Thinking of taking on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail? Let Lexington be your home base.
“Lexington is one of the gateways to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” says Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association. “The city has a very long history with bourbon and it's a great place to start your trip.
According to Gregory, statesman Henry Clay, one of Kentucky's most famous historical figures, used to ship barrels of bourbon to his Senate office in Washington D.C. For what he called “lubricating the wheels of government.”
“There are actually prints of the barrels being loaded onto wagons,” Gregory says.
Kentucky produces more than 95 percent of the world's bourbon, which was declared America's Native Spirit by congress in 1964.
“We're one of the key contributors to Kentucky's economy,” Gregory says. “When you think of Kentucky, you think horses and basketball, but the bourbon industry directly employs more than 3,200 people at distilleries, including hundreds of spinoff jobs at hotels and restaurants.”
Though the bourbon has been a part of Lexington's culture for over 200 years, recent interest in small batch and single-barrel bourbons has created nationwide buzz about their histories and their production processes.
“Bourbon is no longer a drink,” Gregory says. “It's a lifestyle.”
One of Kentucky's most famous and fastest growing tourist attractions, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, links eight historic distilleries, each with its own tour and unique perspective. Here are the highlights, using Lexington as a starting point, then moving throughout central Kentucky:
The first distillery to ship bourbon down the Mississippi River, Buffalo Trace offers three free tours, including the Hard Hat Tour, which shows off its fermentation tanks and three-story column still. Built in Franklin County near the Kentucky River close to an ancient buffalo crossing, there has been a working distillery on this site since 1787.
The official bourbon on of the Kentucky Derby, Woodford Reserve goes through a triple distillation process in a copper still. A visit to the national Historic Landmark distillery in Versailles offers three tour options including the Corn to Cork Tour, which explains the more chemical and technical aspects of bourbon production.
During you free tour, watch master distiller Jimmy Russell, who has been employed with Wild Turkey in Lawrencebug since 1954, as he works through the steps from grain handling to mashing, fermenting, distilling, filling, aging and bottling. The water used in Wild Turkey's process is taken from a well on the distillery grounds. The water there is considered so pure that the town's water plant also is on the property.
According to legend, a man named Paul Jones Jr. sent a marriage proposal to a Southern belle, and she replies that if her answer were going to be yes, she would wear a corsage of roses to the upcoming ball. She did, and Jones named his bourbon Four Roses. The distillery, also in Lawrenceburg, has a Spanish Mission-style look and operates tours from mid-September through June. The gift shop and visitor center are open year round.
A national Historic Landmark tucked away in Loretto, Maker's Mark Distillery offers a tour of the master distiller's house, the Toll Gate Cafe, the fire engine, the still house, fermenting room and barrel warehouse. The bourbon is known for its signature red-wax seal.
This Bardstown distillery offers a free history tour and tasting, as well as a Behind the Scenes Connoisseur tour for $49.95, which includes a tour of the 50-acre operation via the Heaven Hill Trolley.
Also in Bardstown, Tom Moore boasts many labels, such as its 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Small Batch, Very Old Barton, Kentucky Gentleman and, of course, Tom Moore. It is the newest distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and reservations are required for free tours.
Just 20 miles from Louisville in Clermont, the Jim Beam Distillery features a free tour including a 200-year timeline with heirloom bottles and a visit to the T. Jeremiah Beam House, where three generations of Beams lived and worked.