Kentucky is undoubtedly bourbon country. In fact, the spirit gets its name from Bourbon County, KY and the state produces 95% of the world’s bourbon. And there’s no better place to enjoy a few sips than along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We’re here to share our Bourbon Trail tips and help you figure out exactly how to do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
We’ve traveled through Kentucky many times but only over the past couple of years have we really spent any significant time there. Our first visit was in 2021 to check out Mammoth Cave National Park and the other national park sites in the state. We made a quick stop at a random distillery and hit up a restaurant with a nice bourbon menu but did not have time to really “do” the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Just before Thanksgiving 2022, we joined our friends Billy & Shannon to officially check out the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We were just there for a weekend, so didn’t have time to visit everything but definitely learned a lot even in just a short visit. While we had a great time, there were a few things that we could have done differently to have an even better experience.
So, let’s take a look at our Kentucky Bourbon Trail tips to help you plan the perfect trip!
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What to Expect Along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
First, I want to clarify that the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is not a trail for hiking! While that might be fun, it would be very inconvenient for buying bourbon to take home. Instead, the Bourbon Trail is a program that some Kentucky distilleries participate in. Essentially, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail drives visitation and supports tourism.
Each distillery along the Bourbon Trail provides its own experience. All of them offer a tour of the production process and/or a guided tasting, with many providing several different options. Additionally, you’ll generally find a gift shop for buying bottles of bourbon along with a variety of bourbon-related gear and gadgets.
Many distilleries offer a bar where you can get a 1- or 2-ounce pour or a bourbon flight. Some also offer bourbon cocktails or distillery-only items. A few offer a full bar, in the event you have someone with you who is not a bourbon fan. That said, not all bars are open to the general public and some are very small.
Finally, a few distilleries have an exhibit area where you can learn about the history and production of bourbon without an organized tour.
If you are visiting specifically to complete the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you’ll want to get the Bourbon Trail Passport & Field Guide. You can get this at any distillery along the trail or you can purchase one ahead of time from the official online store.
This guide provides information about each distillery and allows you to record your visit with a passport stamp. If you complete the entire trail, you can earn a surprise bourbon gift.
Tips for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Whether you are visiting Kentucky specifically for the Bourbon Trail or just happen to be stopping at a couple of distilleries while you’re in the state, there’s plenty of fun to be had when bourbon is involved! Our tips will help you plan a great trip that you’ll remember for years to come.
Tip #1: Start Planning Early
We only planned our visit to Kentucky about one month in advance. And we really didn’t start doing research on the distilleries until about two weeks ahead of time. We quickly realized that we had waited too late for many of the tours and tastings.
To be fair, you don’t necessarily need to do an organized tour or tasting at every single distillery. Still, if there’s somewhere specific that you know you want a reservation, you probably want to plan at least 1-2 months in advance. Some places indicated that you should plan at least 3 months in advance.
Even with limited options, we still had a great experience but we did a bit of scrambling at the last minute. And we missed out on a couple of distilleries and experiences we wish we had been able to do.
As I mentioned previously, many distilleries do have a “public” bar where you can just purchase whatever you want without any reservation. At others, though, there’s not much of anything you can do without a reservation. We had both great and not-so-great experiences without reservations.
At Heaven Hill, we were able to enjoy a large exhibit area, short film, fantastic bar and large gift shop all without any sort of reservation. That was fantastic! On the other hand, at Lux Row we were able to purchase a drink at a small bar in the gift shop but the experience was definitely underwhelming. Finally, at Angel’s Envy, we couldn’t do anything other than browse the gift shop without a reservation.
Do your research before you arrive to make sure you know what’s available and what kind of experience to expect.
Tip #2: Choose a Variety of Experiences
Let’s be honest, you really don’t need to do a “how we make bourbon” tour at every single distillery. The basic distillation process is the same regardless of where you are. And there are some very specific rules that a spirit must meet to legally be called bourbon. Thus, doing a tour of every single distillery would be quite repetitive.
Many distilleries offer other experiences, though. Skip the tour part and go straight to a guided tasting. Let’s be honest, that’s probably what you care most about anyway, right?
Or, choose a tour that includes a bourbon thieving, which is when you take the bourbon straight out of the barrel. Some distilleries will offer a mixology class or even the opportunity to fill your own bottle. All of these allow you to mix it up and try something different at each distillery.
And, if the distillery offers a public bar, you can skip the reservation altogether and just hit the bar and order whatever you want. You’ll often find a wide variety of bourbons, often including distillery-exclusive choices.
