Ahh… Bourbon. THE American Spirit. In fact, bourbon is the only American spirit by law. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.
If you visit the Bourbon Trail, you’ll learn the legal requirements that a spirit needs to meet to be bourbon by heart. But I’ll keep you ahead of the game:
- It must be made of at least 51% corn.
- It must be aged in new, American, charred oak barrels.
- It must be distilled at 160 proof, and then aged in barrels until it is 125 proof or less, and must be bottled no less than 80 proof.
- Nothing can be added (no color, no flavor) to the bourbon with the exception of water (to bring the proof down, when necessary.)
No, it does not need to be made in Kentucky. (Chances are, though, it is.) Not all bourbon is “Bottled in Bond,” and that’s a whole different set of more specific requirements on top of these.
That sounds really controlled–and frankly, limiting–but in practice, each bourbon is made very differently—from what goes in the mashbill, to how charred the barrels are, to how long they’re aged, to where and how the barrels are stored in the rickhouses, to how (and if) they’re finished…. Etc. The list goes on. And that’s why bourbons can taste so different.
Visiting bourbon distilleries on the bourbon trail are very interesting, especially to those (like me) who love bourbon. Here’s my suggestions for the trail, and my ranking of the distilleries I visited. (Note: I’m not ranking the bourbons—I’m raking the experience that I had at each location.)
Pick Up A Passport (Or 2)
I recommend starting your tour in Louisville, probably at the Frazier Kentucky History Museum. The Frazier is a great museum, located a few blocks to the west of “whiskey row” (i.e. – the 100 block of Main Street in Downtown Louisville.) There, you can pick up a bourbon trail passport. Each major distillery on the trail offers a hand-stamp for each location to indicate that you’ve been there. If each distillery in the book is stamped with the respective distillery, you can get a reward!
Also, the Louisville Chamber of Commerce (which is within walking distance of Whiskey Row) offers an “Urban Bourbon Trail” passport. This is easier to complete, as you only need to visit a few establishments, and all are located in the Louisville area. This also nets you a freebie when complete—an Urban Bourbon Trail T-shirt.
With that out of the way—let’s get started on the list! Again, these are ranked in the order of my “least favorite” to “most favorite.” Even the last distillery on this list is a lot of fun, though, and they’re all worth going to.
It may be last on this list, but it was a blast. (Everything here is.) I didn’t take a tour here, but instead, hit the bar. Michter’s is one of my favorite smaller brands of bourbon, so I wanted to try out one of their cocktails at their bar. The bar was fancy, and the presentation of the drink was very impressive. However, it was pretty darn expensive. (I remember the tour being pretty expensive as well.) The facility is pretty small, and you can kind of look over the wall at where they’re distilling. I may return for a tour at one point, but I remember it being kind of pricey.
10. Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse
Sadly, the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse closed in December 2020. It was a nice tasting room. With a tasting, you got to try different Jim Beam products (including Basil Hayden) and were given a nice, etched shot glass with the experience. I won’t write a bunch about it here, as you can no longer visit. Instead, you’d want to go to the main Jim Beam facility en route to Bardstown. (And going to Bardstown is a must for any serious bourbon nerd.)
9. Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
This is more of the “Walt Disney” experience of bourbon. (No ride, though—sorry.) There’s a little distillery here, but it’s more of an interactive audio-visual experience that tells the story of Evan Williams, who he was, and how the Evan Williams name started. There’s a little example of a Rickhouse in the back with a few barrels, but then there’s some really impressive, themed tasting rooms on the top floor (right before the end of your tour). You exit through the gift shop, which is one of the better ones on the trail.
8. Bardstown Bourbon
Bardstown Bourbon is a newer distillery which has some really fancy rickhouses and a clean, modern facility to tour. (They are so new that their bourbon selection is limited to contracting with other established bourbon distilleries to help them create their product sold today.) Their tour is quite professional (if not a bit “boujie”) and shows off some cool modern industrial controls over the distilling process. Also, a group tasting takes place. Wireless headsets are passed out so that visitors can hear what the guide is saying. My favorite part of the tour was walking to one of the nearby rickhouses and using a whiskey thief to sample the barrel. (For the record, I think all bourbon distilleries should start referring to “whiskey thiefs” as “bourbon bandits.” It sounds so much better.)
