In our last post, we detailed all the reasons the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is worth visiting. In this post, we give you our high level assessment of each distillery. All are worthwhile visiting although we thought some provided a richer experience than others.
Whether you take a tour, do a tasting or just go to see the Visitor Center and tour the grounds, each distillery is unique and has something different to offer. Plus you will get to see some of the gorgeous Kentucky countryside that you might miss otherwise.
A few tips to think about:
- The distilleries are not located all that close to each other (see the Bourbon Trail Mileage Chart) and have varying hours for their tours. If you plan on completing your passport and visiting all of the distilleries on the trail you’ll definitely need several days. As mentioned in our previous post, we spent 12 days in KY, staying at three different campgrounds. See our reviews of Louisville South KOA, Taylorsville State Park, and the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
- You can get your passport stamped at any of the distilleries for no charge, only the tours and/or tastings incur a fee.
- Probably best to visit the more popular distilleries such as Jim Beam on a weekday to avoid the weekend crowds. Even if you do go on a weekday, if available it would probably be a good idea to make an online tour reservation so you are assured of a spot at your preferred time. We visited Beam off season on a Saturday without an advance reservation and had to wait several hours for an open spot on a tour.
- If you plan to complete the entire trail, be sure to pick up a Passport at your first distillery. We didn’t and we had to double back to have our Passport stamped at distilleries we had already visited.
- Don’t forget to incorporate a tour of a cooperage. We really enjoyed the free tour at the Independent Stave Company in Lebanon, but I found out afterwards that you can arrange a tour of the Brown-Forman Cooperage in Louisville through Mint Julep Tours. Other cooperage tours may be available as well.
- Be aware that some of the specialty bourbons and other spirits can only be purchased at the distilleries. For example, products that are distributed overseas or limited production items. For the products that are in general distribution in the US, we typically found the prices less expensive at nearby discount liquor establishments. Also note that not all products are distributed to all states, so if you have a favorite it may not be available everywhere.
- We also recommend working in a tour of the massive Toyota production facility in the Lexington area which is near a few distilleries. You must call and set up a reservation to get on the tour.
Below is a rating summary of the distilleries, listed more or less in order of our preference except for the top 5 which are all equally excellent. While we have rated each of our distillery visits on a 1 to 5 scale, keep in mind each distillery is unique and will be a different experience even if we have given the same rating.
For even more details of the distilleries we visited and more photos, check out this page.
★★★★★ Jim Beam, Clermont, KY – Rating 5/5. $10pp, under 21 free. Large volume producer. Nice visitor center, pleasant grounds and surrounding countryside. The tour was very informative, fun & interactive, although somewhat staged. Our tour guide, Pete was really funny. Tasting was unique with card access “vending” machines that allowed you to sample at your own pace. The fee included sampling of any two products (out of many). Fred’s Smokehouse on site had some yummy sandwiches. Highly recommended.
★★★★★ Maker’s Mark, Loretto, KY – Rating 5/5. Fee $9pp, under 21 free. Small batch producer. Gorgeous visitor center, grounds and countryside. Getting here was half the fun. Excellent informative tour at the oldest operating bourbon Whisky (in this case not Whiskey) distillery on its original site. Nice tasting experience.
★★★★★ Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, KY – Rating 5/5. Fee $0. Nice visitor center, interesting grounds. Not an “official” member of the bourbon trail marketing campaign, but one of our favorite experiences, and it was free, even with a tasting! Our tour guide Jeff, provided the most interesting socioeconomic historical interpretation of any of the distilleries we visited, as well as details about the distillery itself. Highly recommended.
★★★★★ Woodford Reserve, Versailles, KY – Rating 5/5. $10pp. Beautiful drive getting here through pastures dotted with thoroughbred horses. Beautiful visitor center and grounds, National Landmark buildings on site. Interesting and informative tour, this is the only distillery we visited that triple distills its mash. Highly recommended.
