Below are extensive details of our Bourbon Trail distillery visits. For a brief summary review visit this blog post.
★★★★★ Jim Beam Distillery, Clermont, KY
Tour Days/Times/Duration: Monday-Saturday every half hour from 9:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. EST, except 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. EST; Sunday 12:30 p.m.-3:00 p.m. EST. Our advice – avoid the weekends as it is very busy. Tickets can be purchased in advance online. 1 1/2 hour long.
Fees: Over 21 $10; under 21 free
Very informative, fun, interactive, although somewhat staged tour covering each step of the bourbon making process, given by our tour guide, Pete who was really funny.
After the tour, we were herded into the tasting room. Pretty neat way the tasting was handled. We were each given a card (similar to a credit card) which we could use in one of the dispenser kiosks. Put your card in the slot, push the button on the bourbon you want to try and voila it was yours! Limited to two tastings per person, but for a group of two you can taste four if you share.
If you want to grab a quick lunch, try Fred’s Smokehouse which is on the premises but be aware it only offers seating outdoors so not a good option in inclement weather. We had their BBQ Brisket sandwich with hand made chips – quite tasty!
With the exception of the Prohibition years, seven generations of Beams have been involved in whiskey production. The Jim Beam Bourbon brand is now owned and produced by Beam Suntory, which is a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings of Osaka, Japan. It was the highest volume bourbon seller in 2008. The tour includes 1 ounce samples of two products in their tasting room.
Very impressive visitor center which is a replica of a 1940’s stillhouse including the actual cast iron staircase from their original stillhouse (1934). Besides that staircase, the main focal point inside is a two story mock copper still elevator (still-evator).
As mentioned above this tour was very interactive! We poured grain into a hopper where it is finely ground, got to stick a finger in the fermentation vats to taste the mash before it is distilled, and sampled the low wine produced after the first distillation and the high wine (aka “white dog”) produced from the second distillation. At certain points in the tour, Pete would ask someone to act as his sidekick so Rob got to handle a barrel stave and be the first taster of the white dog poured into his cupped hands from a nozzle attached to a barrel hose. No wonder it was such a fun tour! In the rick warehouse, we saw the signed 13,000,000 barrel produced in 2014. Towards the end of the tour, we were given a bottle which we labelled with our names, rinsed it with bourbon to clean it, fill it, then watch it go down the mock bottling line. We further personalized our bottle by stamping it with Rob’s thumbprint on the cap after it was dipped in wax. Darn, the finished personalized bottle wasn’t given to us for free but it was available for purchase. We declined.
★★★★★ Maker’s Mark Distillery, Loretto, KY
Tour Days/Times/Duration: Mondays – Saturdays 9:30 am to 3:30 pm EST, Sundays 11:30 am to 3:30 pm EST. Closed on Sundays during Jan-March; closed on major holidays. 1 hour long.
Fees: Over 21 $9 per person. Tickets can be bought in advance online.
Another excellent tour at the oldest operating bourbon whisky distillery on its original site. Here we learned a lot of interesting facts about the owners, the history, and how this particular distillery makes bourbon After the tour we were led into the Tasting Room where we sipped four samples – Maker’s White, Maker’s Mark Fully Matured, Maker’s 46 and Maker’s Cask Strength.
General Info: It’s bourbon is never mass produced but handmade with each individual batch being less than 19 barrels. Maker’s Mark is one of the few American-made whiskies (confused about “whiskies” vs. “whiskys” – see this article) to be labeled using the Scottish spelling “whisky” rather than with an “e” as “whiskey”.
What once was a toll house has been converted to the Toll Gate Cafe featuring bourbon-inspired foods with seasonal sandwiches, salads, desserts and beverages. Prices range from under a dollar to $5.99. We didn’t eat here so we can’t comment on the quality of the food.