There are some decent photo opportunities here, but honestly fewer than the ones towards the bottom of this list. After spending a little time in the rickhouse, we were all brought back to the gift shop (which was pretty decent in size, but not amazingly so) and visitors are given a really nice squarish old fashioned glass as a souvenir for taking the tour.
7. Four Roses (Bottling Facility)
We didn’t have a lot of time here, but the Four Roses bottling facility is between Bardstown and Louisville, not far from the GIANT Jim Beam distillery. After a little drive off the main road, you arrive at a small building which holds a tasting room and a (really quite impressive) gift shop. You can get a tour of the bottling facility here, but as we didn’t have a ton of time, we opted for the tasting. The tasting was a lot of fun. You do get some nice background of the history of Four Roses. (Most interesting fact that I recall from visiting the Four Roses facility: their rickhouses are in this location, but are very unique in that there are a bunch of them, all only one story tall. (Most are multiple stories tall.) This allows Four Roses to not have to rotate the barrels within their rickhouses to get different environmental characteristics around the barrel–they can remain in the same location for the entire time that they are aged.)
6. Angel’s Envy
Just east of the main downtown area of Louisville is the Louisville Distilling Company, home of Angel’s Envy. The experience is quite boujie, but a lot of fun. In the tour here, you’ll see the distilling process, and they’ll talk about how the bourbon is finished. Of course, there’s no rickhouse here (as they’re in the middle of downtown Louisville). They do bottle at this location, and they do offer a great discussion of some of the logistics around bottling. (One interesting discussion I remember from here is their description of how they get the carbon specs out of the bourbon (from the charred barrel) prior to bottling, as well as their bottling QC process.
One highlight of the tour which they may or may not mention that I found interesting. The “new make” box by the stills resembles a large Angel’s Envy bottle. The new make “bottle” also has a cork in it–and the cork is the top of the handle-end of wooden Louisville Slugger bat. Very clever.
Also, the tasting here was probably the most informative, as our tour guide discussed how professionals taste bourbon at a competition, and did an excellent job of describing the process. As this is Angel’s envy, there aren’t a lot of different bourbons to try, but they do have a number of cool things to pair the bourbon with, including an dark chocolate / orange candy custom made for them by local candy shop “Art Eatables,” at 819 W. Main (right next door to the Fraizer History Museum.) The candy was custom-designed and made to bring out specific notes of Angel’s Envy bourbon, in particular.
My only complaint was that their gift shop was a little limited, due to the fact that they are selective as to what is offered with the “Angel’s Envy” logo. They didn’t sell bourbon barrel bung refrigerator magnets because they felt it would cheapen their high-class brand… which is kind of ridiculous.
5. Heaven Hill
Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center is just south of Bardstown, Kentucky. It is immediately adjacent to a number of their rickhouses, though a lot of the rickhouses look a lot newer than what you’d expect.
There’s a good reason for this. (By the way–it’s kind of hard to extinguish thousands of barrels containing >60% ethanol.) You can still see the aftermath, but luckily, all was not lost. Heaven Hill (of course) owns over a dozen brands of bourbon, including Evan Williams, so you get to see a little bit of all of that here. I even spotted a few barrels brought here to age from the “Evan Williams Experience” (#9, above) in downtown Louisville.
It’s a quick little tour–it starts off behind the Bourbon Heritage Center. They give you a little history, point out the distillery (though you do not go there), and they take you on a quick tour of one of the old rickhouses across the street. They talk about barrels, aging, the char amount, and how the weather interacts with the spirit to give the color and flavor of bourbon that we know and love today.
Pretty much a standard tour, all in all. Nothing super special (though I think they have different levels of tours, and we took the most basic one.) After you return to the Bourbon Heritage Center, you enter their tasting room. There, you get to try a few different bourbons. (If memory serves me correctly, I remember trying Heaven Hill, Larceny, Rittenhouse Rye, and (because we were there during the holidays) a little bit of the Evan Williams Egg Nog. All were delicious.)
One of the biggest highlights was their outstanding gift shop–worth a stop, even if you don’t take a tour, for sure.
4. Woodford Reserve
The Woodford tour is pretty impressive. It has a lot of history (due to the historic location and buildings of the distillery / rickhouses) but is very boujie, and the most boujie on this list. Like, if you were to look up boujie in the dictionary, you may see a picture of the Woodford Reserve distillery tour.
