Want to enjoy a taste of Kentucky’s burgeoning bourbon tourism scene? Of course you do!
Kentucky is often referred to as the Napa Valley of bourbon. By federal law, bourbon is required to be made in the United States. Some might consider bourbon to be another term for whiskey, but there are marked differences between both of these spirits. In fact, if you dive deeper into the bourbon scene, you’ll learn that, “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” In other words, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and any brand of Scotch/Irish/Canadian whiskey are not bourbon.
It is Kentucky’s distilling history and its access to natural resources that ensures more than 90 percent of bourbon is made in Kentucky. Local resources include limestone, water, corn and other grains, as well as the oak trees needed for the aging barrels. All of these can be found right here in Kentucky, along the bourbon trail, giving a tongue-in-cheek meaning to Kentucky Tourism‘s motto, “Unbridled Spirit.” That, and maybe a lil’ something about horses…
You can tour distilleries all around the Bluegrass State, such as the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY, but it’s best to begin in Louisville. The city creates the perfect place to get an introduction to the wide ranging historical, economic, and cultural context of the bourbon scene. Louisville is also a great place to visit for many other reasons, such as touring the Louisville Slugger Factory, watching a horse race at Churchill Downs (home of the Kentucky Derby), and driving through the world’s only fully underground Christmas light show. Come for the bourbon, stick around for everything else!
Here’s my recipe for spending a day along Louisville’s 12-block historic Whiskey Row (aka Main Street):
Mix equal parts bourbon history, behind-the-scenes discoveries on how it’s made, informative tasting tips, and delicious food. Garnish to taste with plenty of Americana. Shake, stir, or pour directly down your gullet.
Please Note: Not all of the venues and experiences along this trail are family-friendly; some will be 21+ years of age, with personal ID required.
My wife, Judy, and I started our day at the Frazier History Museum. This institution is the westernmost anchor of Whiskey Row and home of the Official Welcome Center for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (KBT). The welcome center is located at 829 West Main Street, Louisville, KY and is free to visit.
Outside of the Frazier, we walked past a Prohibition-era Ford truck loaded with whiskey barrels. The entry to the museum is just beyond this, featuring exposed brink and hardwood floors. A bourbon concierge stands ready at the main desk to help visitors plan their day out on the trail. Alternatively, you can use one of several large touchscreen monitors to call up information and videos about each of the distilleries that make up the KBT. Plan your day or plan an entire week – no judgment here! Not surprisingly, several distillery tours start at the Frazier History Museum and admission is included in the tour, one such tour is the Bourbon Barrels Tour.
Across the room, exhibits include a large copper pot still as part of an exhibit on George Washington and his whiskey-making ventures, along with other bourbon displays and artifacts. The Welcome Center includes a fabulous gift shop for the bourbon-lover in your life. These first floor areas are free to view/use.
Allow time to visit scheduled exhibitions on the museum’s third floor. While there, we took in The Spirit of Kentucky exhibition, which is a permanent exhibit. Museum admission is required to experience these exhibitions but we found it to be worth the $10-14 ticket price. The exhibits will help you to understand why Kentucky is the center of the bourbon world. You’ll learn about the distillation process from moonshiners to modern day production facilities, and walk through the Bottle Hall with more than 500 bourbons being made in Kentucky today.
After the Frazier, a 4-block walk east brought us to the Evan Williams Experience, located at 528 West Main Street. This is the first distillery along Whiskey Row, where the hour-long Traditional Tour and Tasting begins every 30 minutes. While we waited, we were given a sneak peek into the Speakeasy downstairs – a fun re-creation of the backroom bar scene during Prohibition. The Speakeasy is available to rent for private events.
Founder Evan Williams opened Kentucky’s first distillery on the banks of the Ohio River in 1793. His story comes to life as you walk through the top-quality reproductions of the Louisville riverfront during that era. You’ll also meet Evan, who was also Louisville’s wharf master, and many of his cohorts. They’ll all come to life via rear-projected videos as you walk through the experience.
We ran into Master Artisanal Distiller Jodie Filiatreau just as we came into the distillery area. It is here where he oversees the production of one barrel of craft bourbon each day. Just like our tour guide Charles, Jodie obviously loves what he does and was happy to share his bourbon expertise with us.
