The state of Kentucky is home to the world’s most successful bourbon industry by a long shot. People here have been producing homemade recipes since the early 1700s. Today, there are dozens of bourbon-focused distilleries, bars and restaurants to choose from. This guide contains everything you need to know about Kentucky’s booming bourbon scene.
Explore the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is the main attraction of the state’s bourbon scene. It’s an official tourism program sponsored by the Kentucky Distillers Association to promote local businesses. The Trail has greatly contributed to Kentucky’s monopoly over the bourbon industry. In fact, the KDA estimates 95% of the world’s bourbon comes from the Bluegrass State.
The trail consists of 47 bars and distilleries scattered throughout the state, from Newport on the northern border to Franklin in the south. There are also multiple spots in Kentucky’s most populous cities — Louisville, Lexington and Frankfort — which allows for easier navigation and shorter travel times.
The average tour time for each spot takes about 90 minutes, which means you can hit up to a dozen in just one weekend. If you want to visit as many locations as possible, you need to plan your route and stops beforehand. For example, most people start their journeys in the Louisville/Frankfort area because many locations are nearby.
Here’s a quick rundown of the trail’s most popular destinations in alphabetical order:
- Angel’s Envy Distillery, Louisville
- Bardstown Bourbon Co., Bardstown
- Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort
- Bulleit Distilling Co., Shelbyville
- Castle & Key Distillery, Frankfort
- Four Roses Distillery, Lawrenceburg
- Green River Distilling Co., Owensboro
- Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience, Bardstown
- James B. Beam Distilling Co., Clermont
- James E. Pepper Distillery, Lexington
- Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., Louisville
- Limestone Branch Distillery. Lebanon
- Maker’s Mark Distillery, Loretto
- Old Forester Distilling Co., Louisville
- Wild Turkey Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg
- Woodford Reserve Distillery, Versailles
Each location includes a handful of attractions — tours of the distillery’s operations, tasting sessions for various bourbon recipes and gift shops with endless souvenirs. The tasting sessions will have you feeling buzzed after the first visit, so remember to pace yourself and eat some food between stops.
Speaking of food, each distillery has its own restaurant that provides some of the best food that Kentucky has to offer. You’ll get to experience famous local dishes such as bourbon balls, burgoo stew and spoonbread souffle. These unorthodox recipes go back to colonial times when the state’s first European settlers were forming a new way of life on the fly.
Some of the state’s top restaurants are just down the street from locations on the Bourbon Trail. You could stop at the famous Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, Moonlite Bar-B-Q in Owensboro or the Holly Hill Inn in Midway. Louisville is one of the best cities for foodies in the country, so be sure to eat there if you get a chance.
Kentucky isn’t considered a part of the “Deep South” in the United States, but it’s still home to some quintessential Southern-American cuisine you can’t find anywhere else. You might be familiar with unique combinations such as fried chicken and dumplings, or chicken fried steak. Although bourbon is the main attraction here, Kentuckians also take great pride in their food.
Why Is Bourbon So Popular in Kentucky?
The reason for bourbon’s unrivaled popularity in Kentucky goes back to the state’s early history. The first French settlers — who already had a passion for whiskey — discovered Kentucky’s climate was perfect for bourbon distillation. The humid summers and bitterly cold winters helped the alcohol mature faster and develop a better taste.
Two other environmental factors allowed bourbon to flourish — the abundance of corn and oak trees. Corn is bourbon's main ingredient and distilleries exclusively age their bourbon in charred oak barrels. This fascinating origin story has caused bourbon to earn nicknames such as “America’s Whiskey” or “America’s Native Spirit.”
Each successive generation of Kentuckians helped perfect the bourbon production process until it eventually became America’s highest-selling whiskey variety in the 1940s. Sales peaked in 1963 when American distilleries sold 75 million gallons in just one year. Congress decided to create stricter regulations the following year, including these six requirements:
- It must come from an American company.
- The mash bill must be at least 51% corn.
- It must be aged in charred oak barrels.
- It must be distilled at 160 proof or 80% alcohol by volume (ABV).
- It must be stored in a charred oak barrel at 125 proof or less.
- It must be bottled at 80 proof or more, or 40% ABV.
These regulations might have made it more difficult to create bourbon, but they also ensured that Kentucky would maintain its dominance over the industry. No other state had so many well-established distilleries at the time, so Kentucky continues to outpace the rest of the world’s production by a significant margin.
Tips for Enjoying the Bourbon Scene
Kentuckians take great pride in their bourbon, so they expect out-of-state visitors to show respect for the industry. They won’t demand you memorize every single recipe, but you will have to show some proper decorum when it comes to drinking bourbon. Here are some simple tips to help you enjoy Kentucky’s bourbon scene:
- Always drink bourbon with an old fashioned or lowball glass.
- Take the first sip of bourbon neat or straight, then add ice or a few drops of water as necessary.
- Try the “Kentucky Chew” technique and let the first sip swirl around your tongue to taste all the flavors.
- Observe the bourbon’s color. The darkest bourbons are the oldest and strongest.
- Pay attention to the aftertaste. Many bourbons have different flavors at the finish compared to the first sip.
Remember — bourbon is a strong alcoholic beverage. It has a minimum ABV of 40%, which is the average level for other types of spirits. You should have plenty of opportunities to sober up with delicious food between stops. Plus, if you ever get too tipsy, you can always use one of the KDA’s complete tour packages for a safe journey.
Get the Full Kentucky Experience
The bars, restaurants and distilleries on the Bourbon Trail are perfect places to get the full Kentucky experience. You’ll learn all about the state’s bourbon history, taste some timeless local recipes and get fully acquainted with Bluegrass culture. Drink responsibly and have fun!