by Aimee Cebulski
Kentucky’s gorgeous Bluegrass Country is a never-ending sea of rolling green hills. Thanks to crystal-clear water supplied by limestone aquifers deep underground, the region is famous for some of the most stunning scenery in the United States — And also for a uniquely American creation: Kentucky Bourbon.
Much like Scotch in Scotland — All Bourbon is Whiskey but not all Whiskey is Bourbon — Very specific requirements designate it as such (for example, it must be at least 51% corn). An act of Congress in 1964 declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit,” and today, bourbon is recognized around the world as such.
The unofficial “Kentucky Bourbon Trail” is a semi-organized collection of Bourbon distilleries and tasting rooms stretching from Louisville to Lexington. Itineraries suggest various options depending on your time, starting and ending location — But really, any drive through this region designed to stop and taste the local flavors is a winner.
Many visitors begin their tour from Louisville and hit up the Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont as one of their first stops. A comprehensive tour (starting at $14) takes guests through Jim Beam’s 200-year history and importance in the development of the Kentucky Bourbon industry and ends at their Urban Stillhouse for a tasting. Those not interested in the entire tour can visit the impressive gift shop (it feels like you are inside a bourbon barrel) for free and purchase a token for a drink at the Urban Stillhouse for $10.
Another popular stop for many is the home of Maker’s Mark in Loretto (tours begin at $14, can be booked online in advance). The tour of legendary Star Hill Farm and walk through the distilling rooms features equipment originally created in the early 1900s still in use today such as the Chandler & Price printing press that turns out every label on each bottle made.
Visitors walk from building to building across the sprawling ‘campus,’ including a stroll through the bottling room where the bottle’s signature red-wax tops are dipped and ending with a tasting of several varietals including exclusive ‘white’ bourbon that has not been barrel aged yet.
Beyond the larger, mainstream companies along the trail are a number of boutique and craft distillers such as Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon. Opened in 2010 and re-igniting a family distilling business that was forced to Canada due to Prohibition, the distillery was recently nominated as one of the 20 best craft whiskey distilleries in the United States by USA Today. You can try the company’s signature Yellowstone Straight Bourbon Whiskey at their tasting room and even enjoy a Mint Julep out on their patio overlooking the nearby rolling hills.
You’ll need more than a day or two to properly explore the region. Beyond the numerous distilleries, world-class restaurant and BBQ options abound. A good option to rest your head while visiting the area is the “Spirit on Main” AirBnB property — Located in an historic building in the heart of downtown Lebanon (just down the road from Limestone Branch), this Bourbon-themed unit features an open, airy feel with vaulted ceilings, a well-stocked kitchen, and very comfortable furnishings.
No matter which direction you start and where you stop, your taste buds are sure to enjoy this journey through the history of America’s signature beverage.
Contributor Aimee Cebulski has been furiously catching up on lost time as a traveler after a five-year battle with fear of flying grounded her dreams of visiting far-flung destinations in her mid-20s. Now, she’s proud to have 60+ stamps in her passport and considers each new one a triumph over fear.
She’s worked as a freelance writer and photographer for 20 years and currently calls San Diego, California home. Her work has been featured in a number of travel, business and lifestyle magazines, websites and photo galleries. She combined her love of travel, new cultures and writing with the release of The Finding 40 Project, a book about women turning 40 years old around the world.