Walking in, if you didn’t know what was in all of the back-lit glass bottles displayed against the wall, you’d swear that you were about to tour a winery in the Napa Valley. (See what I mean about being boujie??) This isn’t a bad thing, per se–but tells you the kind of customer they’re shooting for.
The tour is good fun, though, and going through the historic buildings provides some great photo opportunities. From the visitor center, they put you on a small “party bus” vehicle and bus you to the distillery. After you get out, you start by seeing the wooden tanks with the sour mash fermenting and their really impressive copper stills. They then show you how they fill the barrels, and describe how they roll the barrels on their track structure to get them to the rickhouses. (This was pretty impressive, actually.)
We then saw the bottling operation (which, sadly, wasn’t operating the day we were there) and were taken to the tasting room where we tried some different Woodford bourbons / whiskeys. (Specifically, we tried distiller’s select (i.e. – plain ol’ Woodford), double oaked, and rye.) We were also given some Woodford Reserve bourbon balls (dark chocolate truffles) to nibble on while we had the samples. (These are made and private labeled for Woodford Reserve by Ruth Hunt, which is a good thing.)
The gift shop was okay, but surprisingly not as big as I thought it would be.
As far as a simple distillery tour, the Stitzel-Weller tour is a pretty standard bourbon tour on the trail. It is owned by Bulleit today, which is working on expanding to a larger distillery between Louisville and Lexington. However, Stitzel-Weller has something that none of the other distilleries have–specifically, history.
You’ll never go to another distillery that has Pappy Van Winkle’s actual office as a tour stop. (When we visited, it was Tom Bulleit’s office, which is pretty darn cool enough, but they mentioned how they were starting to restore it to what it was like when Pappy was there.) Also, they have an old-school coopery on premise as well. This was super interesting to hear them talk about. Not on the tour, there are some museum-type exhibits in the front of the building, which were worth poking around for a few minutes. But, simply put, you realize that you’re on hallowed ground as you walk through this distillery. The Pappy / Weller / Old Fitzgerald history is all super interesting to see in person here. The actual distillery portion of the tour is also more historic in nature than pretty much all of the other tours on this list, though it is a little more unusual in that they spoke more about experimenting more with grains and taking more of a “craft” approach at the Stitzel-Weller facility. Visitors also get to walk through a nearby rickhouse, though there are a number of them in the area.
One other nice thing about the Stitzel-Weller tour is that the location is rather close to Louisville–it’s the most “complete” distillery experience that I experienced within the Louisville metro area.
One last thing, as I think I’ve mentioned it for all of the other distilleries on this list–the Stitzel-Weller gift shop was pretty impressive with a few good deals available. Not too shabby!
2. Wild Turkey
First off–Wild Turkey products in general are simply great. There’s no parlor tricks here–just damn good bourbon. With the exception of the design of the label, you can tell that they’ve been doing it for a long time, and you can tell that they’re going to be doing it the same way for many, many years to come.
Wild Turkey was by far the biggest surprise on my list. Now owned by Campari, they’ve done an excellent job with the brand and the tour experience. I was blown away by the experience I had at Wild Turkey.
As soon as you arrive and you wait for your tour to begin, you get to enjoy the new visitor center that they built. The center alone is well done–there’s a little timeline of exhibits that walks guests through the early days of Wild Turkey through the brand that it is today. The exhibits are modern and have a real fresh presentation. There’s even a more impressive gift shop nearby. (It’s not a huge gift shop or anything, but the stuff that they have is really great and reasonably priced. Kind of like Wild Turkey itself…)
For the tour, you are bussed to the main Wild Turkey distillery and are shown the brewing tanks where they are making the distiller’s beer. It is a lot more industrial looking than most of the other tours. (There’s a LOT of whiskey they’re making here, y’all…)
After touring the areas of the distillery, we were brought from the distillery over to rickhouse A. This rickhouse dates back to 1894 (well before prohibition and even the establishment of the Wild Turkey brand name in 1940). As you walk in, you realize you’re walking on authentic, hallowed ground for bourbon history. To the bourbon nerd, it’s almost a religious experience. It’s a must-see for any bourbon fan on the trail.