A few interesting facts we learned during the tour:
- Both the owners, Bill Samuels and his wife Marjorie were chemical engineers
- Marjorie was responsible for all of the marketing – she designed the squarish bottles, gave the whisky its name, drew its label, and thought up the wax dipping that gives the bottle its distinctive look. She even determined what colors would be used to paint the buildings and designed the shutters which adorn the buildings.
- She named it Makers Mark for the mark that pewter-makers stamped into their handcrafted pieces. Each bottle of bourbon would be hand-labeled and then hand-sealed with red wax making each bottle a unique piece of craftsmanship.
- Maker’s Mark is unusual in that no rye is used as part of the mash. Instead red winter wheat is used, along with corn (the predominant grain) and malted barley.
- Until last year, Maker’s was also one of the only distillers in the world that sold a single product. Then they developed Maker’s Mark 46 (named so because it took 46 tries before they came up with the right formulation). For this new bourbon, 10 “seared” French oak staves were inserted into the barrel to lend natural flavors of caramel, vanilla and spice. Finished Maker’s Mark was then added to the modified barrel and returned to the coolest part of the warehouse where it is aged for about 10 weeks.
- Between the tasting room and the gift shop, we passed under a
★★★★★ Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY
Tour Days/Times/Duration: Departs every hour Monday – Saturday 9 am to 4 pm; Sunday (April – October only) 12 pm – 3 pm. 1 hr in duration, no reservations necessary. Additional tours are also offered – reservations required.
Surprising that it is not on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail as this was by far our favorite tour. Best of all it was free! When we arrived, we had just missed a tour so we had a little bit of a wait. A woman in the Visitor Center, handed us a map and suggested we take the walking tour of the grounds. Very interesting learning at some of the historic buildings on the grounds. At the time of our tour, we joined up with our tour guide, Jeff, who was a wealth of information about the distillery and the socioeconomic history.
By the way, they have an excellent website – there is a map of the entire campus with explanations about each of the buildings, a video of the entire bourbon making process, a timeline showing their history and a “Craft Your Own Bourbon” where you can virtually make your own.
They claim to be the most award winning distillery in the world and the oldest continually operating distillery in America, remaining operational during Prohibition for medicinal purposes. Its name came from the fact that it is located on what the company claims was once an ancient buffalo crossing on the banks of the Kentucky River in Franklin County. It is owned by the Sazerac Company, the largest distillery company in the US.
- The distillery sprawls impressively over 130 acres and is home to four centuries of architecture – all still fully operational.
- It was formerly known as the George T. Stagg distillery – it was renamed Buffalo Trace in June 1999. Similar to other distilleries, it has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.
- Production capacity at Buffalo Trace is estimated at about 2,650,000 US gallons.
- They use a variety of rick houses – some are brick, some metal, some have windows, some don’t.
- Within the past decade, Buffalo Trace has won more awards than any other distillery in the world, including an unmatched seven “Distillery of the Year” titles.
- The distillery’s Warehouse V is the world’s only bonded single barrel aging warehouse. According to their website, it was “originally done for our two millionth barrel, as part of a big celebration for our two millionth barrel, so that is why it was originally built. Currently it is holding our six millionth barrel, and it’s held every millionth barrel since the two million mark.”
- Signature bourbon bottles are filled, sealed, labeled and packaged, all by hand in Blanton’s Bottling Hall.
- Blanton’s Bourbon is also produced here. Colonel Albert Blanton was one of the distillery’s early leaders, who the company claims spent most of his life preserving the tradition of handcrafted bourbon.
★★★★★ Woodford Reserve, Versailles, KY
Tour Days/Times/Duration: Monday-Saturday 10 am – 3 pm EST, Sunday 1 pm – 3 pm EST. Tours offered on the hour. No advance reservations, first come, first serve. During the busy months they suggest you arrive one hour before the tour time. Other in depth tours are also available.
