Last month, I told you all about the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and our awesome experience driving through the state and taking in all of the bourbon distilleries. Today’s more of a “highlights” post; maybe for those of you who won’t have the time to complete the whole tour and only want to hit one or two locations, or for the ones who are looking for a certain atmosphere or aspect of the experience.
All nine distilleries are worth visiting at least once, but if I had to categorize some of my favorites, here’s what it would look like:
Best Tasting Experience — Woodford Reserve
As someone who rarely sips on whiskey and certainly never without adding something to it, I had never done a real tasting before. Now that I’ve completed the Bourbon Trail, I feel much more confident in my tasting abilities, and in my opinion, Woodford Reserve’s tasting experience was most helpful in showing me how to detect the different notes in the nose and recognize how food can enhance the subtle flavors of whiskey. Or maybe it’s just that it was the first distillery to give us a bourbon ball as part of the experience!
Most Hands-On Tour — Jim Beam
Jim Beam has this whole tour thing down to a science! Not only are their facilities top-of-the-line (and huge!), but they do a great job of involving their tour participants in different steps of the bourbon-distilling process. One guy got to hammer down the bung in a new barrel of bourbon, while another group helped open up a finished barrel for tasting (and we all got to keep some old bungs). The coolest part of the whole experience was the opportunity to fill our own bottles, which you could, of course, purchase in the gift shop, and watch them go down the assembly line. Despite the large scale of Jim Beam, they still go a great job of involving their visitors and making them feel like a part of the process.
Most Unique Tour — Evan Williams
The Evan Williams Experience is unlike any other tour on the trail because it focuses more on the life of Evan Williams, a Kentucky settler who created the first commercial bourbon distillery in America. According to our tour guide, it has been dubbed “the Disneyland of Bourbon,” and I completely understand why: impressive sets to walk through, a historical film reel with you as part of the action, and a flair for storytelling. But for a group of Bourbon Trail-ers who were getting a little weary of the normal “here’s what makes bourbon bourbon” spiel, it couldn’t have been more welcome. Plus there was still a tasting mixed into the tour, which I don’t believe they’ve introduced into “It’s a Small World” as of yet.
Most Welcoming Atmosphere — Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey just oozed Southern hospitality to me. The gift shop workers were friendly and honest about which of their bourbons were the most bang for your buck, and they also had a resident cat. I named him “Honey” after my favorite of Wild Turkey’s bourbon varieties, so if you make it to this distillery do me a favor and help me get it to stick! Perhaps the most downhome part of the whole experience was before the tour when Spencer and I struck up a conversation with a very nice, older gentleman who we soon found out was Jimmy Russell, the Master Distiller of the entire operation. He was even nice enough to sign a bottle for us, and we sprung for the smallest nice bottle of whiskey that we could!
Most Charming Setting — Bulleit
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is full of scenic views and historic buildings, but there was something about Bulleit’s ambience that put it above all the others to me. Maybe it’s because Bulleit was only recently reopened as a distillery, and it hasn’t had time to “modernize” yet, but the little cooperage house and big antique rick houses were spot on in my mind as what an old distillery should be.
Best Overall Distillery — Maker’s Mark
The bourbon, the tour guide (shoutout to Alainna!), the historic buildings, the atmosphere, the tasting experience, the gift shop… Maker’s Mark just hit the mark in every single category. (Bad pun, I know.) It managed to feel welcoming and unpretentious without sacrificing the level of the tour and the reputation of the whiskey. If you can only visit one distillery in the entire state of Kentucky, Maker’s Mark would get my vote time and time again. I learned a lot, had some unique experiences, and it was just so fun. Bravo, Maker’s!
Obviously, these rankings are all my own opinions. Do you agree, or would you consider adding some different distilleries as the best of Kentucky Bourbon Trail?