Thousands of people raise their mint juleps and hold onto their hats at the annual running of the Kentucky Derby as the announcer exclaims, "Please rise as the University of Louisville marching band plays 'My Old Kentucky Home.'"
As both natives and visitors alike sing along to Stephen Foster's famous melody, there is one line in particular that speaks to the state's famous history: "The corn tops ripe and the meadow's in bloom/While the birds make music all the day."
Early settlers of Kentucky found that converting corn and other grains to whiskey made the crops more versatile and transportable. It didn't hurt that drinking the whiskey certainly helped ease the stresses that came with the settler lifestyle.
Over 300 years later, Kentuckians are still making the finest of bourbons in the exact way the first settlers did. There are more than 20 distilleries in the state of Kentucky producing over 200 types of bourbon.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail was founded in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers' Association in order to give bourbon fans an inside look at the distilleries as well as educating them about the extensive history and process of bourbon distilling.
There are currently 20 distilleries in Kentucky on the bourbon trail that invite avid bourbon fans into their unique, rustic distilleries to smell the caramel and vanilla notes of bourbon so carefully aged in charred oak barrels.
However, all the distilleries aren't located in a close proximity to each other, so a successful trip to the trail requires a bit of advanced planning and organization. Don't forget to draw straws to determine who has to be the designated driver for each day
My family is from Bardstown, Kentucky, also known as the "Bourbon Capital of the World." I grew up listening to stories from both my grandfathers as they spoke of the distilling process while sipping their highballs.
As I grew of age, I started visiting distilleries and acquiring my taste for bourbon. My curiosity began to consume me as I had always wondered what this unique drink had to offer.
Using these years of research, I have put together a guide for you to taste the best bourbons at an appropriate pace to keep you from belting out "My Old Kentucky Home" at a pitch no one wants to hear.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail recommends three or four days to explore distilleries while still being able to embrace all of the history and culture Kentucky has to offer. There are two types of trails you can explore.
The first is The Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour, which includes nine more well-known distilleries such as Bulleit, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, and Maker's Mark to name a few.
The second tour available is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail craft tour. This tour includes eleven smaller distilleries such as Willett, Corsair, Barrel House, and Hartfield & Co. Although these craft distilleries may be less well-known, they cannot be overlooked. Craft bourbon is becoming a huge trend (much like the new surge of craft beer). Even celebrities are beginning to explore the craft bourbon scene.
While there is no official distillery to start the trail, the best place to begin your adventure is Louisville, Kentucky. Here, you can pay a visit to Bulleit as well as Evan Williams, located in downtown Louisville. While you're here, don't forget to stop at the Brown Hotel for the world famous hot brown, a classic southern hot sandwich layered with turkey, bacon all smothered with Mornay sauce—don't mind if I do.
If you're up for it, drive about 30 minutes south of Louisville to Shepherdsville to visit Jim Beam. Drive about 15 minutes more to reach Bardstown. Here you can stop for souvenirs at the Bourbon Heritage Center before making the scenic drive to Willett and Heaven Hill.
Bardstown is a perfect place to compare craft bourbons to the bigger brands, as Willett is an upcoming craft and Heaven Hill is much more well-known. Even better, the two are conveniently right next door to one another. And if time allows, Maker's Mark is only 25 minutes away.
Not only the bourbon capital of the world, Bardstown is also home to historic My Old Kentucky Home. Short, daytime tours are available as well as free walking tours of the beautiful grounds. Take a tour and see the beauty that inspired the notable song.
As you say goodbye to Bardstown, grab a chocolate milkshake from Hurst Drug Store and Soda Fountain and begin the journey towards Lexington.
After a good rest and maybe a cheeseburger on the road, begin your day of taste-testing at Four Roses and Wild Turkey in Lawerenceburg. Then head 30 minutes east and visit Town Branch and Barrel House in Lexington.
As the drunk munchies come creeping into your brain, pay a visit to Ramsey's. The diner is a Kentucky tradition, most known for its traditional southern food and "meat and threes" (northern translation: main course of meat plus three southern sides).
And finally, for your swankier bourbon tasting, head to Woodford Reserve in Versailles. Woodford is Kentucky's oldest and smallest distillery, dating back to 1797. Fun Fact: Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.
While this packed itinerary is only one suggestion, you can mix and match the distilleries anyway you desire. This is the beauty of the unbridled spirit. You can visit as little or as many distilleries as you please, all at your own pace.
So whether it's a 21st birthday celebration, bachelor or bachelorette weekend, or just a simple weekend getaway, take the time to learn a little about the bourbon trail while planning your next trip, and don't forget to cheers to the first Kentucky settlers who preserved their corn into history.