Fees: $10 per person
Beautiful drive along the country back roads to get to this distillery. As we got closer to the distillery, it was obvious that this is where bourbon country and horse country come together, passing by rolling pastures where regal thoroughbreds were grazing. Not too far from the distillery is Woodford Thoroughbreds which is a breeding farm.
Woodford Reserve is one of Kentucky’s oldest and smallest distilleries. In fact, the present day Woodford Reserve Distillery sits on Kentucky’s oldest distilling site where Elijah Pepper began crafting whiskey in 1812. It is designated as a National Historic Landmark. You would never know how historic it is looking at the beautiful and very modern Visitor Center.
After the tour, we were led to the tasting room where we sipped Woodford Reserve Bourbon and Double Oaked Bourbon (Rob really liked this one). It was interesting that she had us try a sip, then take a bit of a bourbon ball (yummy) then sip again so we could see how the flavors changed. Rob would have loved to purchase a bottle of the Double Oaked but at $57 a bottle that didn’t happen!
Here’s a few of the facts we learned from Rebecca our tour guide during this tour:
- Once known as the Labrot & Graham Distillery between 1878 and 1941 as evidenced by the L & G on the two defunct smoke stacks.They use the sour mash process which was refined at this distillery during the Civil War.
- They use 72% corn (must have at least 51%), 10% malted barley and 18% rye.
- Unlike other distilleries where the fermented mash is distilled twice, Woodford distills it three times in 1650 gallon copper pot stills. The first distillation produces what they call “distiller’s beer”, the second produces “high wine” and the third distillation produces the “spirit”.
- Barrels are made at the Brown-Forman cooperage.
- After the barrel is filled it is rolled down a 500-foot-long gravity-fed barrel run to the warehouse. Lucky break for whoever might have to lift and/or carry those barrels!
- The warehouse has 18 inch thick limestone walls. A steam-driven heater fluctuates the temperature in the warehouses to produce several hot and cold cycles.
- They produce Double Oaked Bourbon and Double Double Oaked Bourbon. With Double Oaked, once the Select Reserve Bourbon has been aged, it is then poured into a another toasted and charred barrel where it is aged for another year. The same process is followed for the Double Double Oaked Bourbon but it is aged for a total of two years.
- Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select is the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.
★★★★☆ Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Louisville, KY
Tour Days/Times/Duration: Mon – Thurs, 11 am – 5:30 pm; Fri – Sat, 10 am – 6 pm; Sun, 1 pm – 5:30 pm. Approximately 1 hour in duration.
Fees: Adult Admission $12, ages 10-20 $9, under 10 free. Tickets may be purchased in advance online.
Evan Williams is the flagship bourbon brand of Heaven Hill Distilleries and because of its popularity, they opened The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience just a few hundred yards from the original site of his historic distillery in the heart of downtown Louisville. As soon as we walked into the lobby and saw the six-story bottle of Evan Williams bourbon pouring into a gigantic rocks glass, most likely making it the world’s biggest bourbon fountain, we knew this tour was going to be a little different and most likely more theatrical than the others. Turned out we were right.
Through the use of a variety of audio visual presentations, during the tour we were brought back in time to Louisville wharf scenes and multimedia renderings of Whisky Row at the turn of the 20th century. We learned about Evan Williams, the man in his many roles as wharf master, entrepreneur and distiller, the history of bourbon making and the process used to make bourbon.
- The Evans Williams Experience opened in the fall of 2014.
- The building it is in is over 120 years old and was renovated by Heaven Hill Distilleries.
- Wales born Evan Williams, a Kentucky settler, served as an early Trustee of the City of Louisville, a wharf master and built the first county clerk’s office and city jail.
- He began distilling in 1783 and was Kentucky’s first commercial distiller.
- This location is more of a craft distillery using an artisanal pot still making one barrel a day manned by Artisan Distiller Charlie Downs.
- Upstairs we walked down a mock street lined with shops from the 1800’s.
- Tasting rooms upstairs are a nod to both eras — one with a 1800s theme and the other with mid-20th-century decor.
