Despite a long-standing bourbon affinity, my inaugural Kentucky bourbon tour only occurred this past November by interloping on my friend Kate Snow’s vacation plans to do the same. With a few more travelers, our eventual group of 10 represented the extreme points across the booze spectrum from “I only drink beer” to “I detect a high-rye mashbill.” Our trip was equal parts advanced planning and winging it once we arrived; the formula worked out for us. Here are some highlights.
Welcome to Louisville!
Why Louisville versus Lexington? Just a coin toss, really, and exploring Louisville itself fell into the “winging it” category, but there were plenty of fun facts and cool places awaiting us.
Did you know that “bourbonism” is a thing and Louisville is its birthplace? Find out more on their newly launched website. Louisville is a well-known mecca for baseball fans (e.g. Louisville Slugger) and spiritualists (e.g. where Thomas Merton had his epiphany). Both Muhammed Ali and Colonel Sanders are forever resting in peace in Louisville. A revival of the downtown area embraces street art and stunning architecture. Walking the Second Street Bridge over the Ohio River lands you in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Visit the Louisville Visitor’s Center for all the tips and tricks and to get a selfie with the life-size wax statue of Col. Sanders.
We stayed at downtown 21C Museum Hotel, whose signature experience is the exceptionally curated collection of modern art on site and red penguin statues dotted throughout (with the one on our floor that had a tendency to “travel”). Rooms are chic-industrial, merging modern and comfort in their furnishings and art.
A very respectable foodie scene awaits, and spontaneity in lieu of advance reservations was on our side for finding memorable spots to eat and drink:
Proof on Main Lounge is 21C’s resident bar restaurant. The silver lining for lack of dinner reservations was cozying up in the lounge for flavorful bites and to peruse the largesse of their bourbon menu. The unfamiliar Buzzards Roost was recommended by our affable server Brie as a personal favorite and hit just right leaning spicy, oaky and nutty. Mussels & Burger is an American bistro located across from our hotel in a renovated former gallery space with vaulted ceilings serving decadent versions of classic burgers and mussels. Troll Pub is a basement bar with a buzzy college throwback vibe that prides itself in its troll-ish-ness serving shameless greasy food. Which makes you want to say you’ve been there (and take a selfie with their life-size troll out front).
Michter’s Bar at Fort Nelson Distiller is the distillery’s speakeasy-like bar on the second level and was a great consolation for missing the boat on tour reservations. Wild Eggs is a beloved breakfast joint and a true gem of a find. It feels like a school cafeteria, but the indulgent takes on all the classics are very worthy. Blackbeard Espresso Company is a cafe around the corner from 21C with superb coffee and espresso drinks. Bardstown Kitchen and Bar is the gorgeous on-site restaurant at the Bardstown distillery (details of tour below) that serves elevated takes on comfort foods and classic cocktails. The bourbon margarita was intriguing, but it was hard to pass up barrel-aged Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans.
Bardstown Tasting Room is the new tasting room based in Louisville and since we couldn’t get enough of the Bardstown experience, we stopped in specifically to try our craft-mixologist-turned-national-brand-manager tour guide Jaz’min Weaver’s signature cocktail that is only served here. It’s a gorgeous space architecturally and her hibiscus-based Bourbon Bouquet was splendid. Dragon King’s Daughter is a great fusion taco/sushi spot we chanced upon located in the Highlands, an off-the-beaten-bourbon path foodie neighborhood with a plethora of cool eateries.
Brie at Proof on Main provided us with her insiders’ scoops on local bars but sadly we never got around to visiting any of them. Based on the list, bar crawling in Louisville seems like reason enough to return so I share her list for the greater good: Meta, Expo, Tartan House, Epiphany, Pretty Decent, and Darlings. Cheers!
Distillery Visits: Buffalo Trace, Four Roses and Bardstown
Our exuberance last May meant we secured certain tours months ahead which served us well as a large group, and we found out that waiting until October to try to fill one last slot on our itinerary would be fruitless. The “off-season” is getting shorter every year with bookings filling up faster, so get on your favorites early.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is actually a formal trademarked designation as of 1999 and only member distilleries of the Kentucky Distiller’s Association (KDA) can market themselves as part of the Trail. The KDA is a non-profit trade association founded in 1880 to protect Kentucky’s legacy in bourbon. With over 40 member distilleries now marked on the KDA’s Bourbon Trail, it houses great inventory of destination options.
But here’s the record scratch: Buffalo Trace is not on the Trail. They disassociated itself from the KDA in 2009 due to some minor legal kerfuffle and cannot market themselves with the Trail. Neither seem to be negatively impacted by this rift, however; Buffalo Trace remains the most visited distillery in the region.
I should mention that Kate Snow is a senior correspondent with NBC News, so we were honored with VIP distillery personalities as our guides.
