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  1. Sunday, March 3, 2024

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How to Spend 3 Days on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

21c's Guide to Bourbon Country

September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, officially designated in 2007 by the Senate to celebrate “America’s Native Spirit”. While bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, we certainly take pride in the spirit year-round. Whether you’re from the Bluegrass State, live here, or are just visiting, it’s easy to find yourself enamored by the lure and history of bourbon. With 14 distilleries on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail (and many more not on the official list), even the most bourbon-averse can be won over. Like all good Kentuckians, we take our bourbon (and our long weekends) very seriously. In celebration of our favorite spirit, we hit the trail to put together the perfect 3-day itinerary covering the best of bourbon country.

Day 1: Louisville

Frazier Kentucky History Museum

Until this year, there was no ‘official’ start to the Bourbon Trail. The Kentucky Distillers’ Association has partnered with the Frazier to present a Bourbon History exhibit that now serves as the official starting point for your bourbon immersion. The Frazier is located just a block away from 21c Louisville.

Old Forester

At one time, as many as 89 bourbon brands did business along “Whiskey Row” in downtown Louisville.  Old Forester, an active distillery, is bringing whiskey back to historic Whiskey Row. Because this distillery is also a cooperage, you’ll see all the aspects of a distillery operation, including firing their barrels, on your tour. Tours are offered every day and reservations are recommended.

(L-R): “Welcoming the whisky back to Whiskey Row”; Inside Old Forester’s cooperage.

Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole, the newest bourbon distillery, is in Louisville’s Nulu neighborhood, a short drive from downtown. Inspired by the modern renaissance bourbon has had recently, Rabbit Hole melds the centuries-old tried and true methods of bourbon production with contemporary design and architecture. Tours are offered Wednesday-Sunday and reservations are required.

(L-R): The ultra-modern stills at Rabbit Hole; The bar has incredible views of downtown Louisville 

Where to eat in Louisville: After sampling Proof on Main’s special Bourbon Heritage Month cocktail menu, we recommend Red Hog, Mayan Café, Hammerheads, and Rye.

Proof on Main’s Kentucky Punch. This original recipe for this cocktail dates back to 1912. 

Day 2: Bardstown area

Makers Mark

After a beautiful drive through Kentucky’s countryside, you’ll find yourself transported back in time at Maker’s Mark distillery. You’ll see the family’s homeplace, the room where they still hand-cut each bottle’s label, and the bottling process. You can even dip your own bottle in the iconic red wax to take home with you. Tours are offered every day and reservations are recommended.

Jim Beam
After visiting smaller distilleries, you can visit the world’s largest bourbon producer, Jim Beam, in Clermont, KY. The tour delves into the history of “Bourbon’s First Family” and even gives you an opportunity to taste product right off the still. Tours are offered Monday-Saturday on the half hour and tickets can be reserved online in advance.

Where to eat in the Bardstown area: Starlight Provisions at Maker’s Mark, Fred’s Smokehouse at Jim Beam, and Bottle and Bond Kitchen in Bardstown proper. Bardstown is an hour drive from Lexington, your next stop on the bourbon trail.

Day 3: Lexington

Woodford Reserve

The present-day Woodford Reserve Distillery sits on one of Kentucky’s oldest distilling sites; this is where Elijah Pepper started making whiskey in 1812. The tranquil setting is not to be missed and the guided tasting at the end of the tour was one of our favorites. Tours are offered every day and reservations are recommended. If you have time to kill between tours, you can grab a drink from their back-porch bar and enjoy the quintessential Kentucky scenery.

(L-R): Testing the stills for proof level; tasting of Woodford Reserve & Woodford Double Oaked (with their famous bourbon balls)

Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace was one of four distilleries allowed to continue operations during Prohibition. Once on their campus, you’ll be greeted by their oldest rickhouse—built in 1881—that still houses 28,000 barrels of bourbon today. History runs deep here—they’re currently aging their 7 millionth barrel of bourbon. Although they are not on the official tour, it’s still worth a stop. Tours are offered every day and are free to the public. Even better, each tour ends with a tasting that includes a sip of their delightful Bourbon Cream. Trust us, you’ll want to take a bottle home.

(L-R): The oldest rickhouse on their campus; A view of the angel share as the aging process happens

Town Branch

Town Branch is the only distillery on the Bourbon Trail that is also a brewery. Here, you can tour (and taste) both beer and bourbon. This distillery opened in 2012 and was the first distillery to be built in the city of Lexington in over 100 years. Tours are offered every day and reservations can be made online in advance.

Where to eat: Lockbox is serving up rifts on classic bourbon cocktails during the month of September that you don’t want to miss. We also love Kentucky Native Café, Blue Door Smokehouse, and Middle Fork.

Lockbox’s Lift, a special bourbon cocktail just available during September.

If you hit the trail this September, let us know what your favorite stops were!