- There is a Prohibition-era “speakeasy” in its basement which can be accessed by walking through a door to a bank vault.
- They have a storefront window filled with old medicinal bottles. In the tasting room we sampled three bourbons – Evan Williams Black Label, Evan Williams Single Label and Evan Williams 12 Year Old Red Label ($129.99 per bottle).
Yes, this was rather theatrical, (some people in the reviews have described it as “Disneyish”) but we still enjoyed it, finding it very interesting and informative.
Tour Days/Times/Duration: Available daily on the hour every hour, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Duration approximately an hour and fifteen minutes. Tickets can be purchased in advance online.
Fees: $8.50 per person or $10 to include a commemorative glass. Complimentary for 18 and under.
Located in Lexington, Town Branch is the first distillery to be built in Lexington in more than 100 years. Named for the body of water that presently runs under Lexington and owned by Alltech Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co. it is unique in that it is both a brewery (Kentucky Ale) and a distillery. Relatively new as a distiller – it wasn’t until 2008 that two copper pot stills from Scotland were used to distill the first batches of whiskey.
This tour was okay, like all the others it had it’s interesting points. Compared to the other distilleries, this operation is very small so it seems that perhaps it should be part of the Craft Bourbon Trail and not the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with the massive operations of Beam, Wild Turkey and the others.
Tour starts off in the Visitor Center with a video of the history of Town Branch. From there, we were lead across the street where they were building a new brewhouse that will have a 35,000 barrel capacity. Unfortunately because of the construction we couldn’t see much of the beer brewing operation but we were led into the beer tasting room where we were given the opportunity to taste their ales. We were given 4 tickets for tasting any combination of either beer in their beer tasting room or their bourbon in the distillery tasting room.
Things we learned:
- Town Branch is owned by Alltech, which according to their website, is a “leading global biotechnology company whose mission is to improve the health and performance of people, animals and plants through natural nutrition and scientific innovation. dealing with yeast and animal feed supplements. ” The company was created by Dr. Pearse Lyons, who studied brewing at Guinness and Harp in his early days.
- Their flagship ale is Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale (which we both liked), which is aged for six weeks in ex-bourbon barrels.
- They use something called ‘gelatinized corn’ as a raw ingredient that they don’t have to grind up and cook, unlike most distilleries.
- Unlike other distilleries their barrels are used once for bourbon, then once for beer, then again for the single-malt.
- For their straight bourbon, they use 72% corn, 15% malted barley, and 13% rye. It is aged for 3.5 years. Their Pearse Lyons Reserve single-malt (not a bourbon, this is a Scotch) also introduced in 2014 is aged for nearly 4 years.
- In 2014, they introduced Town Branch Rye which is made from about 55 percent rye, 30 percent corn and 15 percent malted barley.
- They also make a coffee-infused bourbon called Bluegrass Sundown. They use this in a version of the Irish Coffee at the on-site tasting room by adding boiling water and cream on top.
No Rating Bulleit,Stitzel-Weller Distillery, Louisville, KY
Tour Days/Times/Duration: 10am until 4pm Wednesday through Saturday. 1pm start on Sundays. Wednesday and Thursday tours leave on each hour. Friday, Saturday and Sunday tours leave on the half-hour. Last tour is always at 3pm.
Fees: $10 for adults over 21, free for under 21.
We arrived here too late to take a tour so we can’t comment on the tours given here. They did have a decent visitor center with informative displays about their bourbon making process.
Tour Days/Times/Duration: Monday – Saturday 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., on the hour; Sunday 12:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m., on the hour. 1 hour in duration.
Fees: $5 per person
Four Roses has two separate locations, one for the distillery and another for the bottling operation. Although we didn’t get to take a tour of the distillery, touring the Four Roses bottling facility was quite interesting. What makes Four Roses different from other distilleries is that they use two distinct mash bills and five proprietary yeast strains to create 10 distinct and extraordinary Bourbon recipes.