We particularly enjoyed the small bar at Willet that serves a wide variety of bourbons, cocktails and small plates. And, I was able to make a same-day reservation at the bar even though tours were sold out several weeks in advance.
Tip #3: Pace Yourself and Plan Your Time Thoughtfully
Currently, there are 18 “signature” distilleries and 24 “craft” distilleries that are members of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. These 42 distilleries are spread all over the state. There simply isn’t enough time to visit even just the “main” 18 distilleries in one weekend. And, you really should include at least one “craft” distillery on your itinerary.
I would suggest that you plan to visit no more than three or maybe four distilleries in one day. For starters, you really don’t want to overdo it on the bourbon and end up drinking more than you should. Second, many of the distilleries are only open from about 11 am – 5 pm, so you really can’t fit in more than about four without really rushing through. Also, keep an eye out for Sundays. Many distilleries are closed on Sundays.
At this rate, you need about a week to fit in all of the “signature” distilleries.
Honestly, though, we’d suggest splitting your experience up into several different visits to Kentucky, if possible. While we love bourbon, visiting distilleries for 5-6 days in a row would likely lose its luster after the first few days. It just gets repetitive, even for the most dedicated bourbon lover.
Tip #4: Limit Your Tasting/Tour Radius
Deciding where to stay is one of the biggest decisions you’ll need to make when planning your Kentucky Bourbon Trail itinerary. If you’re trying to complete the entire trail at one time, you’ll likely want to stay in several different cities over the course of a week (or however long you take to finish the trail).
If you’re only going to focus on a few distilleries, we suggest focusing on one specific area. By keeping your tour radius small, you limit the amount of time you spend driving.
For those wanting to visit a specific distillery, I suggest that you secure your tour/tasting reservation, then find somewhere to stay close by. From there, you can build your itinerary to include other nearby distilleries.
If you’re not picky about which distilleries you visit, simply choose a city to stay in and build your itinerary from there. While there are distilleries scattered all over the state, most of the major ones are located in or near Lexington, Louisville or Bardstown.
We stayed in Shelbyville, which ended up being fairly centrally located. Still, there are only two distilleries in Shelbyville, so it meant driving 30 minutes to an hour to get to all the others. And, Shelbyville is relatively small with limited restaurants and other things to do. That was fine for one weekend but not ideal for much longer than 2-3 nights.
Tip #5: Don’t Limit Yourself to the Official Kentucky Bourbon Trail
A quick internet search found that there are about 75-100 bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. Of course, this number changes quite often with new distilleries popping up or old ones closing. Still, there are definitely a good number of distilleries that do not participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
In fact, one of our favorite distilleries, Buffalo Trace, is not a member of the Bourbon Trail. And they are a large, well-known and well-respected brand. Alas, we could not get a reservation for this trip.
So, if there is something off the trail that you want to visit, go for it! Just because they aren’t part of the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail doesn’t mean it isn’t worth visiting. It simply means they don’t pay into the association that manages the tourist trail.
Tip #6: Budget Carefully
Everyone knows that good bourbon isn’t necessarily cheap and it certainly isn’t free! Unfortunately, in many places, neither are the tours or tastings. Even moderate prices add up quickly when visiting several distilleries.
We only paid for one tour (at the Stitzel-Weller distillery) which was $30 per person. In all of our other searching, that seemed to be the average rate for a basic tour, which typically includes a tasting of 3-4 different bourbons. Of course, some distilleries offer special tours that cost more and you’ll certainly pay more for any sort of special experience.
Even just a guided tasting will probably cost a minimum of $20-30 each, depending on which bourbons are included in the tasting. In fact, we only found one distillery that offered a free tasting, which was Jeptha Creed. Yes, we were a bit surprised by this.
Planning to just hit up the bar on your own? That’s not free either! A single pour at the bar will typically cost $10-15 for a basic bourbon. And a tasting flight will probably run you $20-30. Of course, these prices can rise seemingly without end for special releases or other limited-quantity bourbons.
Now, consider that you’re potentially visiting three to four distilleries a day. You also have to factor in food, lodging and gas. And, that doesn’t count any bottles or other merchandise that you want to purchase to take home with you.
Yes, we felt like we bled money for two straight days! Still, it was a great experience… just be ready for the cost.
How We Did the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
As mentioned previously, we threw our trip together in just a couple of weeks. So, we definitely did not get to do everything that we would have liked to. Still, we stayed busy for two full days and had a great time.
I don’t know that our itinerary is a perfect one to follow (or even that good) but I’ll outline it below to give you an idea of what you can do in two days and what is available at the distilleries and restaurants that we visited.
