Exploring the people, places, and pastimes that
celebrate bourbon, America's native spirit
Kentucky Bourbon Tourism is
(Slowly) Getting Back to Business
On a Wednesday morning in mid-July, Lee wrangled our group of only four people who had shown up for the 10:30 a.m. tour (8 is the maximum group size now). The X marked the spot where we could stand at various locations on the tour because, “That’s how we’re handling our social distancing, “ Cowherd said in his opening remarks. “If you came in a car together, then you can stand together (although you don’t have to.) The other thing we ask, as we go around, that you do maintain that six-foot social distancing between your group and everybody else.”
In setting up my visit, I asked how things were going at Buffalo Trace. “Since reopening, feedback from our guests has been very positive,” Kristie Wooldridge, Public Relations Associate Manager with Buffalo Trace told me. “Our tours, though limited, continue to book up quickly. We’re excited to welcome the public back to the Distillery and into our newly expanded Visitor Center."
Lee, it turns out, is the consummate bourbon tour guide: full of interesting facts, figures, and details about Buffalo Trace’s history and its giants of the bourbon industry. They range from Albert B. Blanton to George T. Stagg to Pappy Van Winkle to Colonel E.H. Taylor. But he’s also got a great sense of humor peppered with borderline Dad Jokes: “Don’t be shy about asking questions. There are no dumb questions. But I’ve got dumb answers,” he told the group early on.
There were a few new guidelines about our required masks, maintaining appropriate distance, using the hand sanitizer at each stop, and stepping away from the group if you needed to remove your mask for any reason. You can read the full list of what to expect at Buffalo Trace here.
While we stood in front of the iconic buffalo statue to begin the tour and Lee recounted the early days of settlers following the buffalo trace along the Kentucky River more than 200 years ago, a staff member (in a mask) unobtrusively sanitized the head and horns of the buffalo which are shiny from the hands-on contact from pre-COVID visitors.
As we arrived at each tour stop, Lee modeled good behavior, cleaning his hands with sanitizer each time it was available to the group.
Lee Cowherd has been a Buffalo Trace Distillery
tour guide for seven years. But since the distillery
reopened to the public on July 1st, he now has a new
opening line after he welcomes the guests to his tour:
“So come on out and find an X to stand on.”
After a three-month hiatus thanks to the COVID-19
pandemic, Kentucky bourbon distilleries were allowed
to begin reopening to the public on June 8 under
strict guidelines from the state. Some have restarted
tours and tastings; some are still shut down, and
others are in various stages in between.
After an hour of touring the beautifully landscaped grounds of the Buffalo Trace, Lee led us into our own private tasting room (one of 6 after the expansion) and guided us through a tasting that included Wheatley Vodka, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, and Eagle Rare Bourbon and some dessert options. We were socially distanced at our own stations, while he was behind a clear acrylic shield. (Look for those at the other bars and in front of the cashiers in the gift shop as well.)
While Lee and some colleagues cleaned up after the tasting, I talked to my three groupmates to gauge their reactions to touring in the time of a pandemic. Edward Zimmerman, visiting rom Milwaukee Wisconsin, said his last distillery tour was at Jim Beam many years ago.
“I don’t think it affected the tour at all. The experience, I enjoyed it just as much as if there wasn’t any kind of a COVID thing,” Edward said. “The mask and the social distancing didn’t personally bother me.”
He went on: “It’s a great experience. I’ll be back because I’ve only done the one (Buffalo Trace) tour. There’s at least three of them…so I’ve got to come back.”
Also in our group were friends Amy DeBord and Rick Hunt, from Mount Sterling, Kentucky, making their first visit to Buffalo Trace. I asked them if the extra health precautions get in the way.
“It didn’t deter me at all,” Rick said. “I expected that when I got here and it was really well planned out.”
Amy agreed: “It was better than I expected. It was really good.”
While they’re not really bourbon drinkers, they are quite interested in bourbon and Kentucky history. (Rick’s son has just started collecting bourbon.) The pair enjoyed the tasting, especially the root beer float with Freddie’s Old Fashioned Root Beer and Bourbon Cream, along with the Rebecca Ruth Bourbon Ball.
Does this mean more bourbon tours are scheduled for the rest of the summer? Amy said, “I’m all in.”
