The great state of Kentucky has long been famous for its thoroughbred horses, thriving tobacco industry and brown liquor, but it wasn't until the past 10 years, or so, that fans of that iconic spirit started beating a path to what's now known as the Bourbon Trail. Here are the must-visit places between Louisville and Lexington that are well worth exploring, especially if you plan on being in the region for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held in the fall in Bardstown.
The quintessential bourbon palace in downtown Louisville -- named America's best hotel bar at this year's Tales of the Cocktail's Spirited Awards -- stocks a massive selection of hard-to-find labels (yes, they pour Pappy Van Winkle, but it comes at a steep price), as well as mainstream favorites like W.L. Weller. See the letters listed after the descriptions of some of the bars signature drinks? Those are the initials of the bartenders who developed those drinks, giving credit where it's deserved. Of course, the sharp crew will be happy to make you a Mint Julep anytime, a drink invented to cover the harsh taste of alcohol before bourbon was aged in barrels. Here's a short video that shows how the classic drink is made.
Call this spiffy new spot a blast from the past as Corky and Carson Taylor, a father-and-son team, revive a once-booming brand that went dark during Prohibition. They've turned a warehouse into a state-of-the-art facility and are counting the months until they can release their first barrel-aged bourbon. (Just 43 months, as of August 2015.) In the meantime, Peerless is open for tours that are entertainingly rich in historic detail and finish at a tasting bar where flavored Lucky brand "Moonshine" is sampled and plenty of cute merch fills the shelves.
This legendary distillery in Frankfort looks like a small village, with stately brick buildings dotting the lush landscape. Visitors get a glimpse of the entire process from the off-loading of the corn (to be bourbon, the spirit must be at least 50 percent corn) to the mash and fermentation in open-air tanks to the barrel rooms where the spirit ages, taking on the caramel characteristic of the charred oak. Buffalo Trace makes bourbon for the most recognizable names on the top shelves in bars around the world, including the now-legendary Pappy Van Winkle. For the very best insight into workings of this ginormous operation, request a tour with Freddie Johnson, who has been there for decades, following in his father's footsteps.
See those six-story structures as you arrive at this popular destination? Those are just a few of the barrel houses that are home to millions of gallons of aging bourbon, and one of the highlights of the tour. Inside the sweltering-in-the-summer, frigid-in-the-winter barrel house, visitors learn the basics of "bourbon breathing." The liquid expands in the warm weather, pushing out into the charred wood and then contracts when the temperatures drop. Over the course of years, that adds flavor and color to what goes into the clear spirit that initially goes into the barrel. At the end of the tour, visitors taste and compare from among the 50-some labels produced by this distillery including Elijah Craig (named after a preacher who is said to have been instrumental in first getting bourbon into barrels.
A new dining destination in Bardstown, the charming town considered the "trail head" of every liquid journey, this restaurant takes a casual approach to fine dining, with a focus on farm-to-table fare, and a long list of bourbon. Reservations on busy weekends are a must, and after an incredible dinner that definitely should begin with an order of smoked catfish brandade, head down the street and stay at the Jailer's Inn, if you're not easily scared, that is. This eerie inn, which some guests have said is haunted, is housed in what was once the town jail, complete with displays of a hangman's noose and various weapons confiscated over the years. For a more peaceful night's sleep, head instead to the nearby Bourbon Manor, which features thoughtfully decorated rooms in a historic home, and a lavish morning meal.
The winner of Whisky Magazine's top visitor attraction, this museum is steeped in all things bourbon from ancient mill stones used to grind grain, a moonshine still and prescriptions written for medicinal whisky during Prohibition. Speaking of those 20-some years that the sale of alcohol was banned in this country, this museum in Bardstown also is home to one of the hatchets Carrie Nation used to break up bars in her campaign to institute a booze-free country. After soaking up all those whisky factoids, you might have an even greater appreciation for the work being done down the road at Maker's Mark, Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Bulleit, Evan Williams and Town Branch, the rest of the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail.
This trip through Kentucky's Bourbon Country was hosted by Eureka!, a Southern California-based restaurant group.