★★★★★ Heaven Hill, Bardstown, KY – Rating 5/5. $10pp. Large volume producer. We experienced this tour in 2012 and learned many fascinating details about the industry. Very nice visitor center with some unique interactive displays. Other distillery tours plus tours of nearby Bardstown are available here. The Talbott Tavern in Bardstown is recommended for lunch or dinner. Highly Recommended.
★★★★☆ Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Louisville, KY – Rating 4/5. $12pp, ages 10-20 $9, under 10 free. In downtown Louisville, this is a small batch working distillery but the tour has a decidedly theatrical slant. Evan Williams is a flagship product of Heaven Hill. The guided tour includes excellent and impressive multimedia presentations. Disney-like historical representation and attention to detail. Fee was a bit high in our opinion but we had a fun time. Recommended if you are in the city.
You can easily visit the Toyota Plant and this distillery in one day.
No Rating Bulleit, Stitzel-Weller Distillery, Louisville, KY – Rating 0/0. $10pp.
We arrived too late to take the tour. Interesting grounds but more industrial looking than the distilleries listed above. Historical artifacts and informative displays in the visitor center. The tour looked like it might be interesting. Recommended.
★★★☆☆ Four Roses Bottling, Cox’s Creek, KY – Rating 3/5. $5pp. Small volume producer. The distillery and bottling facilities are located in different towns quite a distance apart. Supposedly you can pay one fee and tour both operations. You do need to visit both locations to get the proper Bourbon Trail Passport stamps. We missed touring the distillery but did do a tasting there. The visitor centers in both cases were small and unassuming. The bottling tour was informative and more “real” than the staged tours such as Jim Beam. We observed some unique aspects of their history and processes. Recommended if you have the time.
★★★☆☆ Wild Turkey, Lawrenceberg, KY – Rating 3/5. $10pp. Very high volume producer. Less elaborate visitor center with a nice historical timeline display and you might get to meet master distiller Jimmy Russell who was there the day we visited. Largest single bourbon distillery in the world but it was our least favorite tour. Our college kid guide seemed to rush us through the tour which can best be described as “sterile”. This one felt more like big business than a craft, but there still were some interesting aspects. Recommended if you have the time.
So what are our favorite actual bourbon products? Well as previously mentioned, I’m not a big fan of bourbon so none for me, although I do like it mixed. Rob has bought some of the brands he liked during the tastings and is doing further “evaluations”. Here are his thoughts:
- Evan Williams (Heaven Hill) – a good inexpensive bourbon that is available almost everywhere. Cheaper than Jim Beam and with more oak flavor notes that hint of some of the more expensive bourbons. IMO best of the cheap mass produced bourbons.
- Eagle Rare (Buffalo Trace) – Good nose with pleasant oak flavors.
- Maker’s 46 (Maker’s Mark) – Regular Maker’s Mark is a wheated bourbon (Rye in the mash is replaced with wheat) and it is OK but seems lacking in some flavor to me. The Maker’s 46 is regular Makers mark that is aged for additional time with french oak staves added to the original barrel (that’s quite a process BTW). This increases the nose and flavor points IMO and I like this one well enough.
- Woodford Reserve Double Oaked – I don’t actually own any of this yet because it is so expensive, but I remember it was a favorite during the tastings. The product is aged normally, then aged another year in another new toasted and charred barrel providing enhanced oak flavors.
Those are my favorites so far, plenty more to try! Note that with the possible exception of Evan Williams, none of these products are intended for “drowning your sorrows”, there are much cheaper ways to do that if that’s your goal. These bourbons are relatively expensive, took many years to produce and should be honored and enjoyed in a proper glass to enhance the nose – you will pick up more of the flavors by smell than by taste. Very small amounts can provide a lengthy period of enjoyment if one takes the time to nose the product so the flavors can be most appreciated and periodically savor it in small sips. Check out this site for more about learning to appreciate the product.