Bourbon Spirit: 10 Tips to Help Plan Your Trip to Kentucky Bourbon Country
In the spring a young person’s fancy turns to touring Kentucky bourbon country. As it does for bourbon enthusiasts of any age.
Here is our recurring look at everything you need to know to make the trip of a lifetime to bourbon central. Experiences are mostly back to pre-pandemic standards and most distilleries are returning to longer, summer hours over the next month.
As record numbers of visitors are expected to travel to Kentucky this year to get their bourbon tours on, it’s more important than ever to be prepared. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your visit to the center of the bourbon universe this fall.
Plan ahead. And plan again.
Most distillery experience tours and tastings require you to purchase a ticket. Even the small number that are still free require reservations. Either way, spots can fill up weeks, even months, in advance.
Check the websites where you would like to visit to determine which days and hours they are open. If you can, travel during the week to avoid the biggest crowds.
You can stop in at the visitors’ centers and gift shops without reservations. You might luck into some last-minute, no-show openings. But don’t count on that. Plan early so you can get the best experience possible.
You don’t have to stay on the Trail
Of course, you’ve heard of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. These 41 distilleries are members of the Kentucky Distillers Association, which markets their experiences as part of that consortium. The craft distilleries are those aging fewer than 10,000 barrels of bourbon a year.
But not every distillery experience in Kentucky is officially part of the Trail. Industry icon Buffalo Trace Distillery and many smaller, craft distilleries are independent of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and its marketing efforts. Make sure you stay on top of all your options and know who else is out there.
Get the Bourbon Field Guide
Consider buying a copy of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Passport and Field Guide. It is jam-packed with information on all the Trail distilleries. Get it stamped at each stop and use it to unlock special offers at member distilleries.
You can order the booklet in advance or purchase it at any Trail distillery.
Leave the driving to them
If you prefer to leave the itinerary planning, ticket buying, and driving to someone else, consider booking a day (or several) with one of the many great bourbon tour companies in the Bluegrass. From just a couple of people to a large group, these folks will handle every detail and get you there in style. Chauffeurs and tour guides (like me) who are steeped in Kentucky bourbon lore will give you the real inside story on America’s native spirit. Contact our friends at Pegasus Distilled or Kentucky Bourbon Boys to learn more about the many tour options they offer.
Once the Kentucky Derby is over, spend a day at the races (Mint Julep optional)
If you already have plans in place to be in Kentucky this week leading up to this weekend’s Kentucky Derby, welcome. If you don’t, please wait for the crowds and prices to return to normal rates. In fact, many of the distillery experiences are closed during the weekend of the Derby.
Horse racing at Keeneland in Lexington begins on Sunday, May 7, the day after the Kentucky Derby. You will still want to visit Louisville’s Churchill Downs to tour the Kentucky Derby Museum, where every day is Derby Day. Check out a number of special bourbon-related experiences at the museum.
Explore the Frazier History Museum on Whiskey Row
A great place to start your visit to Kentucky bourbon country is the Frazier History Museum on Whiskey Row (Main Street), in downtown Louisville. Also, spend some time in the free Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center on the first floor. If you have a few hours, don’t miss the engaging The Spirit of Kentucky Exhibit as part of the paid museum tour on the third floor. Both will help you understand why the Bluegrass state is home to most of the bourbon distilleries in the world before you set off to see them for yourself.
Who’s ready to eat?
Foodies visiting Kentucky Bourbon Country can rejoice: the top–tier of distillery experiences have upped their food games considerably as Kentucky’s bourbon renaissance continues to grow.
Some of my favorites include The Kitchen Table restaurant at the James B. Beam Distilling Co. in Clermont, Kitchen & Bar at Bardstown Bourbon Company, the Five–Brothers Bar & Kitchen at the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience, The Bar at Willett, and the Garden & Gun Club at Stitzel–Weller Distillery.
Wait, there’s even more food and drink?
Of course! There are many wonderful places around the Bluegrass to eat and drink. In the Louisville area, check out the Urban Bourbon Trail. This is a collection of more than 40 restaurants and bars that offers a special focus on local bourbon culture. Get your free passport and collect free rewards along your urban bourbon journey.
Listen to the music
Many distilleries offer special events outside the hours of their regular tours. Sign up for newsletters and loyalty programs from your favorite brands. Also, subscribe to the Whiskey Network’s Barrel Report Newsletter to get the latest whiskey world news and events in your e-mail inbox every Friday.
Castle & Key Distillery, just outside Frankfort, is bringing back its Springhouse Music Series on the first Wednesday of each month, through September, beginning May 3. Ticket prices vary by artist and begin at $20.
Tip your tour guides and drivers
There are many friendly and knowledgeable folks helping you get the most out of your visit to Kentucky bourbon country. Please be generous and give a gratuity to your tour guides and driver.
Big or small, on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or off, whether distilling a barrel a week or thousands a day…. there is something for every level of interest in Kentucky bourbon country this time of year. Do your own research or call on the pros to put together a trip to experience it yourself.
Whichever way you decide to do it, come see us here in the Bourbon Bluegrass!