5 Bucket List Bourbon Distilleries
Celebrate National Bourbon Heritage Month and visit one of these historic Kentucky distilleries.
Thanks to a resolution passed by Congress in 2007, September is officially National Bourbon Heritage Month, which is a big deal if you consider that the popularity of America’s native spirit has never been higher.
Last year alone, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail experiences – tours that highlight legendary and micro distilleries – experienced their best year ever with more than 1 million visits. That’s a lot of bourbon tasting!
For bourbon aficionados heading to the Bluegrass State to sample some of the brown stuff, there’s no shortage of distilleries to tour. Picking out the right ones can be tricky though, so we’ve rounded up five of our favorites to get you started.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
If you’ve never heard of Buffalo Trace Distillery, it’s likely that you’ve heard of some of the brands they produce. Since 2002, the highly acclaimed and sought after Old Rip Van Winkle and Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve labels have been produced at the Frankfort, Kentucky, distillery. Other notable labels coming out of the distillery include Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee and Eagle Rare.
Buffalo Trace offers a few different tours, but the most important thing to remember is all of them are complimentary and include a tasting. I recommend the Trace Tour since it’s open to all ages and takes visitors past the bourbon barrels and inside Blanton’s Bottling Hall. The Hard Hat Tour is also worth checking out as you’ll see the entire bourbon-making process from grain to distillation.
Situated on Kentucky’s oldest distilling site, Woodford Reserve is one of the most recognizable names in the bourbon industry and one of the most prestigious as well. This historic distillery features copper pot still and 100-year-old cypress wood fermenters. It’s old-school distilling at its finest.
Woodford Reserve offers three tours, and each one offers a unique insight into the distillery. The Distillery tour gives a broad overview and explains the history of bourbon and the process of making it, while the Corn to Cork tour dives into the process much more and lasts an hour longer. For history buffs, the National Landmark tour covers the more than 200-year history of the property and its impact on Kentucky culture.
When we asked author and bourbon expert Fred Minnick for his must-visit destinations for bourbon fans, his first choice was clear. “Maker’s Mark embodies that old-school/old-country feel of how bourbon used to be and how these facilities used to be.” Located in Loretto, Kentucky, Maker’s Mark made its debut in 1958 and in 1980, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Tours of the grounds take about an hour to complete, and you can pre-purchase your tickets via their website. For those 21 and up, make sure you take the opportunity to dip your own bottle in the iconic red wax! If you time your visit just right, you may be able to catch the stunning Chihuly at Maker’s exhibit, which features glass sculptures from artist Dale Chihuly.
The history of Four Roses is an interesting one. It involves multiple companies purchasing the brand and even ending the sale of Kentucky straight bourbon in the U.S. in favor of the Europe and Asia markets. Thankfully, the brand that was once the top selling in America throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s returned to shelves in 2004.
For those who want to sample the best of Four Roses and see how the award-winning bourbon is made, take a trip to the Spanish mission-style distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and afterwards, head over to Cox’s Creek, Kentucky, to visit the scenic warehouse and bottling facility.
Willett Distillery is an independent and family-owned business located on the edge of beautiful Bardstown, Kentucky, and Minnick, who also included them in his list of must-visit distilleries, said they do a great job of preserving old bourbon stocks. “They get a lot of credit for their whiskey, but I don’t know if they get enough credit for their role in protecting old bourbon stocks that would have been blended away in something less tasty.”
To sample exclusive blends and to see Willett’s expertly restored facilities, head to the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” as Bardstown is known, and sign up for a tour. For $12, guests receive access to the distillery, grounds and a signature glass to take home.