Kentucky trip, with some bourbon tasting

I’m planning a trip to Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri. Maybe late April, early May? Have not landed on dates yet. Figuring about 14 days though.

This is our first trip this part of the country, and I’m kinda winging it…. I’m not new to tasting rooms in general, but they were all wine-related. No idea what it’s like visiting distilleries in this part of the country. I also do not have a clue where to start, or where to go. Any tips or suggestions would be most appreciated.

We’ll most likely fly into Memphis Tenn. Spend a week wandering around the East side of the state, looking at potential areas to relocate to (retiring within the next 24 months). Figured we’d head north through Kentucky, visit some distilleries, then head back West to Missouri. I would like to visit the Ozarks in Missouri. Always wanted to see this area in person. And who knows, we might find our perfect place to live here. Leaving all options on the table at this point.

Thanks in advance for any input you may have.

…….mike

Mike,

We live about an hour south of Louisville. Being from the area its been a while since we’ve done much formal tasting visits at distilleries, but I’ll throw in my 2 cents worth. I would say it would depend upon what part of Kentucky you would like to drive through and your time constraints. If you go up through the Bluegrass Parkway it will take you through Bardstown, Lawrenceburg, and into Lexington. There are plenty of distilleries along the way to keep you busy through there and it is also not too much farther from the Bluegrass Parkway to get to Woodford Reserve, Castle & Key, and Buffalo Trace.

Going up I-65 you could also just hit Louisville and visit several distilleries downtown: Evan Williams, Angel’s Envy, Rabbit Hole, Michters, Old Forester, Copper & Kings (brandy).

Driving between Louisville and Bardstown is about an hour. Louisville to Lexington is just about an hour and 20 minutes so not that big of a deal to do both areas if you have the time. You might look up the “craft” Bourbon Trail for other smaller distilleries that are a bit more out of the way.

The older distilleries have been working hard to retrofit their facilities and remodel to accommodate more of a tourist crowd over the past few years and have tried to imitate the wine country tasting experience. Several distilleries in Bardstown have incorporated decent restaurants as part of their facilities. Log Still has a small Ampitheater and offers concerts in the Spring and Summer. Most distilleries are scheduling tours and tastings online now and its is getting harder to get a same day tasting so definitely plan ahead.

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My ranking of distilleries from top to bottom (not the whiskey they make):

  1. Labrot and Graham is my favorite
  2. The Old Pogue Distillery
  3. Willett Distillery
  4. Four Roses
  5. Buffalo Trace
  6. Evan Williams
  7. Angel’s Envy
  8. Bulleit

Haven’t been to Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, nor Maker’s Mark

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Thank you for the info.

I’m curious… There are literally, hundreds of bourbons to be found, but there does not appear to be hundreds of distilleries. Are some of the smaller craft bourbons made in the larger and more widely known distilleries, like the ones already mentioned?

I am thinking that we will spend ~4 days wandering about Kentucky. Might need a day of rest/recovery if we get too carried away with spirits.

I think I’d actually prefer to visit original, “rustic” distilleries over the newer and fancy places.

If you are spending any time in Louisville, check out Angel’s Envy. There’s also an “Urban Bourbon Trail” in Louisvile

Yes, there are plenty more labels than there are distilleries. Many of the larger, older distilleries make whiskey for newer projects and smaller companies. For example, Heaven Hill distills for Lux Row and historically made “juice” for Willett. Now that Willett has had time for whiskey to age they have been putting out their own product for a few years now. I suspect Lux Row to do the same. Some of the newer distilleries (example: Bardstown Bourbon Company) primarily distil for many other new brands that don’t want to mess with distilling their own product or are just waiting for their product to age. Bardstown Bourbon Company also puts out some of their own whiskey under their own label as well. Old Carter (Mark Carter from Carter Wines) has built an excellent brand by sourcing older whiskey to re-barrel, age, and bottle. He has a “storefront” in downtown Louisville but its mainly for special events or releases I believe.

I definitely recommend going to some of the older distilleries but keep in mind those older distilleries are typically larger and more corporate now. My biggest complaint with all of the recent changes in the bourbon market and tourism over the past few years is that it is so hard now to get unique or hard to find bottlings at the distilleries. I’ve just about grown accustomed to the fact that the retail bourbon market is practically nonexistent from what it used to be just a few years ago. I still haven’t wrapped my head around how distilleries don’t have enough special bottles for visitors to purchase. Four Roses used to have shelves full of barrel proof releases in the gift shops of every recipe combination they make. These were bottles that were distillery only releases. Can’t find them there anymore. Maker’s Mark has been doing more experimentation lately and I wonder if their gift shop has some unique recipes and barrel treatment offerings.

One of the criteria I would use to pick a distillery to visit might be to find ones that let you taste their more exclusive hard to find bottlings as part of their tour. Since its been a while since we went on a tour, I’m not sure which ones might still do this. Based on past experience Heaven Hill would be a likely contender. Evan Williams in downtown Louisvillle might also be a consideration. Keep in mind the Evan Williams in downtown Louisville is primarily a visitor center and not a lot of their product is distilled there. Actually, Michter’s and Old Forester in Downtown Louisville are also primarliy for visitors and the bulk of their distillation and facilities are at a different site in Louisville that is not open to the public.

In the past we have had very good tours at Willett, Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark. Some of the newer distilleries such as Bardstown Bourbon Company may be worth checking out just to see the newer facilities. It is also easily accessible off the Bluegrass Parkway. If you go to Jim Beam might be a good idea to check out the newer Four Roses bottling facility in Cox’s Creek which is just about 10 minutes away. Their main distillery is in Lawrenceburg off of the Bluegrass Parkway but the Bottling Facility isn’t a bad stop if you’re in the area.

Any decent bar or restaurant in the area will have several of high-end bourbons to taste but those prices are getting a bit ridiculous. If you’re visiting it might be worth a pour or two but just a bit disheartening for those of us that took lower prices and access for granted for so many years. Westport Whiskey and Wine is a shop in Louisville that has a tasting bar in the back with a very good selection and pours and prices have been somewhat lower at least a few years ago. They also carry several “private barrel picks” which you can taste before you buy. Seems like these private barrel picks are the better buys in today’s bourbon market.

I guess one of my main points is don’t plan on getting any great deals while you’re in the area. Hopefully you’ll taste some great bourbon one way or another. As an aside, I was able to pick up a unique bottle of Rebel Yell 12 year by visiting the distillery (Lux Row) just last week. A distillery only release and barrel proof. They are a newer distillery and probably no real reason to visit unless they have a special release like that. Being off season and during a winter storm probably helped me get a bottle.

If you plan on driving through Elizabethtown for any time, feel free to PM me. If you’re not averse to dogs and kids I’d be happy to share some bottles of bourbon and wine.

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Thanks Tony! Super helpful post! I’m taking notes and putting dots on a map.

I love dogs. Kids, not as much, unless they are someone else’s kids… :slight_smile:

We can definitely agree on that!
Definitely consider Castle and Key in Frankfort. I have heard plenty of good things about the visit. It is a newly restored distillery, previously the Old Taylor Distillery. I think they only bottle Rye, Vodka, and Gin for now.
I may have some time this weekend to do some recon. I’ll keep ya posted of I learn anything new.

Hubby and I are originally from KY. Many distillery tours we have been to have been disappointing. They don’t offer many of the details that winery tours have. (“Our mash bill is x. Here’s our equipment. Here are the aging barrels.”) That being said, they’ll allow you to taste some bourbons side-by-side, typically after the “tour,” that otherwise would be much more pricey. We recently toured at Peerless (tasting pours of 6 pre-selected bourbons and 1 single barrel of your choice) and Copper & Kings (your choice of their 6 liquors, though they didn’t seem strict about that number). If you’re just interested in the tasting/comparison piece and not so much the tours, there are some great whiskey bars in downtown Louisville (looking at you, Side Bar and Troll Pub).

There are also some interesting beer options - my personal favorite is 3 Floyds “Zombie Dust.” There are also good options from GoodWood, Great Divide (went to college with some of the guys who brew this), and Bluegrass Brewing Company (BBC - Bourbon Barrel Ale is a good one to try). Sergios World of Beers can offer lots of great suggestions as well.

Definitely love Zombie Dust!

Agree that distillery tours can seem to lack much detail and can get redundant quickly. Most of the tours seem to involve larger groups. We’re a bit spoiled by doing mostly private tastings when in Napa so that might bias our view. I would hope some of the newer smaller craft distilleries would give more inside information and a closer look. Looking through some of the tours at Bardstown Bourbon Company they seem to offer some more interesting tours and tastings (blind tastings and barrel tasting in the rickhouses).

Finding a bar or restaurant that has decent prices is a good option to visiting a lot of distilleries. Ran across a newer bar in Louisville called Neat on Bardstown Rd that looks interesting to try. A lot of older bottles with decent prices.

Went on the ‘you do Bourbon’ tour at Heaven Hill last weekend. $40 to taste 3 barrel proof whiskeys (Elijah Craig, Larceny, Bernheim). You get an option to buy 1 bottle of the 3 you tried. It was a group of about 15 people and pretty straight forward tasting. No look into the facility or production/bottling. Apparently they do most or all of the distilling in Louisville and bottle in Bardstown. Some of the stories were the same ones I heard when I was last there for a tour many years ago. Back then, however, they were pouring tastes of Evan williams 23, Elijah Craig 23, and Elijah Craig 18 without hesitation. Overall that tour was not a bad way to get a harder to find bottle without waiting in line or paying market pricing. Around $80 for the Elijah Craig barrel proof. Apparently they pick the EC barrel proof that is available on the tour from a smaller batch (Batch Y). This is not available from their normal releases in the gift shop and retail distribution. The Bernheim Wheat Whiskey barrel proof is also only available at the distillery.

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Thanks for the trip notes Tony. Sounds like a good time.

I was curious if there might be a collection of info that would detail all the various brands/labels of bourbon that are distilled at the larger distilleries?

Search for “Bourbon Family Tree”. You’ll find some charts that outline the major bourbon brands and the associated distillery and ownership.

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Never did make this trip last year. We ended up going to the North/East for a couple weeks.

Heading to KY this March. Seeing how it’s been a year, thought I might bump this thread to see if there is anything new or different this year. I have a running list of notes I’m keeping that I got from folks kind enough to provide input last year (big thanks to Tony_A).

I’m also wondering if we should stay in Louisville, Bardstown, or Lexington? We will probably stay three or four nights.

This is only part of a larger trip, traveling through TN, WV, SC, NC, and KY.

@bradkaplan will have some tips.

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Michael, feel free to reach out - I did a three night trip up there a couple months ago (see Louisville and Bardstown Bourbon Trip)

I do think one night in Bardstown is worthwhile given the concentration of distilleries there (could say the same for Lexington, but we didn’t get over that way on this trip). Must do’s from my perspective - the Bar at Willett for a meal, library tasting at Bardstown Bourbon Co if you can get it (or simply go the bar there and pick out a few from the extensive list, but the experience is great if you can do the formal tasting), and bar hopping in Louisville (places like Neat and Silver Dollar).

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Thank you Brad! I’ll read your other post and reach out if any questions come to mind.

I do have one question regarding tours. Does a person need to make appointments well in advance, or was that needed mostly during COVID lockdowns?

PS: OK, never mind. I just see that you make note of this in your other post. I better get my trip sorted out quickly, as we’ll be in this area the middle of March.

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I second the recommendation for spending a night in Bardstown. 2 nights would be overkill. Not a lot new over the past year. There is a new restaurant in Bardstown called Toogie’s Table. Its pretty good for food and cocktails, although somewhat inconsistent based on our 2 visits there. They also own the Bardstown Motor Lodge which is next door. The Willett Bar, Beam’s Kitchen Table, and Bottled and Bond Kitchen (at Bardstown Bourbon Company) all close early (before 5ish) so Toogie’s is probably the best dinner option in the area after 5PM. The other 2-3 nights would be better spent in Louisville or Lexington.

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Don’t know which Ozarks you may head to, but if it’s Lake of the Ozarks, and you have the time, you should check out the Hermann Wine Trail. The main grape in MO is the Norton, and everyone that I know that has ever tried it all say the same thing. “It’s interesting”.

There are several wineries at Lake of the Ozarks with some nice views.

I think I have a plan. 2 nights in Bardstown, and 2 nights in Louisville. We will be traveling up from a 3-night stay in Nashville on the first day in KY. I’ve been making distillery appointments, at least with the ones that seem to get booked early. Some, I do not go out of my way to buy/drink the Bourbon they make, but the distillery looks to cool to not visit - Makers Mark and Woodford Reserve are two that come to mind.

I ran across Barn 8. Looks too interesting to not eat dinner at. I come from a horse family, and would not ever eat in any of our barns, but I’ll make an exception for this one. Any other dinner suggestions for the second night in Louisville? I am packing light, so no dinner jacket.

We will be taking the tour at the Corvette museum, and a tour through Mammoth cave while in the state.

Distilleries we are looking to visit: Makers, Willet, Lux Row, Bardstown, Buffalo Trace, Woodford, Castle and Key, Peerless, and Mitchers. Probably too many, but we do have 3.5 days. Probably share tastings where the booze is something I’ve already had.

What would be a good place to try and find some of the more elusive bourbon to take home? Somewhere that does not have ludicrous secondary mark ups?

Again, book a visit to Angel’s Envy in downtown Louisville. It Is a working distillery, not just a tasting room. Plus, has the advantage of being in Louisville where you can walk back to your hotel room :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: