The Kentucky bourbon trail: Sampling spirits on the road less traveled

Imagine Napa Valley with a Southern flair—and taste. 15 years ago, some savvy Kentuckians did just that by pondering the notion that fine bourbon whiskey—specifically their state’s bourbon—might someday be sipped and sought after in impressive quantities.

So they formally swung open their distillery doors to the public, and the “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” was born.

Last year, mostly in the name of tasting and buying the iconic amber spirit, 750,000 people toured at least one of more than a dozen marquee Kentucky bourbon distilleries, many of which are located within an hour’s drive of each other. None are too far from a sizable metropolis, either.

Is it any surprise that luxuriant Kentucky greenery, immaculate thoroughbred stables, and enticing bed and breakfasts line plenty of the Trail’s way? Global sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey approached $4 billion last year. Take that, Chardonnay.

“The Bourbon Trail,” as Elise Buckley, owner of A Storybook Inn outside of Lexington, proudly puts it, “is our version of the California wine country.”

Consider navigating the Bourbon Trail in something of a triangle, and paying leisurely visits to two or three distilleries per day. Before heading south out of Louisville, stop at the downtown, five-story, Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, and take a selfie next to the huge bourbon bottle/lowball glass fountain from which amber liquid pours. Part of the Speakeasy Tour guides visitors through a vault-style door and into an old-timey drinking club for a lesson on Prohibition and—of course—a tasting. Only 30 miles away is the Jim Beam distillery and some DIY fun; fill a barrel or bottle—or maybe both—with bourbon. When it comes to the tasting, at Beam or for that matter anywhere along the Trail, remember to employ the “Kentucky Chew”: while swallowing a sip, quickly and repeatedly open and close the lips to enjoy more bourbon flavor.

Bunghole Bourbon Bar

Pull into Bardstown for the evening, check out the 19th-century former Nelson County Courthouse (a chunk of town is on the National Register of Historic Places), have a meal on the My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, and drive to Bourbon Manor for the night. Guests know when they’ve arrived at the themed bed and breakfast: oak bourbon barrels double as signage.

The antebellum home sits on three acres, and visitors will want to go easy on the flights of bourbon available in the B&B’s three-level, 5,500-square-foot barn; the next morning’s breakfast could feature pecan sticky buns drizzled with a bourbon-caramel sauce, and bourbon-marinated bacon.

“We’re working on a line of bourbon-type spa products too,” says Bourbon Manor co-owner Todd Allen, who also has something for those wanting a break from everything bourbon. His other inn, the more pastoral Maple Hill Manor bed and breakfast, which features an alpaca farm, is only 17 miles away in Springfield. Ask Allen about the McElroy Honeymoon Hideaway and its private deck.

Next stop:

Head east to Lawrenceburg and the Four Roses distillery, which is owned by Japanese beer giant Kirin, singular in its Spanish Mission Revival-style architecture (said to be inspired by Napa Valley’s aesthetic), and compelling because the tasting might include a single-barrel bourbon. The provided headphones are a welcome tour touch.

Still trying to grasp distilling details like limestone filtered water, yeast blends, and corn content? Dixon Dedman is the fifth generation of family to oversee Harrodsburg’s Beaumont Inn. He hosts illuminating bourbon tastings four times weekly. “We could spend days going over the nuances,” says Dedman.

The Beaumont’s fare—including cornmeal batter pancakes and two-year-old cured ham—was recently honored by the James Beard Foundation.

Or go in a completely different direction, driving south instead of east, to sleepy Loretto. Lisa Marie Williams runs The Hill House, and bourbon runs in her blood. Her very first swims were in a bourbon barrel that had been cut in half, painted white, and filled with water. Hill House’s fridge is yours—guests can wander into the kitchen (for, say, leftover buttermilk biscuits) anytime they’re hungry. From the inn, it’s just three miles past dogwoods, eastern redbuds, and crepe myrtle trees to Maker’s Mark, where about half of the extended Williams family works. Seal a bottle by hand-dipping it in Maker’s signature red wax.

Before the whole trip ends in Lexington—only a 90-minute drive east on I-64 from Louisville—detour through Versailles. Travelers will find the posh South around every bend: Stonestreet and Jonabell farms feature epic, grassy stretches where their top thoroughbreds train. Woodford Reserve’s airy and upscale visitor’s center—with leather seating and warm wood accents—is nearly as smooth as its butterscotchy, Double Oaked Bourbon.

Eggs benedict

Elise Buckley’s nearby bed and breakfast, A Storybook Inn, fits right into the neighborhood. One huge temptation inside the fully restored, 19th-century Victorian is the Somewhere in Time suite, with a day bed and hardwood floors in the sitting room, and a two-person jetted tub off the bedroom. Breakfast is served in the 50-foot glass conservatory overlooking the Storybook’s gardens and waterfall. Another draw is the eggs benedict, which—appropriately enough—Buckley approaches with all the fuss one finds in a Kentucky bourbon master distiller.

“The hollandaise sauce is prepared in a double boiler, and only hand-stirred,” she says. “I’m a stickler.”