Kentucky Bourbon Trail: 3 Can’t-Miss Distillery Tours

A glass of Kentucky bourbon rests on a wooden barrel in a dimly lit room, with other barrels blurred in the background.

Experience the resurgence of America’s Native Spirit—Kentucky Bourbon. Home to many bourbon distilleries and bourbon tours, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® are a can’t-miss experience in the Bluegrass State.

This article is part of my Wander Like a Local series, where guest writers reveal the best-kept secrets, must-see spots, and unique experiences that only locals know. Discover hidden gems and authentic tips from those who call it home.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour features more than 40 bourbon distilleries and tours. Every bourbon barrel is unique, just like the unforgettable distillery experiences you will have along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

As a lifelong Kentuckian and bourbon enthusiast, I savor the unique experience each distillery offers! In this guide, I will share some of my favorite bourbon experiences and help you create a custom bourbon-tasting experience!

Fun Fact: Kentucky has more bourbon barrels (appx 11.5 million) than residents (appx. 4.5 million)!

A collage showing the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, featuring bourbon pouring, filled glasses, distillery interiors, and bourbon barrels with the text: "Can't Miss Spots - Kentucky Bourbon Trail (According to a Local).


Have You Explored the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?

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The History of Bourbon Tells the Story of American Exploration

American whiskey and legendary Kentucky bourbon share the story of America’s growth and expansion westward. During the early 1780s, Kentucky farmers had a problem—their crops were going bad. With an abundance of corn, distilling the corn into whiskey was an easy storage solution. Kentucky’s location and natural resources made the state the hotbed for whiskey production. And American whiskey was born!

Fun Fact: Bourbon is America’s ONLY true spirit. Bourbon can be made in any state in the United States, but Kentucky Bourbon is the BEST!

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, all manner of goods and people used the rivers as transportation arteries through the country. As riverboats traveled down the Ohio River (it borders Kentucky), these boats picked up special cargo—American whiskey. As this whiskey traveled down the river to New Orleans, it naturally aged in the barrel and began acquiring a fine taste unique to American whiskey.

At the whiskey’s final destination, New Orleans, the patrons loved the whiskey so much they asked where it originated. The answer was Bourbon County, Kentucky. The name bourbon whiskey was born. With our history lesson behind us, let’s run through the five rules of bourbon. Then we’ll jump into our Bourbon Trail Tour recommendations.

Infographic titled "The Five Rules of Bourbon" detailing that bourbon must be made in the US, aged in new oak containers, distilled from 51% corn, not exceed 160 proof, and not enter the barrel above 125 proof.

The 5 Rules of Bourbon

  1. Bourbon must be made in the United States. Any state can make bourbon, but Kentucky is the best because of our climate, water, and local agricultural production to support the industry
  2. Bourbon must be aged in NEW, charred oak containers. The container doesn’t have to be a barrel, but oak barrels are the most practical container. And to be straight bourbon, the bourbon must be aged at least two years.
  3. Bourbon must be distilled from at least 51% corn.
  4. The whiskey must not be distilled over 160 proof and cannot enter the barrel higher than 125 proof. This will make more sense as you continue your bourbon adventure!
  5. Nothing can be added to the whiskey to change the profile EXCEPT water to lower the proof when necessary.
A group of people sit at a round table in a tour tasting area inside a distillery, with a large sign on the wall behind them.
Photo Credit: Our Campfire Unplugged.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Let’s Create Your Unique Bourbon Experience

During your bourbon adventures along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, you’ll witness firsthand time-honored traditions at work crafting this fine bourbon whiskey.

Fun Fact: All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

Bourbon Tour: Buffalo Trace, Woodford, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey

Discover Kentucky's bourbon-making history on a half-day tour. Choose three distilleries to visit from a list of over 15. Tour the facilities and taste bourbon.

  • Avoid the hassle of driving between tastings
  • Hassle-free transfers from your Louisville hotel
  • Upgrade to add a fourth distillery to your tour
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The Kentucky Bourbon Trail includes 18 official distilleries and 23 Craft Distilleries. The main difference is the size of the distillery. Bourbon Trail tours include large distilleries like Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Bardstown Bourbon Company, etc. While Craft Disillteries are smaller, niche distilleries like New Riff, Second Sight Spirits, Jeptha Creed, and Kentucky Artisans Distillery (contract distillery).

We recommend including at least one large distillery and one craft distillery. Although the distillation process is similar, the manner in which the distillers operate is often very different, which creates unique tasting profiles for the bourbon.

Interior of a barrel-themed distillery with wooden floors, exposed brick walls, a large central structure holding barrels, and a wooden barrel display at the back.
Photo Credit: Kentucky Tourism.

The Regions of Bourbon Country

The official Bourbon Trail starting location is the Frazier History Museum in downtown Louisville, KY. From there, the trail heads south towards Bardstown, KY, and surrounding areas, east towards Frankfort and Lexington, KY, north towards Northern Kentucky, or Western Kentucky near Mammoth Cave National Park.

