For whiskey enthusiasts, a visit to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a premier trip to make. For bourbon fans, it’s Mecca. Ninety-five percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky, where the limestone encrusted spring-fed waters contribute to the flavors of these delicious whiskeys. I’m a long-time bourbon fan, and this was not my first visit to the region. But on this trip, I was traveling solo, arrived in Louisville during a spell of some very heavy rains and had only one day to spare. Taking one of Mint Julep Tours’ all-day Bourbon tours was the way to go.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Many Years Ago
Many (many) years ago, when I was barely of legal drinking age, a friend and I took a three-week road trip that included visits to some of Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries. We drove up and down and around the knolls of the countryside, the speed limits changing according to road curvature. Sang along to country music on the radio. We ate in some fabulous diners; Kentucky country ham with red-eye gravy, fried chicken, corn bread, collards and okra, pecan pie and sinewy coffee from blue tin cups. At the end of the night, we pulled into a motel with a vacancy sign.
At the distilleries, tours happened when a half dozen or so people showed up or someone could be found to take us around. There were tastings in Dixie cups and gift shops limited to selling shot glasses and T-shirts. But the bourbon was fabulous, the stories fascinating and seeing the facilities was as interesting then as it is today.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Today
Today, the 14 signature and 13 craft distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail get a steady stream of visitors. While still an inclusive and fun experience for all, a wave of sophistication reigns. The craft is there, technology is there, and palates have become more refined. The facilities are impressive, with most featuring stand-out architectural designs. Some feature on-site restaurants. Bourbon is enjoying healthy patronage right now and heavy-hitting investors have followed. Each distillery strives to create a tasting experience and tour that expresses their history, heritage and individual style.
Our Mint Julep Tours guide, Derrick Chesser, spent the day driving us around in a comfy Suburban. He knowledgeably shared history of Kentucky bourbon between stops. Our semi-private tour included a father-daughter duo from Australia and myself.
Here’s some of what we saw and did along the way.
Maker’s Mark: Since 1953
Starting from a family recipe that dated back six generations and 170 years, Bill Samuels, Sr. and wife Margie Samuels established Maker’s Mark in 1953. Maker’s Mark remains one of the most well-known, established and widely distributed Kentucky Bourbons out there. The extensive operation still sources their corn from a 60 mile radius from the Loretto (pronounced “Loretta”), Kentucky distillery.
Maker’s Mark tours work like clockwork. Your timed ticketed tour starts at an elegant home-turned waiting-room. While you wait, browse shelves that include early bottles of their award-winning bourbons.
The Maker’s Mark Tour
The groups are large, but our Maker’s Mark tour leader keeps things moving with good humor and historical tidbits. The tour turns to bourbon know-how with stops through the distillery. We traverse building to building, all beautifully landscaped and Kentucky-green – all the brighter from the mists and rain.
The group passes grain silos and buildings where mash is made. We visit the printing room where they still print their own labels. Next, we walk through a rick house (sometimes called rack houses or barrel houses) where thousands and thousands of barrels of whiskey sit aging. A Chihuly art glass ceiling contains scattered small cherubic angels to represent the “angel’s share” to which every distiller reconciles themselves.
We visit the bottling plant where bottles are filled, labelled, and individually hand-dipped in signature red wax.
The rick houses and other buildings have been painted a saturated black. It’s a move that continues their signature colors, but also aesthetically serves to downplay the (harmless and inevitable) black algae that you’ll see on rick houses throughout Kentucky Bourbon Country.
Time to Taste
In one of the conference-room sized tasting room, each of us take a seat already set with tasting mat and five glasses of bourbon. We start with the white whiskey, aka moonshine. It’s good to start at the beginning.
We move on to the classic Maker’s Mark; corn-sweet, balanced, smooth, great both in a cocktail, straight or neat.
Next, we taste some of the premium bourbons. Maker’s 46 is complex, heavy on the warm, woodsy flavors, with bright spice.
It’s my first tasting of Maker’s Mark Cast Strength. This is the bourbon to drink if you especially enjoy pronounced trifecta flavors of caramel, vanilla and spicy. Lovely.