As a reminder, we stayed in Shelbyville. The AirBnB that we stayed at was ok but not necessarily nice enough for me to recommend it specifically. And while Shelbyville was fairly centrally located, we still had to do a bit of driving. Were we to do it over again, we would likely stay in Bardstown, which had a great downtown and plenty of excellent restaurants.
Day 1 – Bardstown
We spent our first day in Bardstown, which is considered the “bourbon capital of the world.” Indeed, the small town boasts 11 distilleries within a 16-mile radius.
First Stop: Heaven Hill Distillery
Our first stop was the Heaven Hill Distillery, which is home to many different brands. A few of those are Heaven Hill, Larceny, Elijah Craig and Evan Williams. We quickly realized that many of the large distilleries distribute several different brands of bourbon.
Heaven Hill claims to be the largest independent, family-owned bourbon distillery in the world. Their visitor facility certainly makes that claim easy to believe.
This was by far our best experience without a reservation. We really enjoyed the wide range of exhibits that cover the history of the distillery and its founders, the Shapira brothers and much more. Along the way, you’ll learn about the distilling process, just what Bottled-in-Bond means and about Elijah Craig, the “father of bourbon.” Additionally, an 11-minute film shares more about the history of the distillery.
Both the gift shop and public bar, Five Brothers Bar, were the largest and nicest that we saw over our two-day trip. We headed up to the bar, where we purchased a single pour of a special release.
I’ll be honest, the “You Do Bourbon” tour, which allows you to sample, bottle and personalize it sounds like a great experience. Still, this is one distillery where you can easily have a great time even without a reservation.
Lunch: Scout & Scholar Brewing Co.
Our second stop was at Scout & Scholar right in the heart of Bardstown for lunch. This brewery offers a wide variety of interesting beers on tap, including several bourbon barrel-aged options. There is also a full bar, offering a variety of wine, spirits and cocktails. Additionally, there are several private select barrel picked bourbons.
Finally, the food menu is a nice mix of traditional (fried chicken sandwich, beef burger) and unique (short rib poutine, smoked bologna sandwich).
This was a great find for our entire group!
Second Stop: Lux Row Distillers
From there, we stopped at Lux Row. Again, we did not have a reservation, so we just popped in to see what we could find.
This was a moderate experience for us. We were able to get a drink at the “cocktail bar” but that was really just a cart in their gift shop. And that gift shop was underwhelming compared to what we saw at Heaven Hill.
The facility at Lux Row was really nice, though. I would definitely suggest doing a tour or tasting here, though. If we return, I’ve got my eye on the Premium Tasting, in which you sample four of their top brands and visit a rickhouse (the barrel storage facility) and thieve right out of an aging barrel.
While you technically can enjoy a drink and a fairly nice patio on your own, the experience was underwhelming without a reservation.
Third Stop: Willett Distillery
The next stop was the Willett Distillery, which technically is on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. Even though Willett is considered “craft,” it is still a large facility, with several different brands under its umbrella. Some of their other brands include Old Bardstown and Rowan’s Creek, a personal favorite. Still, driving through the field of rickhouses to reach the main building made the property feel smaller and more intimate than the other distilleries.
Here, we had a reservation for The Bar at Willett, where you can get a wide range of bourbon, a cocktail or a small plate. Having already enjoyed several straight bourbons and beer at lunch, we all opted for a cocktail along with the trout dip. Everything was absolutely fantastic!
I have to say, though, I was really tempted by their extensive menu of random barrel bourbons. Seriously, the menu included several pages of listings such as “Barrel No. 2871” along with the age, proof and price. By the way, that particular barrel was 27 years,132.4 proof and cost $300 for a 1-ounce pour. Yes, they had some that were less expensive and others that were more expensive!
Overall, we really enjoyed our experience at Willett but were very glad we had the reservation for the bar. I don’t think we would have gotten seated without that reservation. And, without that, I’m not sure there would have been much to do.
Dinner: the Rickhouse Restaurant and Lounge
For dinner, we made one last stop in Bardstown at the Rickhouse Restaurant. Housed in a historic building, the Rickhouse offers a nice selection of steak, chicken, seafood and pasta. And, of course, there is a hefty bourbon selection.
Grant finally got to sample Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea Bourbon. We’ve seen this on the shelves at liquor stores for a while and have been tempted by it many times. But, at about $70-80/bottle, we wanted to sample it before buying an entire bottle. So, will it be joining our liquor cabinet at home? Definitely!
Oh yea, there was food involved too! We both got a steak… as per usual, I chose the sirloin and Grant opted for the New York Strip. Both were cooked to perfection and had fantastic flavor. Exactly what you want for a steak dinner.
The Rickhouse really was a great way to end our first day on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We enjoyed the setting of the restaurant, the food and the drinks!
Day 2 – Louisville and Shelbyville
We spent much of our second day in Louisville, which has a very high concentration of distilleries. If you’re looking to have several distilleries close together, Louisville is a great option. That said, we found that many of them were closed on Sunday, which was a bit surprising to us.
Brunch: Copper & Kings
We started our second day with brunch at Copper & Kings, which is actually a brandy distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. They do offer a couple of different tours, but we opted to check out the rooftop bar instead.
Wow, did we make a great decision!
First, the location overlooking the city was great. But even that was overshadowed by the food. Seriously, that was an absolutely fantastic meal!
I opted for the Breakfast Plate, which included two eggs, potatoes, bacon, sausage and toast. Grant chose the Pimento Cheese Pancakes, which were topped with pork, kimchi and BBQ sauce. We also had an order of pimento cheese & housemate chips as an appetizer. Everything on the table was absolute perfection!
In terms of drinks, I went for a Brandy tasting flight, which included two “regular” brandies and two apple brandies. Grant chose their version of a Negroni, made with orange gin. Our friend Billy opted for the cocktail flight, which was a really nice surprise to find on the menu. That included three roughly half-sized cocktails (Negroni, Sidecar, Margarita), all made with either brandy or gin.
After our meal, we walked down to the gift shop and tasting area and did a little shopping. We came home with a bottle of their American Brandy.
This really was a nice little hidden gem that had some great outdoor spaces for a downtown location! We would definitely return here for a tour to learn more about their brand and brandy in general.
First Stop: Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Finally, it was time for our one and only tour at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Our tour guide took us on a short walk about the property, sharing the history of the distillery and a little bit about the distilling process. We walked through a small experimental distilling area with an attached lab, into a rickhouse and the cooper shop (where barrels are repaired).
Of course, the tour ended with a guided tasting of four different bourbons: two varieties of Bulleit (bourbon and rye), the I.W. Harper Cabernet Cask Reserve and the signature Blade & Bow. This really was a nice experience and we definitely enjoyed the tasting.
This is also one distillery that you could easily visit without a tour or any sort of reservation. They have a small but nice exhibit area on the history of bourbon and information about the distillery. There is also a small bar on the first floor, along with a bigger bar upstairs. Both are open to the public without a reservation.
Finally, the gift shop offered a nice variety of bottled bourbon, bar accessories and other bourbon-related gifts.
Second Stop: Angel’s Envy
We had a couple of hours to kill between our tour at Stitzel-Weller and our next reservation, so we tried to visit a couple of other distilleries on a whim. The only one that ended up being open was Angel’s Envy. But, without a reservation, it was a complete bust.
They have a very large gift shop, so if you’re looking to do some shopping, you can certainly do that. But, they did not even have a makeshift bar to purchase a drink or sample the bourbon.
It looked like a nice enough facility, but make sure you have a reservation before you arrive.
Third Stop: Jeptha Creed Distillery
Our final stop along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was Jeptha Creed. This craft distillery is located right off the interstate in Shelbyville. If you’re looking for a “mom and pop” distillery, you’ll find it here!
We were pleased to be able to book a free tasting, though it is important to note that you do need an advance reservation. During the tasting, our guide shared about the history of the distillery, the family who runs it and the “bloody butcher corn” (red corn) that they use in all of their bourbons.
If you have anyone in your group who isn’t a bourbon fan (or has just had their fill of bourbon), there is a bar that serves beer, wine and cocktails. They also have pizza and a few other small bites.
Finally, the outdoor space is quite nice with a large patio overlooking the rest of the property and farm.
As long as Jeptha Creed offers the free tasting, I would certainly recommend that. The whiskey was quite good and the brand is just coming into its own. Even if you can’t do a tasting, you could still have a great visit by just ordering from the bar and enjoying their outdoor patio.
Final Thoughts on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
There are many options for how to do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Have a week? Visit them all! Only have a day or two? Pick one small area and visit what you can. Or, choose your favorite distilleries and choose the experiences that best suit your interests.
Whatever you do, we urge you to plan ahead! Supposedly, we were visiting during the low season. And many tours were booked up at least two weeks in advance. That’s just how popular the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has become!
We’ve talked about doing a Bourbon Trail vacation for several years. I’m glad we finally took the plunge! The only problem is that now we’re ready to go back for more!
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