All sections of the trail offer fantastic bourbon experiences. Along the southern and western sections, visitors travel through the rolling hills of Kentucky’s beautiful countryside. The eastern route showcases Kentucky’s breathtaking horse farms. Thoroughbred racing has a rich history in Kentucky, like bourbon! The northern bourbon trail is closest to all the big-city action of Cincinnati, Ohio

You can’t go wrong. Every direction is filled with the best bourbon distilleries in the world! Today’s recommendations will start closer to Cincinnati, OH, in Northern Kentucky, at the craft distillery New Riff Distilling. 

We encourage responsible drinking. Please don’t drink and drive. Use a designated driver, join a public group tour (transportation is provided), or hire a tour guide to create your unforgettable experience on the bourbon trail!

A person pours New Riff bourbon from a bottle into a glass on a rustic wooden surface.
Photo Credit: Kentucky Tourism.

New Riff Distilling: Celebrating 10 Years of Crafting Amazing Bourbon

New Riff Distilling is located in the heart of Newport, KY which makes it the perfect start to our Northern Kentucky bourbon trail adventure. Or an easy day trip from a long weekend in Cincinnati! 

Ken Lewis the founder of New Riff Distilling began with a mission “to someday be counted among the world’s great small distilleries”. New Riff’s signature bourbon is their Bottled-In Bond Without Chill Filtration, which meets the strict requirements outlined in the 1897 Bottled-In-Bond Act.

Bottled-in-bond protected both the American consumer and the distiller by establishing strict standards for making bourbon whiskey. Today, this bourbon-making process creates exceptional spirits for all to savor. 

Fun Fact: Bottled-in-bond means the bourbon whiskey was barrelled at 100 proof, distilled at a single distiller, Aged a minimum of four years, Aged in a bonded warehouse, and must use spirit distilled in one distilling season, like spring or fall.

Tours of New Riff showcase the most famous element of this distillery—its water source. Water is the base ingredient in bourbon. Mr. Lewis constructed the New Riff Distillery directly on top of a plentiful water aquifer, which filters the water through layers of limestone rock and keeps it a perfect 58 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Your tour guide leads visitors through the rich traditions of producing the sour mash, doubling, and aging their bourbon whiskey before sharing a tasting with the group. Tasting generally takes place around New Riff’s beautiful tasting bar.

We recommend the Bonded Tour to learn the full New Riff Distilling process or The Hits: Guided Tasting Experience for a fun 30-minute tasting session of the finest New Riff spirits! 

The Hits tasting session can be a perfect bookend to a day on the bourbon trail if you plan to head deeper into the heart of bourbon country for some of the larger distillery tours like Woodford Reserve and Wild Turkey!

Copper stills and equipment inside the Woodford Reserve Distillery with wooden floors and brick walls, separated by a rope barrier.
Photo Credit: Our Campfire Unplugged.

Woodford Reserve: The Distillery with Rich History Dating to 1812

Woodford Reserve is hands down the most stunning distillery along the eastern portion of the Bourbon Trail. The Bourbon Trail treats visitors to a fabulous drive along the rolling hills of the stone-lined old carriage roads of Woodford County, Kentucky. Woodford Reserve is tucked into the hillside with a nearby creek slowly passing by in the valley below. 

Several tour options are available at Woodford Reserve. We have enjoyed the Woodford Reserve Path to Flavor Tour several times. This 70-minute tour takes bourbon enthusiasts along the journey from grains to sour mash, past the beautiful copper pot stills into the rack houses, where the warm aromas of fine Kentucky Bourbon welcome you in, and lastly, to the private tasting room, where you learn to sip Woodford Reserve like a pro!

Two bottles of Woodford Reserve bourbon sit on a metal tray alongside a copper cup filled with a mint garnish and crushed ice, positioned on a wooden surface.
Photo Credit: Kentucky Tourism.

If your wallet can handle the VIP Master Distiller Tour Experience, we recommend enjoying one-on-one time with the Master Distillers who bring this fine spirit of Kentucky to life! Bourbon lovers are treated to a private tour of the lab where the Master Distiller crafts new expressions of Woodford Reserve.

Fun Fact: Maker’s Mark is the most beautiful distillery on the entire trail, especially at Christmas. 

A wooden serving plank labeled "Wild Turkey Bourbon" holds four partially-filled whiskey glasses, arranged linearly, on a wooden table.
Photo Credit: Our Campfire Unplugged.

Wild Turkey Distilling Co: Home of the Most Tenured Master Distiller in Kentucky

Jimmy Russell is the longest-tenured master distiller in the bourbon industry. He is entrusting his son to carry on the time-honored tradition of making Wild Turkey whiskey, which is some of the finest bourbon, ensuring consistency in the taste and flavor profile of this legendary brand.