After the tour, you return to a nice tasting room at the visitor center. There, you try different Wild Turkey whiskeys and liquors—if memory serves me correctly, we tried Longbranch, Wild Turkey 101, Russell’s Single Barrel Select, Russell’s 6 Year Rye, and our ‘dessert’ was to sample Wild Turkey American Honey. After the sampling, we went to the bar at the visitor center and enjoyed sampling a couple of different cocktails there—I had an old fashioned and tried a little bit of an “American Honey Cider” drink that was being made for the fall season.
Everything was amazing, which is why this tour is #2 on the list. It’s an absolute “must see.”
1. Maker’s Mark
Okay—I may be a tad biased. Maker’s Mark began my obsession with bourbon while I was in college. This probably started due to their really awesome marketing and their “ambassador” program.
Back in the early ‘naughts’ (early 2000’s) there was concern that most liquor marketing would be made illegal by legislation being discussed in congress, and that distilleries would have to rely on word-of-mouth programs to market liquor. I always liked Maker’s and was happy to see when they introduced a “Maker’s Mark Ambassador” program so that they could keep their marketing intact, just in case. (The program is still offered, and I think it’s the best program of its kind in bourbon. If you haven’t signed up already—what are you doing here? Get on it! They send you a cool gift every year for Christmas.) When it came time to dip my bottle, it really got me thinking about doing this little bourbon trail trip.
Maker’s Mark is the most remote of the distilleries on the bourbon trail, but you’re going to want to make the trip. As you walk in, you walk past historic markers describing the Old Gristmill-Distillery. The buildings are all painted black with red trim, and they look super sharp—especially when they’re decorated for the holidays.
Once you enter and get your tickets for the distillery tour (Ambassadors get a discount here as well), you are taken on an inclusive tour that goes through all stages of the distillery—from the distiller’s brew, to the new make to the barreling, to finishing (for Maker’s 46), to the rickhouses, to labeling (they print all of their own labels) to (of course) packaging, where if you’re lucky, you can watch workers dipping Maker’s bottles in the characteristic hot wax. About the only thing that you do not see on the tour is the charring of the barrels—due to the fact that Maker’s doesn’t char their own barrels (but does request that they are VERY charred—that’s one of Maker’s signature processes that they’ll talk about).
You then go to a tasting, where you’re given a number of Maker’s bourbons to sample (including Cask Strength, Private Select, and even Maker’s 101–which is challenging to get anywhere but at the distillery—believe me, I’ve tried!) which are served with a few bourbon chocolates, which is always a hit.
At the very end of the tour and tasting, you walk through a small rickhouse that actually has a Dale Chihuly ceiling (think: like the one at the Bellagio in Vegas, but with more Bourbon theming) and wind up in the gift shop. In my opinion, the gift shop here is the best on the trail, but you’ll pay for it… Also in the gift shop, you can dip your own bottle of Maker’s Mark for an awesome photo opp.
Overall, Maker’s is my favorite tour on the trail, at least of this writing. It doesn’t get better than this.
Places I Can’t Put On My List (Yet)
There are a few places that I don’t feel it’s fair to throw on the list yet, as I haven’t had enough of an experience with them at this point. (If I do, I’ll come back and update this list.)
- Buffalo Trace – This one I’m looking forward to the most, due to the fact that it’s so historical, and home to some of my favorite bourbons (Weller, Blantons, Eagle Rare, and Pappy’s).
- Old Forester – I was here, but in the gift shop only. I’m really looking forward to taking this tour at one point—due to the fact that I understand that they char the barrels here. However, due to COVID, tours weren’t being offered when I was there—super frustrating.
- Lux Row – I was also here, but only in the gift shop. We didn’t have time to take a tour, unfortunately. It looks like a nice tour, but not something that appears to be much different than the other tours.
- Bulleit (Main Distillery) – Located East of Louisville, I haven’t been here yet.
- Four Roses (Distillery) – We had a tasting at the bottling facility (which you can read about above), but I haven’t been to the distillery yet.
- Jim Beam (Distillery) – I’ve been past the distillery multiple times, but never had time to stop for a tour yet / tours weren’t being given because COVID.
- Town Branch – I haven’t been here yet.
- Green River – I haven’t been here yet.
- Rabbit Hole – Located in downtown Louisville, I’ve been by multiple times but haven’t been able to visit.
- Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History – In Bardstown, we didn’t have enough time to stop here either when we went through. I’ll be back, though…
Are there any other quintessential bourbon trail experiences that I haven’t included on this list? Let me know in the comments below!