Rick added, “I really enjoyed it. The tour was really great, very informative. I wouldn’t mind coming back sometime.”
When he was done cleaning up the tasting room,
I asked our tour guide Lee how things were different
now than before the pandemic shutdown. “For us,
the biggest change is the space,” he said.
“Between March 16th when we closed down and
July 1st when we opened up, we tripled the size of
our Visitor’s Center. That’s huge and that has really
enabled our reopening.”
Lee noted the new health guidelines hadn’t caused any problems with their guests.
“It’s been received very, very well,” Lee said. ”The mask requirement is controversial in a lot of places. But we have had almost no issues whatsoever. We continue to get good feedback on the tours, the tastings, and the gift shop experience is just way over the top.”
I asked how Lee’s workday was affected by the extra set up and additional cleaning required for each tour. He said that the reduced number of tours gave him time to handle the extra duties. Buffalo Trace is still staffing up, he said, and may soon be able to add some additional tours.
But what about the guy who has to make all of his guests feel safe – how does he feel about coming to work in these uncertain times?
“I have an 88-year-old mother and I’m very concerned. If she gets this, it’s literally a death sentence,” Lee said. “I feel very safe coming here, with all the precautions being taken here and I think our guests feel the same way.”
In the parking lot on my way back to the car, I encountered Gary and Holly, part of a group of four couples who trailered their Harleys down from Wisconsin and had just finished touring the gift shop. She said they didn’t make reservations for a tour, but were able to do a tasting. They were scheduled to tour 3 or 4 other bourbon distilleries over the next two days before heading home.
Fortunately, Kentucky has stayed on the lower end of the COVID-19 cases compared to many other states. It’s nice to know that, if you’re willing to follow a few basic health precautions and tour responsibly, much of bourbon country is still available to visit.
Bourbon Tours in a Pandemic: What to Expect
1. Check online or call to see if the attraction you’re interested in is open.
Things change literally everyday. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail (KBT) has a link to all its member sites with their reopening status here. But remember, not every bourbon distillery and attraction is a member of the KBT so go to the individual websites of the others.
2. Make a reservation.
Showing up without a reservation means you probably won’t do much but see the gift shop. (See #10)
3.Smaller Groups Means Fewer Tours.
The smaller groups are nice, but that means there are fewer tours during each day and fewer spots to fill. Plan early and make your reservations.
4.Arrive early, but not too early.
You will probably have to wait in your car until 10-15 minutes before the scheduled start of your tour or tasting. Some locations, like Buffalo Trace, will send you a text with instructions on how to proceed 10 minutes before your start time.
5. If you make reservations, especially for free tours, show up (or call to cancel so others can take your place.)
I loved having practically a private tour, but four other people signed up and failed to show for the group I was in at Buffalo Trace.
6. You’re required to wear a mask in Kentucky.
Some locations may provide a disposable one for you, but don’t count on it. Bring your own.
7.Expect to have your temperature taken.
You’ll also have to correctly answer several questions about your health and the condition of those you’ve been exposed to.
8. Maintain Social Distancing.
In many cases the floor and outside pavement will be marked to indicate where you can stand, but maintain your own space while walking from place to place.
9. Wash Your Hands and Take Advantage of the Abundant Hand Sanitizer.
Most distilleries have been making hand sanitizer for months to sell and donate to health care facilities and first responders. So they have plenty to go around. Use some every time you get a chance.
10. Anticipate some stops being skipped in production and bottling areas.
At Buffalo Trace, for example, the small building where all the Blanton’s Bourbon in the world is hand-bottled is now no longer part of the tour.
11. Plan to see lots of people cleaning along the tour, but not actually making bourbon.
Each tour stop is sanitized before, during, or after each tour group comes through. But as in #10, you’re not likely to see any staff members in the actual production of America’s native spirit.
12. Many gifts shops are open, but may limit the number of people allowed in.
Many distilleries also offer curbside pickup for the bourbons they sell in the gift shop. Check online or call ahead. And bring a credit or debit card. Many gift shops will no longer accept cash.
13. Be kind to everyone and tip your tour guide.
Be polite and nice to everyone, even if things take a few extra minutes more than they used to. These wonderful folks are working harder than ever before in safe, but sometimes stressful conditions. A bourbon tour is fun, so have fun. And show your tour guide appreciation for a job well done.