Wild Turkey sits atop a massive bluff overlooking the Kentucky River. The visitor center and gift shop provide expansive views of the river and valley. We visited in the spring as the trees were coming back to life. We recommend you time your visit to capture the perfect fall foliage in late October!

This distillery is 100% a workhorse, producing enormous quantities of bourbon whiskey every day. Including Wild Turkey on your bourbon adventure gives visitors the chance to see, taste, and experience several styles of bourbon whiskey!

Enjoy Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail Responsibly

Customer tours of bourbon country are available from two Northern Kentucky experts: Tour With Us KY and Cincy Brew Bus. Both offer pre-planned tours. If you want a private experience, which we recommend, contact either to plan your unforgettable bourbon experience! Enjoy the spirit of Kentucky responsibly!

Infographic titled "How to Taste Bourbon" detailing steps to examine appearance/color, nose/aroma, flavor/taste, and finish of bourbon. Includes illustrations of bourbon bottle and a man tasting.

Bourbon Tasting: Sip Like a Pro!

When you walk into the tasting room at the end of the tour you may feel a little intimidated by the tables, Glencairn tasting glasses, and all the other guests “talking bourbon.” Don’t worry! Here’s what you need to know.

If you like the taste of the bourbon sample, it’s good. And if you don’t like the taste of the bourbon sample, then it’s not! It’s as simple as that. Our pallets are all different. I like spicier bourbon with a higher rye content. Some of my friends enjoy smoother, more mellow bourbon. 

A few thoughts to keep in mind before you head into the tasting room:

  • Appearance/Color – Look at the bourbon color in the glass. Younger bourbons are lighter amber, whereas older bourbon is typically a darker brown.
  • Nose/Aroma – Gently swirl the bourbon to coat the glass. Let the alcohol vapor evaporate. Then enjoy the sweet smell of this fine spirit of Kentucky.
  • Flavor/Taste—Take a very small sip to “wake up” your taste buds. Let the bourbon flow around your tongue and mouth. The second sip is when the flavors really come out!
  • Finish – This refers to how your mouth felt after swallowing the bourbon. Did the taste last with smooth tones, fruity, smoky, spicy, vanilla, or something else?

Insider Tip: A drop of water will “open up” the bourbon and release more flavors.

A person operates machinery for filling wooden barrels with liquid in a distillery. Several barrels are lined up and some are already filled.
Photo Credit: Our Campfire Unplugged.

Know Before You Go: FAQs About Visiting the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Before you hit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, let’s cover some of the most common questions that pop up. Whether you’re a bourbon newbie or a seasoned sipper, these FAQs will help you navigate your way through the rich history and delightful flavors of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

What is bourbon called that is not made in Kentucky?

Bourbon. Bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the United States, but it must be distilled and aged in Kentucky to be Kentucky bourbon.

A large, old brick building with green-trimmed windows and doors, a sign in the center, metal pipes overhead, and planters with flowers in front, under a partly cloudy sky.
Photo Credit: Kentucky Tourism.

What is the oldest bourbon company in Kentucky?

Buffalo Trace Distillery began distilling whiskey in 1755. The distillery has changed names several times, but it still makes wonderful bourbon in its historic building including Buffalo Trace, Blantons, Weller, Eagle Rare, and many more! Buffalo Trace is not officially on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Why does Tennessee produce whiskey and not bourbon?

There are two main differences. First, Tennessee whiskey must be distilled in Tennessee. Second, it must be filtered through maple charcoal before aging.

What does “aging” bourbon mean?

Aging bourbon is when it is placed in a new charred oak container (usually a barrel) and stored in a rack house. While in the rack house, Mother Nature takes over. The weather changes cause the bourbon to expand into the charred oak and contract. This process gives the bourbon its color and flavor!

A city skyline with tall buildings is seen behind a large bridge spanning over a body of water under a blue sky.
Photo Credit: YayImages.

What else should I do in Kentucky?

Kentucky is waiting to be explored. It is home to the world’s longest known cave system, Mammoth Cave National Park, one of two moonbows (lunar rainbows) in the world, and the most natural arches east of the Mississippi River at Red River Gorge Geological Area! Its largest city, Louisville, KY, has a thriving food and craft beer scene!

Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Embrace the Spirit of Kentucky

From the rolling hills of Woodford County to the thriving city life of Newport, KY, each distillery tells a unique story of heritage and craftsmanship. Whether you’re a seasoned bourbon aficionado or a curious newcomer, the trail offers an experience that resonates with the spirit of Kentucky—warm, inviting, and rich with tradition.

As you plan your adventure, remember to savor each moment, from the first sniff of oak-aged whiskey to the last sip of your preferred blend. Above all, travel responsibly, ensuring that your journey through Bourbon Country is memorable for all the right reasons. I hope this guide inspires you to explore the beauty and bounty of Kentucky’s bourbon culture. Cheers to discovering your perfect pour!

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