We were going to tour the distillery located in Lawrenceberg but it was after 3 pm when we arrived there so we only did a tasting. If you do pay the $5 and take the tour at the distillery there is no extra charge to tour the bottling facility. During the tasting at the distillery we learned about the history of Four Roses. The Four Roses name was trademarked in 1888 by Paul Jones Jr. Interesting legend about how the name “Four Roses” came into being. Good thing it was Four Roses instead of Four Carnations or Four Daisies!
Four Roses was once the No. 1 selling Bourbon in the United States until Seagram bought the brand in 1943. Seagrams primary focus was on blended whiskies so they discontinued the sale of Four Roses Bourbon in the US while they continued to sell it in the European and Asian markets where it was quite popular. The blended whiskey in the US was considered “rot gut” and they almost went out of business. Overall Four Roses bourbon was out of the US market for 40 years until ownership changed in 2002 when it was bought by Kirin Brewery of Japan who have revived the classic bourbon.
Here’s what we learned here:
- They have a new 2500 square foot Visitor Center
- Four Roses is the only distillery that uses single-story rack warehouses which minimizes temperature variations.
- By using two distinct mash bills and five proprietary yeast strains, Four Roses is able to create 10 distinct and extraordinary Bourbon recipes which are mingled by hand to create their award-winning brands. This graphic explains what this means in detail.
- The Four Roses Bottling facility will be adding 60,000-square-foot expansion which will contain two bottling lines, bottling support areas and office space. Four Roses expects the facility to be up and running by the spring of 2018.
★★★☆☆ Wild Turkey, Lawrenceberg, KY
Tour Days/Times/Duration: Mon-Sat, 9am-5pm EST. Tours on the hour until 4pm. Sun, 10am-4pm EST (Apr-Oct). Tours on the hour until 3pm. 1 hour in duration.
Yes, this is the largest single bourbon distillery in the world but it was our least favorite tour. Our guide was a young girl – she was okay and seemed knowledgeable but we felt very rushed throughout the tour. We boarded a transport van and were driven to several parts of the operation. Nothing fancy here, or any attempt at humorous theatrics. The facility appeared very sterile and automated. Pictures were allowed except in the bottling area.
Founded back in 1869, the distillery rests high atop a limestone shelf along the banks of the Kentucky River. Today it is owned by the Campari Group, an Italian company.
The bew Visitor Center is pretty impressive with a lot of displays about the history of Wild Turkey. Beautiful view from the tasting room where we were able to sample two bourbons.
Here are a few of the facts we learned:
- It is the largest single bourbon distillery in the world. In five days they produce what Woodford Reserve produces in six months.
- They use local Kentucky corn, German rye and Dakota/Montana/Minnesota barley. Excess grain is stored in the towering silos out front.
- They use a 52 foot tall all copper still to turn alcohol into vapor.
- They have twenty three 30,000 gallon vats for fermentation.
- Twenty aging warehouses are scattered about their grounds, each with a 20,000 barrel capacity (for 400,000 barrels, or roughly 20,000,000 gallons of bourbon).
- All of their five bourbons are made from the same recipe. In other words it is the exact same product coming out of the still. Where it is aged, how it is aged and how long it is aged determines whether it is Wild Turkey 101 or Wild Turkey Rare Breed (or whatever).
- The tasting room houses the original copper still from the original Wild Turkey distillery.
- Jimmie Russell with over 60 years in the business is the longest tenured Master Distiller. His son, Eddie, after 31 years in the business, just became a Master Distiller as well. They are the only father-son duo in the Bourbon Hall of Fame.
- They also bottle Skye Vodka which is shipped in from Illinois and is bottled here.
- Their barrels are hand made with the deepest char, by we believe Independent Stave Company. They point out their barrel staves are air dried instead of kiln dried, however, in our touring of Independent Stave Company we did not hear of any barrels that were made with kiln dried staves.