Just as Dorothy followed the Yellow Brick Road, bourbon neophytes and aficionados alike can pursue a similar storied path: the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Both lead to a world of magic and mystery, adventure and pure awesomeness – and to the Master Distillers who control the levers, so to speak, behind the curtain.
In the world of bourbon, those first steps should be taken in Bardstown, KY, the Bourbon Capital of the World.
A land of oz awash in bourbon, Bardstown is home to six distilleries, four of which are on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, including Heaven Hill and Jim Beam. Also here are Barton 1792 and Willett, the former the oldest fully operating distillery in Bardstown, the latter still using some of the original bourbon recipes developed by Master Distiller John David Willett in the 19th century.
As if the touring and tasting possibilities at some of the world’s most celebrated bourbon distilleries aren’t enough, Bardstown is also home to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, a great first stop to brush up on the history of American’s only Native Spirit through displays that include President George Washington’s confiscated copper still, Prohibition-era “prescriptions,” novelty whiskey containers (King Tut’s tomb!) and a stunning Art Deco bottle collection.
One might get the idea that Bardstown is the place to live, eat, sleep and breathe bourbon – and one would be correct. At Bourbon Manor, the world’s first bourbon-themed bed and breakfast inn, the innkeepers keep guests steeped in the bourbon experience. Sip bourbon in The Bunghole lounge and bar and breakfast on bourbon and bacon flapjacks covered in a secret-recipe bourbon caramel syrup.
Beyond bourbon: Go gourmet in vintage, linen-draped splendor aboard My Old Kentucky Dinner Train (www.kydinnertrain.com), murder mystery served a la carte.
One shop stop: Who needs Manhattan when you can shop Shaq & CoCo (https://shaqandcoco.com) for glam gifts and one-of-a-kind goodies?
Perhaps the granddaddy of ’em all – some might say grand-pappy (as in Van Winkle) – Buffalo Trace holds the distinction of being the world’s most award-winning distillery, oldest continually (legally) operating distillery in the country and one of four distilleries allowed to remain open during Prohibition. For medicinal purposes only, wink-wink.
“Each member of the family was allowed up to two pints of bourbon a month and would receive a prescription written by a doctor, which they would take to a pharmacy to fill,” said Buffalo Trace tour guide Fred Mozenter. “This is why many pharmacies sell alcohol today.”
These days, the distillery has another claim to fame: A 2016 archeological dig uncovered ruins inside the former O.F.C. Distillery building – and now “Buffalo Trace Pompeii,” as the site has been nicknamed, is offered as a tour. Visitors see the foundation ruins from the 1869 and 1873 distilleries (christened by Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. in 1870) and fermenters that date back to 1883.
Also on the tour: the renovated circa 1700 Old Taylor House – the oldest structure on the grounds – and Warehouse C, a barrel warehouse Taylor built in the late 1800s.
Later this summer Castle and Key opens in restored century-old buildings at the former Old Taylor Distillery, built in 1887 by Col. Taylor and featuring a limestone castle, gazebos and sunken gardens. At its helm will be Kentucky’s only female Master Distiller, Marianne Barnes.
Beyond bourbon: Beauty and tranquility are yours for the taking at free-admission Josephine Sculpture Park (www.josephinesculpturepark.org), where some 50 works of art are set amidst native plants and wildlife habitat.
One shop stop: For gorgeous artisan-made gifts and come-hither gift wrapping, shop Completely Kentucky (www.completelykentucky.com).
Continuing along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, one thing is clear: It’s all about bourbon, barrels . . . and more bourbon.
Two words: red wax. Pretty much everybody who tours the hallowed grounds of Maker’s Mark Distillery wants to dip a bottle into the signature molten red wax. It is a coveted part of going behind-the-scenes to see what makes this legendary distillery tick.
A new attraction is The Cellar, carved from a natural limestone shelf on distillery grounds to provide a place to finish Marker’s 46. Beloved among bourbon enthusiasts everywhere, this particular bourbon is made by placing seared French oak staves into a barrel of fully aged Maker’s Mark for about nine weeks. The result? Satisfyingly complex flavors – not to mention a tour showing off the finishing process and one seriously cool tasting room.
Lebanon is famous as the only place on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to witness both bourbon and bourbon barrel making. Watch the barrels get charred at Kentucky Cooperage and learn how this adds an exquisite depth to bourbon. Limestone Branch Distillery gained fame for distilling the original recipe for Yellowstone Bourbon – a brand that dates back to 1872. It’s also known for having the best selfie stop ever, at the Maker’s Mark Water Tower.
Beyond bourbon: The 3.2-mile Gorley Naturalist Trail (www.visitlebanonky.com) encircles Fagan Branch Reservoir, its beautiful wooded backdrop made even more scenic by 47 bridges.
One shop stop: Girlie-girls won’t want to miss That Cute Little Shop (www.thatcutelittleshop.co). It’s all that, and a monogrammed bag.
The first distillery to open since Prohibition in Kentucky’s largest city was the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. Located on Whiskey Row on Louisville’s beautiful waterfront, the immersive experience sweeps visitors into 1783 and the world of Kentucky’s first commercial distiller, Evan Williams.
Whiskey Row’s newest distillery is Angel’s Envy. Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson, who created the Woodford Reserve and Gentleman Jack brands among others, came out of retirement to work with his son Wes on an idea he’d had for years: finishing bourbon in Port barrels.
Calling the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery “one of the true cathedrals of the American whiskey industry,” the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller Distillery pays tribute to this distillery which opened originally on Derby Day in 1935.
Louisville is also the home of the Urban Bourbon Trail, with dozens of stops – each carrying a minimum of 50 bourbons – showcasing its standing as one of America’s “10 Best New Food Cities” and its bourbon heritage, which dates to the 18th century when frontier farmers first discovered the benefits of Kentucky’s limestone-filtered water in the whiskey distillation process.
Beyond bourbon: Magnificent art. Beautiful setting. The Speed Museum (www.speedmuseum.org) has just emerged from a 3-year renovation.
One shop stop: Familiar with the Kentucky Derby? Then you know about Kentucky’s obsession with the bourbon-soaked mint julep. Find Mint Julep Cups at Louisville Stoneware, www.louisvillestoneware.com.
Bourbon or bust
Although Harrodsburg is surrounded by Kentucky Bourbon Country, it just got a distillery last year when Olde Towne opened as the country’s first distillery to produce moonshine from hemp. But it already had a reputation for pouring fine Kentucky bourbon. Dixon Dedman, fifth generation innkeeper at the James Beard America’s Classic award-winning Beaumont Inn, takes visitors on a journey of premium bourbons during the Innkeeper’s Personalized Bourbon Tastings.
In the past couple years, 16 distilleries have opened or are in the process of opening in Kentucky, including Pikeville’s Dueling Barrels Distillery – an homage to the Hatfields and McCoys – and Jeptha Creed in Shelbyville. Bloody Butcher corn anyone? This heirloom corn is what gives the distillery’s spirits their bold, takes-no-prisoners profiles.