A combination of ideal weather, limestone water sources, and a long history of the craft make Central Kentucky the bourbon capital of the world. Visiting the winding trail of bourbon distilleries here (now officially called the Kentucky Bourbon Trail) has become a main draw to the area, and a whole tourism industry itself.
The distilleries of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are deeply rooted in history, many beginning operations in the 18th or 19th centuries that are still operated by the same families generations later. Today, bourbon’s popularity is at an all-time high, and in the past 20 years or so, many new distilleries have popped up among old favorites. These newer operations often restore the beautiful, historical properties of Kentucky’s original stills—centuries-old distilleries that either never reopened after prohibition or closed for other reasons. Take the history and the gorgeous natural settings, and add delicious, often entertaining whiskey tours and tastings, and you'll see why traveling along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is such a special experience.
With so many great distilleries spread across the rolling hills of Kentucky, planning a trip on the Bourbon Trail can feel a bit overwhelming. Make the most of your time by including a diverse mix of ones to visit, from big names in the industry, to up-and-coming, smaller-batch operations. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail website includes a map of all area distilleries, general exploring tips, and a calendar of upcoming distillery events.
Consider Lexington and Louisville as practical bases for your trip: most distilleries are within these cities, or in the small towns orbiting them, and both cities have vibrant downtowns full of hotels, restaurants, and notable sights.
Explore our guide to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail for suggested routes, can’t-miss spots, and other tips for having the best experience in bourbon country.
How to Experience the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
A long weekend is a good amount of time to spend on the Bourbon Trail, but if you plan to combine your trip with other area activities, a week is definitely doable. Traveling directly between Louisville and Lexington (when you aren’t stopping at distilleries) takes less than an hour, and both cities have convenient airports.
With the many distilleries within its city limits, Louisville is a good jumping-off point on the trail. Spend the next day slowly heading out of Louisville to visit a few distilleries on the city’s outskirts, and then use Lexington as a homebase for the next couple of days.
Renting a car gives you the most freedom to explore, but it's not necessary. Ride sharing services are abundant in the area, and there are many guided tour options as well. Here's a sample itinerary to follow for your visit.
Day 1: Downtown Louisville
In Louisville, stay downtown at the Brown Hotel, a city landmark full of history and romance. From the Brown, you can walk (or call a rideshare) to distilleries along the city’s historic Whiskey Row by the Ohio River, such as Angel’s Envy, Old Forester Distilling Co., and the modern Rabbit Hole Distillery in Louisville’s artsy NULU district. For a lesson on the wild and crazy tales of the Prohibition Era, book a tour at Prohibition Craft Spirits.
Day 2: Louisville to Lexington: Clermont, Shelbyville, and Loretto
After a hearty breakfast of biscuits, it’s time to hit the trail! You have the choice to head southeast out of Louisville to explore the Jim Beam facilities. Then it’s on to Maker’s Mark, one of the farther distilleries (about an hour out of the way in Loretto, Kentucky) but a favorite for the hand-dipped bottles, gorgeous 1,000-acre farm, and onsite restaurant. Alternatively, and on a more direct route into Lexington, you can head to Bulleit Distilling Co.'s new state-of-the-art facility in Shelbyville.
A stay at the boutique 21C Hotel makes a great homebase in Lexington; this artsy, modern hotel is located right downtown, and the lobby also functions as a contemporary art gallery.
Take the evening to explore downtown Lexington. Make sure to stop for a drink at the Bluegrass Tavern, a Lexington classic that boasts the largest bourbon collection in the state. If you need a break from bourbon, a fine margarita at Corto Lima, or craft cocktail at West Main Crafting Co., will do the trick. For dinner, opt for classic and refined, or hip and casual.
Day 3: Lexington, Frankfort, Versailles, and Lawrenceburg
After breakfast at the hotel, it’s a 30-minute drive to the Frankfort area, where touring the new distillery at Castle & Key is a true gem. The repurposed stone castle and the rest of the historical property are breathtaking, and the distillery’s chic branding (with plenty of merchandise to take home from the gift shop) adds to the overall charm of the location.
Woodford Reserve (a seven-minute drive from Castle & Key) has its own restaurant and is a great mid-day stop for lunch and a tour of its beautiful grounds.
Before heading out of Lexington, check out the city’s historic Distillery District, home to the recently revived James E. Pepper Distiller (and several other restaurants, bars, and breweries), one of Kentucky’s first bourbon brands originally created during the American Revolution.
Distillery Information and Rules
- Most tours cost $10 to $15 (including tastings), and are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Some distilleries are closed on Mondays. Tours typically run every hour, and it’s usually best to reserve online ahead of time.
- Children under 21 are welcome on tours, for free or at a discounted cost (and no sampling whiskey for them, of course).
- For more distillery rules and Kentucky Liquor laws, check out Kentucky Liquor Laws and The Bourbon Trail.
You’ll need a designated driver along the trail, as you’ll be sipping and tasting whiskeys. Even if there is a sober one among the group, it can be a good idea to arrange a local driver for navigating the winding country roads. Uber and Lyft are also all good choices, and if you've managed to stay sober, biking can also be a fun option.
Where to Eat
Lexington or Louisville aren’t the only places to eat well in bourbon country. Everything from five-star restaurants to delicious sandwich stands can be found in the small towns along the way between distilleries. Local Chef Ouita Michel is at the forefront of Bourbon Trail gourmet dining, with top-notch restaurants in Midway, Versailles, and Lexington.
Beyond the Trail
If time allows, consider the area’s other great export: thoroughbred horses. Races at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington take place in October and April, and at Churchill Downs in Louisville in November, May, and June . There are tours and special events at both facilities year round.