In the period tasting room Charles lead us through sipping four different Evan Williams products. First we learned ‘the Kentucky chew,’ an act not unlike rinsing with mouthwash, except you swallow when done (bourbon is not wasted in Kentucky!). This prepares your palate to fully appreciate the various flavors in different bourbons. We tasted vanilla, caramel, and citrus, but these are just the beginning to the full spectrum of complex flavors.
By now, our palates wanted lunch. Another four blocks east brought us to Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen, located at 122 West Main Street. It’s part of the Urban Bourbon Trail (UBT) – a collection of 44 restaurants and bars in Louisville that embrace the bourbon culture and boast at least 50 different bourbons available. Don’t worry, most UBT locations have many more than that.
Judy had tasty brisket and pork tacos (a gluten-free choice) and I had the delicious Big Pig sandwich – pulled pork, coleslaw, & Old Forester bourbon barbecue sauce. In the interest of research, we shared a lunchtime cocktail, Jimmy’s Front Porch Lemonade – Wild Turkey 101 bourbon, fresh squeezed lemons, simple syrup, and a splash of soda. The menu says it “tastes like summer.” It’s not wrong.
Don’t forget to have your Urban Bourbon Trail Passport stamped. Once you eat or drink at six UBT locations, trade in your passport for a free t-shirt. Nothing says, “I finished the Urban Bourbon Trail and I’ve got PROOF!” like a graphic t-shirt.
There are no after-lunch naps on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We pressed on another four blocks to the Angel’s Envy distillery, located at 500 East Main Street. This is the only full-production distillery on Whiskey Row.
Angel’s Envy is a newcomer to the bourbon scene, but has done an impressive job building a modern distillery inside two historic buildings. Just as our tour began alongside the massive tanks cooking nascent bourbon (called distillers beer), we ran into co-founder Wes Henderson. He created Angel’s Envy with his late father, Lincoln Henderson (1938-2013), the master distiller and bourbon icon. Wes graciously stopped to say hi, thank us for coming, answer questions, and to politely encourage us to keep drinking his family’s bourbon.
Angel’s Envy offers some unique twists: finished bourbon and rye. Once the bourbon reaches maturity it spends an extra three-to-six months picking up extra flavors in a port wine barrel. Their rye whiskey spends up to 18-months in a rum cask.
Our tour ended with a bourbon tasting tutorial that included several small pours of Angel’s Envy and culminated with a special chocolate pairing.
We finished our bourbon day at Momma’s Mustard, Pickles, & BBQ, another UBT member. To visit Momma’s we ventured about 5 miles off Whiskey Row into the St. Mathews neighborhood for a bit of variety. This location is at 102 Bauer Avenue, with another location further east, at 119 South Hurstbourne Parkway. If you want to spend the entire day on the ‘Row, there are several other Urban Bourbon Trail establishments along Main Street.
Momma’s serves Kansas City-style barbecue with lots of different bourbons. Our original plans to eat only appetizers evaporated like bourbon in a charred oak barrel once we opened the menu. Judy opted for the barbecue nachos and I chose the dry-rub half-chicken, cole slaw, and cheezy corn. Everything was excellent.
Bourbon tourism is thirsty work, so we treated ourselves to both a sweet tea and a Bourbon Slushy. A slushy may not work for bourbon purists, but it’s definitely a refreshing way to end a warm summer day.
Your travels along the Kentucky bourbon trail can last from a single afternoon to several days. You can go on your own or take one of the many bourbon tours departing from Louisville and Lexington such as the Kentucky Bourbon Tour (Includes Maker’s Mark & Jim Beam) offered by Mint Julep Experiences or try the Bourbon Trail Tour (Includes Four Roses, Woodford and either Buffalo Trace or Wild Turkey). Want a true Kentucky experience in one day? We highly recommend the Bourbon and Derby tour which covers the best of both the Bourbon and Horse Racing worlds in one tour.
Louisville has nine distillery experiences you can tour and there are nearly 40 distilleries throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Each one offers a slightly different take on making bourbon and a slightly different taste of the spirit of Kentucky.