Tour 1: Buffalo Trace Distillery
It wasn’t intentional to start at the deepest end of the pool with this behemoth, but the experience turned out to be the best initiation to Kentucky bourbon(ism) for the diverse profile of our group. Our tour guide was none other than Freddie Johnson, third generation employee of Buffalo Trace and lead VIP guide who was inducted into the Kentucky Hall of Fame in 2018 and whose story is a prominent feature in the documentary Neat: The Story of Bourbon released the same year.
To say there is a lot of history at Buffalo Trace is an understatement. Every part of Kentucky societal, political, natural, and industrial history and their leading figures (which include actual buffalos) seems to collide and coincide with the evolution of the distillery. I’m not even attempting a synopsis here but there’s also that extra awe factor hearing the history within its very walls.
Our behind-the-scenes distillery tour started with a quick bourbon production 101 followed by the de rigueur stroll past vats of cooking mash and distilling columns on metal gate walkways with the occasional dips into mash at different stages of fermentation and white dog distillate. For first-timers, witnessing the belly of the production beast establishes awe in the scale and mastery in the scientific and operational intensity required in producing bourbon. Preservation of history is important to Buffalo Trace, as exemplified the permanently excavated section of an original part of the distillery.
The tour concluded with a tasting of their core offerings – Buffalo Trace, EH Taylor, Blanton’s, Weller, and Sazerac – but conducted in a uniquely deliberate and staged manner by Freddie that have made converts of the newer “bourboners” in our group.
Two closing tips: 1) Get the Bourbon Cream. I can’t believe I previously turned my nose up at this. It goes great with Freddie’s Root Beer (yes, he has his own soda line). 2) Make the detour to Andy’s Artisan Bread in Frankfort, a recommendation by another guide who lives nearby. Our resident Frenchman declared their croissants amongst one of the best he’s had outside of France.
Tour 2: Four Roses Distillery
Four Roses emerged as a brand in 1888 and operates out of the same Spanish-Mission style distillery originally built in 1860 idyllically situated on gently rolling tree-lined hills. A separate modern open-space visitors center was newly built that includes a bar and private tasting rooms.
Master distiller Brent Elliott himself was our guide. A chemist by training, a tour through Woodford inspired Brent to explore job openings at distilleries. After all, isn’t spirits production just large-scale chemistry? Brent landed his first role at Four Roses in quality assurance and grew within the company to become master distiller in 2015, succeeding renowned Jim Rutledge who was credited for putting Four Roses prominently on the map.
All of the Four Roses expression are created under 10 different recipes that start with five proprietary yeast strains with two different mashbills (“B” and “E” specifically) that are blended together or bottled individually to achieve the various permanent and limited expressions.
Our tasting comprised the core four – Four Roses Bourbon, Small Batch, Single Barrel and Small Batch Select. We were also treated to a dip into the year’s highly lauded 135th anniversary blend. Comprised of 12- to 25-year aged stock, it was truly marvelous with a balance that masterfully tamed its outsized notes.
One memorable note through the distillery was witnessing original wooden mash vats still operating alongside the subsequently installed steel vats. As they say, if it ain’t broke…
Tour 3: Bardstown Bourbon Company
I was the only one familiar with and intrigued by Bardstown but thankfully the rest of the group was willing to follow my lead. My assumption of a multi-generational origin story behind such consistently winning releases was debunked upon learning that Bardstown Bourbon Company was founded in 2016 as a standalone brand built from the ground up on undeveloped land by telecom titan Peter Loftin (who died shortly thereafter in 2019).
Legacy was secured by way of onboarding Steve Nally as master distiller, a 50-year industry veteran and another inductee to the Bourbon Hall of Fame. Steve was enticed out of second retirement by a promise of carte blanche and a blank slate. Out the gate, Bardstown has produced highly praised masterful blends in collaboration with other producers as their own stock aged. Their self-produced Origin Series finally hit markets this year, mandated by Steve to be aged at least 6 years.
Though a fan of their bourbon, the company’s introduction on their website left my expectations a bit open ended, with references to “innovation” and “world-class” and “unique” that are too flippantly declared these days amongst newcomers. But BBCo delivered in spades across all categories. The site does evoke a Napa Valley-style immersion that showcases a state-of-the-art distillery, using technology to enhance a solidly traditional process coupled with on-site accoutrements to please all the senses. There is an eye-popping array of just about any bourbon one would have heard of alongside their own, all on hand at their bar. The outdoor bar patio lounge is replete with sofas, a firepit, and a bocci court which serves as a vista for a sweeping view of the rickhouses nestled under big open skies on wide open fields.
We toured one of their signature glass-front rickhouses, designed as part of their perpetual pursuit of understanding of how their distillates react to as many variants as possible to observe the impact of direct sunlight on aging. They also do not rotate barrels to let the wildly different characteristics within a rickhouse make their mark on each. We each drew samples from a barrel using a whiskey thief, a first for all of us. This barrel was spicy, rich, and heady and at impressive depth for six years aged. It’s a thrilling chapter for Steve and the team to unveil own distillates going forward.
Kentucky bourbon country is betting big on expanding tourism and there’s more to do here than ever. A rewarding adventure awaits.
More reading on Kentucky tourism: