Kentucky locals have been distilling and drinking bourbon since the late 1700s before the territory even became a state. Fertile farms for growing corn, clean, fresh streams, and abundant oak trees for barrels made the region an epicenter for the spirit.
Nowadays, bourbon is big business for Kentucky, not only with global liquor sales from local giants like Wild Turkey and Jim Beam but also for the tourism it brings to the region. Visitors find the mix of the scenic, rolling, horse-dotted hills of bluegrass country combined with the tasty sips of distillery visits to be an irresistible travel cocktail. Newly launched visitor experiences and hotel openings make now a fine time to visit or return to Kentucky Bourbon Country.
For travel advisors interested in planning a trip, the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail online guide is a great place to begin research. You can read sample itineraries and lodging descriptions to find client recommendations and scan the map of an astounding 45 different bourbon distilleries across the state (including the 18 major distilleries that comprise the main Bourbon Trail).
While bourbon production traditions are centuries old, Bourbon Country has plenty of new things to offer to visitors, with some highlights detailed below. Here's what's new:
Major bourbon distillery visitor centers regularly upgrade to attract new and repeat customers, while small craft distilleries open (and close down) faster than a moonshiner on a liquor run.
Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown recently opened their new $135 million visitor center, complete with expansive exhibits, three tasting rooms, a cocktail bar, and multiple tour experiences including a “You Do Bourbon” class in which you can bottle and buy your own bourbon blend. Maker’s Mark has introduced a new immersive Star Hill Farm Tour in which visitors get out of the tasting room and onto the farm to see all the sources for ingredients (and sample some tastings along the way). Maker’s Mark is still running its popular dip-your-bottle-in-wax attraction for guests looking for a souvenir.
For visitors seeking a new craft distillery experience, Fresh Bourbon and RD1 Spirits in Lexington are new additions to Bourbon Country, with Newport’s Pensive Distilling and the Augusta Distillery beginning to welcome guests as well.
Louisville’s new 65-room boutique hotel, The Myriad will be sure to dazzle clients (it was built from a repurposed disco ball factory) when it opens September 13th in close proximity to multiple urban distilleries.
Another Louisville boutique, the Hotel Genevieve opened this May complete with a speakeasy, rooftop bar, and restaurant to supplement its 122 rooms. For road-trippers, the new Bardstown Motor Lodge is a hip spot to stay near multiple distilleries, including Heaven Hill and Makers Mark. The Inn at Woodhaven, a bed & breakfast on the outskirts of downtown Louisville, could hardly be called new, with its main building dating to 1853—but new owners have breathed fresh life into the property with updated rooms, bourbon tastings, and fresh pastry breakfasts.
September is the month for bourbon parties, with this year’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival (a must for connoisseurs) taking place in Bardstown from Sept 15-17, and Louisville’s Bourbon and Beyond music festival showcasing headliners like Bruno Mars, The Black Keys, and Brandi Carlile to accompany bourbon tastings September 14-17. Expect lodging to be tight and many visitor tours sold out during this double-festival period, so book as soon as possible.
Having sampled my way through distilleries along the Bourbon Trail, I can attest that it’s a great idea to have someone else do the driving. Thankfully, many tour operators have sprung up to offer individual and group outings to distilleries and around the region.
Mint Julep Experiences offers a variety of tours from large groups to small custom options, including horse-drawn tours. They also offer "Elevated Experiences” for luxury clients that provide vintage and limited edition bourbon tastings and meetings with distillers. The new Mint Julep “Ultimate Kentucky Vacation Package” is a two-day extravaganza with highlights including a helicopter ride to Maker’s Mark and the bespoke construction of a personal barrel full of bourbon, enough to fill 250 bottles.
Pegasus tour group just launched a new branch solely focused on bourbon tours. Options range from simply hiring a driver and car to group tours including lodging, meals, and limousine rides to get escorted through private VIP tours and tasting experiences at both big-name and artisanal distilleries.
Urban Bourbon Trail
For clients who don’t have the time to tour all around Bourbon Country, Louisville has created the Urban Bourbon itinerary of city-based distilleries, tasting rooms, bars, and restaurants. Visitors can download a passport that enables discounts and offers at the more than two dozen participating locations.
It’s not easy to qualify for inclusion on the trail—members must have over 60 bourbons on their menu, a “significant bourbon culture,” a signature Old Fashioned cocktail, and if a restaurant, must also serve three bourbon-infused dishes.
The newest additions to the Urban Bourbon trail include the LGBTQ-friendly Chill BAR Highlands, the Four Pegs Smokehouse & Bar in the Germantown neighborhood, the craft cocktails and package liquor at Frankfort Avenue Liquors & Wine, bourbon-themed dishes at Matt Winn's Steakhouse and the Neat Bourbon Bar & Bottle Shop.
Companies like Bourbon Hall Tours and Tastings Mint Julep and Pegasus offer Urban Bourbon tours, so clients need not get intimidated by the number of bourbon options in town.
So whether a client is curious about exploring some bourbon options while traveling to Louisville, or thinking of making a full bourbon-themed destination trip, the Bourbon Trail offers the information and resources to help travel advisors find the latest and tastiest options.