We finish with Maker’s Mark Private Select. Quite dry and incredibly smooth, this bourbon begins from the fully matured Cask Strength bourbon. The whiskey is then aged for an additional nine weeks in special, customized barrels and stored at a cool 50 degrees. The variations in the barrels bring different flavors to the whiskey – but they’re all still very much Maker’s Mark bourbons. The dryness is surprising; the smoothness and mild spice is not. The flavors come together beautifully. This is the bottle to bring home.
Take a Dip
I couldn’t resist. In the gift shop (which sells much more than t-shirts), I pick up a small bottle of bourbon and walked it over to where I can dip my own bottle in the iconic red wax. I don the apron, the arm protectors and the gloves, and opt to keep my own glasses on rather than otherwise required safety glasses. (A photo op for sure; thanks for snapping the photos of me hamming it up, Derrick.)
Tip: Go ahead, dip a bottle to take home. And enjoy lunch at the Star Hill Provisions Restaurant.
Lux Row Distillers: One of the Latest Additions to the Bourbon Trail
Family-owned Lux Row Distillers opened their Bardstown location to the public in late 2017, but Donn and Michele Lux have been selling whiskey from their four brands since they were founded in 1958. They made the move from Arkansas to Bardstown with the plan of building their own facilities and starting their own whiskey production in Kentucky.
Breaking ground in 2016, their new 18,000 square foot distillery sits on 90 acres of farm property. The property is complete with a view of the rolling knolls that so beg for a ride on horseback. They’ve kept the 18th century stone house on the property it, and plan to turn it into event space.
Lux Row opened for public tours only months before my visit. Michelle Low, Creative Director for the distillery, has created a uniquely fun tour and tasting experience.
Our tour includes just six of us, and our Lux Row guide, for relaxed and intimate tour, although filled with great info about bourbon making.
The distilling facility includes their 43 foot tall and 10’ wide copper Velodrome still. It’s capable of producing 3 million gallons of bourbon a year. She’s a beaut.
Lux Row does a great job explaining the process of making the mash and even lets us dip a finger to taste the mash.
We see where barrels are filled and where barrels await racking in the rick houses. The first barrels of their own whiskey were placed in the first rick house on January 11, 2018. The very first barrel is signed by key company players and sit and the rack. This is the first of six planned rick house, and the six storied structure is impressive.
Time to Taste
In the tasting room, our small group sits at the bar for four tastings, one for each of the existing lines. Michele Lux includes a chocolate pairing for each of the whiskeys. Sure, it’s fun (it’s chocolate, after all) but it’s also serves as another way to pay attention to tasting notes of each whiskey.
Rebel Yell is a 4-year-old whiskey, a good cocktail mixer, nice sweetness with more neutral wheat/grain flavors. Lux Row paired this with one of their dark chocolate covered dried cherries. (And for any Billy Idol fans out there; yes, this is that Rebel Yell.)
The Ezra Brooks Kentucky Sour Mash is heavy with pepper on the nose, long legs, and great caramel flavors. A milk chocolate caramel brought some great saltiness.
The David Nicholson 1844 has a lovely buttery flavors and vanilla spice. We enjoy a dark chocolate with sea salt with this one.
We also enjoy a tasting of the company’s coveted and truly exceptional Blood Oath. The Blood Oath label includes the company’s most unique and rare bourbons. Master Distiller John Rempe is responsible for each unique batch of this line, which blends a variety of finely aged bourbons to create limited editions. Pact No. 4, for example blends 9, 10 and 12 year old bourbons.
Tip: In addition to their whiskeys, you may just need to take some of their tasting chocolates home with you. Try replicating the tasting at home with friends—if the chocolates make it that far.
Bardstown Bourbon Company: a Unique Collabor&tion
You know you’re in for something a little different right away at Bardstown Bourbon Company. Their sleek and modern property makes a statement—firmly planted in Kentucky Bourbon Country but paving their own way.
The facility houses their distillery and tasting room but is also designed to be a great place to stop midway or at the end of your tour. Bottle and Bond Kitchen & Bar is the distillery’s restaurant, bar, and vintage whiskey library. The restaurant serves fresh, modern Southern dishes. Curated by well-known whiskey author Fred Minnick, their Whiskey Library includes more than 200 vintage American whiskeys.
Opened in 2016, Bardstown Bourbon Company is one of the new kids on the block. They’ve got two whiskey releases thusfar under the Collabor&tion name. Using a base of 10-year-old sourced rare release cask-strength bourbon, they’ve finished one in Mistelle Muscat barrels and the other in American Brandy barrels.
The results are appealing. The Muscat barrel bourbon starts with lovely grape wine aromas. There are front-end flavors of dark fruits and grapes before the smooth caramelized sugars and whiskey flavors take over and then finish again with subtle wine flavors. Collabor&tion’s brandy barrel finished whiskey is an all-round warm and smooth sipping experience, with complex spice, rich mouth-feel and depth. More and more distillers are experimenting with wine barrel finishing, but Collabor&ation has it down; the flavors are complex and wonderful. The Bardstown Bourbon Company team of distillers blended sourced whiskey from Lawrenceburg Distillers to create distinct and delicious products. Watch for more from this company.
Tip: Tastings are free. Definitely visit the whiskey library.
Mint Julep Tours
The owners of Mint Julep Tours, Sean and Lisa Higgins, have been in business since 2008. Mint Julep has won many awards, including being named by Condé Nast as a company offering the “best guided drinking tours in America.” In 2017, they welcomed a total of 31,622 guests. They visit 168 destinations altogether.
The company offers a wide variety of half-day and full-day tours. Tours range in size from large guided bus tours with a separate driver and guide, to more intimate SUV tours with a driver /guide. Customized trips to your favorite distilleries can be arranged.
Only distillery tours? Not at all; they also offer beer tours, horse farm tours, cooperage tours, food tours, and city tours. Interested in a tour that takes you out excavating a historic distillery site with a Bourbon Archaeologist? They’ve got it.
Mint Julep Tours has the right idea; their Louisville office is located in the iconic waterfront Galt House Hotel. The hotel is an ideal place to stay in Louisville and is just steps away from the many things to do and see on Museum Row and Whiskey Row.
Tips for Touring the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
With only the day to explore, I won’t pretend I “did” the Kentucky Bourbon Trail on this trip. I’ll have to return.
I’d advise first timers to start with a Mint Julep Tours, perhaps one of their elevated experiences. Visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail website, and map out a mix of established favorite brands and a few of the newer craft distilleries. Make a visit to the Frazier History Museum, which also serves as the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center. Between tastings, enjoy some casual and some fine dining, with stops in Louisville, Bardstown and Lexington. Visit a horse farm or two, take a trail ride, enjoy some down time in a hotel or bed and breakfasts along the route, and you’ve got a fabulous trip.
Be assured that the world of Kentucky bourbon is changing. You will hear both grumblings and praise that stops along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are becoming more and more like a wine tour through Napa Valley. Go soon, go often. Keep it about the bourbon, the food, the history, and culture and you’ll have a fabulous time.
Final Tip: Bring along an extra suitcase for bottles purchased along the way, or have them shipped. You’ll discover some new favs along the way, some which may not be available in your home state or country.
- Mint Julep Tours, https://www.mintjuleptours.com/
- Kentucky Bourbon Trail, https://kybourbontrail.com/
- Maker’s Mark, https://www.makersmark.com/
- Lux Row Distillers, https://luxrowdistillers.com/
- Bardstown Bourbon Company, https://www.bardstownbourbon.com/
- Bottle and Bond, https://bottleandbond.com/
- Louisville Tourism, https://www.gotolouisville.com/
- Visit Bardstown Tourism, https://www.visitbardstown.com/
- Kentucky Tourism, https://www.kentuckytourism.com/
- Frazier History Museum, https://fraziermuseum.org/
- Galt House Hotel, https://www.galthouse.com/
- On our site: Uncle Nearest Alters Story on Tennessee Whiskey
- On our site: From Grain-to-Glass: a House Spirits Distillery Tour
-All photos by Nancy Zaffaro. The cover photo depicts barrels in Lux Row’s first Kentucky rick house on their new property.