, with diverse drink and food options, including Crank + Boom, an ice cream shop that I mentioned in an earlier post. After a short tour (and quick peek at watching the labelling of some of the bottles), we enjoyed another tasting, where we tasted six different spirits. In addition to bourbon, Barrel House also distills vodka, moonshine and rum.
Day 2: Maker’s Mark, Lux Row Distillery, Heaven Hill Distilling
11:00am: Maker’s Mark
On our second day, we woke up and drove about an hour south to Maker’s Mark. Despite the rainy weather, this tour ended up being one of the favorite of the weekend. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable when it came to the history and family heritage of Maker’s Mark and the entire distilling process, and the grounds were so beautifully designed (which we learned was thanks to Margie, the wife of the man behind the bourbon. She’s also the one behind the hand-dipped wax on the bottles!). We love how no two bottles of bourbon are the same and really learned to tell the difference in the four bourbons we were able to taste during the tour. At the end of the tour, we browse the gift shop, where we purchased a bottle for Jody to hand-dip in their signature red wax, and then stopped for a cocktail at the cafe before continuing on to our next location.
3:00pm: Lux Row Distillery
One of the newer additions to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Lux Row was another great stop. Lux Row’s location produces six different bourbons, most of which we were able to taste during our tour. While the distilling process had become a bit repetitive at this point, it was still exciting to learn about their own take on the creation of their products. However, the highlight of this tour was visiting one of the rickhouses, where the barrels of bourbon are stored six stories tall! The aroma of the aging barrels was intoxicating (in a non-drunk kind of way) with hints of bourbon, vanilla and spices – so good! Our tasting included a bourbon and chocolate pairing, which despite my dislike of chocolate, I still wanted to take part in the experience. We did upgrade our tasting to include a pour of their premium bourbon, Old Ezra 7 Year Barrel Strength, which we ended up purchasing a bottle to bring home.
4:30pm: Heaven Hill Distillery
Our final stop was an unplanned stop at Heaven Hill Distillery. One of their bourbons, Larceny, is one of Jody’s favorites, so we spontaneously decided to visit their gift shop before heading back to Lexington. It was pretty busy and close to closing time, so we didn’t receive the individual attention that we had at other distilleries, which was a bit disappointing, but were glad we stopped nonetheless.
Even though we had a pretty packed itinerary, there were so many other distilleries we wish we could have made it to. We had such a blast during our two days on the trail enjoying the beautiful countryside of Kentucky and cannot wait for our next visit to bourbon country. If you are a fan of bourbon, or even just interested in history, planning a trip along the trail is a must!