Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds, hot toddies, or whiskey sours. To make a great bourbon cocktail, you need a great base—and the place famous for making those great American bourbons is none other than Bourbon, Kentucky. I spent a fantastic weekend in bluegrass country, on a self-guided bourbon trail tour.
What is “real bourbon”?
Like champagne, bourbon is technically only considered “real bourbon” if it’s distilled in Bourbon County. While the Bourbon Trail features some of the best bourbon in the world, there are a few outlier bourbon brands that aren’t official stops on the trail but are still worth visiting.
I planned my bourbon trail tour with the goal of visiting some of the best bourbon distilleries in the country. My group established base camp at the Breckenridge Inn just outside of Louisville—a budget stay that included breakfast (some of the best biscuits and gravy I’ve ever had!). Bellies full, we hit the trail.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Tour, Part I
Stop One: Four Roses Distillery Tour
The first day we were out was cold and rainy, and I was dreading the outdoor portions of each distillery tour. Four Roses has golden, hacienda-style architecture details (apparently inspired by a trip to Napa Valley in California) that I’m sure look amazing in the sunlight. Their welcome center was bright and cozy, and their tour guide was a charming Kentuckian. I liked starting our bourbon trail tour with the Four Roses Distillery. They take you right into the working distillery, to the point where you’re tucking your elbows against your sides to not graze boiling vats. But that was nice for two reasons: 1) it was cold and wet outside, so the instant heat was awesome. And 2) you don’t often get to see processes of making, well, anything, in such tight detail. The tasting was delicious—Four Roses definitely makes great bourbon. We sampled three different tiers, my favorite being the Single Barrel.
Location: 1224 Bonds Mill Rd, Lawrenceburg, KY 40342
Stop Two: Wild Turkey Distillery tour
If Four Roses was all about getting up-close to the process, Wild Turkey fit the more classic tour expectations. Glass dividers cordoned off every step of the process, and we took a bus from building to building. An ex-Marine Drill Sergeant named Bubba was the best part of the tour was our tour guide. He regaled us with the history and process with plenty of pluck. The visitor’s center—a light and airy take on the modern barn—looked like it was pulled straight from the pages of Dwell magazine. They had some cool interactive features as well, using iPads to unlock more of the Wild Turkey story.
Fun fact: Wild Turkey made the first honey bourbon, decades before anyone else had thought of it.
Address: 1525 Tyrone Rd, Lawrenceburg, KY 40342
Price: $5 per person, free for active military
Stop Three: Town Branch Tour and Tasting
Town Branch is an intriguing blend of brewery and bourbon distillery. They’re famous for their Lexington Bourbon Barrel Ale, which I’d had a few times before and absolutely loved for its full, oaky flavor. The blended interests of Town Branch were pretty interesting, but from a branding standpoint, it was all a little confusing. The four members of our group could barely keep track of what the name of the place was: Lexington Brewing Co.? Town Branch? AllTech? (Sidenote: Google is similarly befuddled, so be careful when mapping your route). Once we settled down for the tour, some of the answers became clear. Town Branch is owned by AllTech, who also owns Lexington Brewing Co., the brewery.
The first part of the tour provided a brief foray into the beer brewing process before moving to their new bar for beer sampling. I used two out of my four tickets to sample the Lexington Bourbon Barrel Ale and the Lexington Bourbon Barrel Stout, taking our guide’s advice to combine the two for our Bourbon Black & Tan. Outstanding.
The second part of the tour was a quick run-through of the distilling process. Town Branch is a considerably smaller operation than Wild Turkey (the largest distillery in the U.S.), so it was pretty interesting to compare the two processes and their facilities. Wild Turkey, for example, boasts holding tanks that stand several stories tall, whereas Town Branch’s were about ten feet deep. The bourbon sampling portion was just as delicious as the beer. They finished the tasting with a Bluegrass Sundown, which involves pouring heavy cream over bourbon-infused coffee liqueur. The perfect way to finish out the tour before heading out!
Address: 401 Cross Street, Lexington, KY 40508
Price: $7 for the tour, but the tasting can be done for free.
BONUS: West Sixth Brewing Company
In the spirit of trying new beverages, we met some local friends at West Sixth Brewing Company. When we arrived we realized that it was their second anniversary—Happy Birthday West Sixth! I wasn’t a fan of their big beer, the Lemongrass Wheat, but they make an amazing American Strong Ale. West Sixth has a neat set-up. They act as a sort of community center in addition to their beer, hosting yoga classes, run clubs, bike clubs, and serving as a general meet-up space. Definitely a cool vibe, and a great place to go local if you’re in the Lexington area.
Address: 501 W 6th St, Lexington, KY 40508
Stop Four: Buffalo Trace Distillery Ghost Tour
So, Buffalo Trace isn’t officially one of the official Bourbon Trail tours. But since they make good bourbon, and we happened to be in the area, we signed up for a tour. And not just any old tour, their RSVP-only Ghost Tour. Oh yeah. It’s gettin’ good now.
The ghost part of the tour was pretty silly. But it did give us some cool information about the personal lives of the founders and the way the property was set up. (Apparently so that Colonel Blanton could see his garden, the distillery, and the hills from his back sunroom). Plus it was creepy to wander around the distillery in pitch black (on a dark and stormy night, indeed!). I’ll confess, walking into the warehouse where all the barrels are stored in pitch darkness definitely gave me chills. Luckily we were able to warm up with a sample of their Single Barrel, White Lightning, and their bourbon liqueur. Also, they were the first to serve us bourbon balls, which all candy stores should start stocking immediately.
Fun fact: Buffalo Trace was the first to commercially market a single-barrel bourbon, allegedly because the aforementioned Blanton enjoyed making it and drinking it so much himself.
Address: 113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky 40601
Price: FREE but reservations are required
Discover more Bourbon Trail Distilleries here!