10 Essential Experiences for your Bourbon Bucket List

Forty years ago, bourbon was the blue-collar worker’s drink, a back-shelf brown spirit ignored by Scotch fans and overlooked by vodka cocktail sippers.

In 2017, “Bourbon Tourism” is a term touted often and loudly by any Kentucky convention and visitors bureau within a canon shot of a bourbon distillery. Kentucky brown booze is big now because it’s really good, (mostly) affordable, and it’s ‘Merican! People don’t want just bourbon any longer, they want the stories behind it and will fly and drive to see where it’s made and who makes it. They want to experience its production and the culture of large events springing up to celebrate the country’s native spirit. And they want to taste the rarest selections housed and hidden for decades in dusty glass—no matter where they have to go to acquire it.

If you’re a serious bourbon fan, you’ve got a bucket list of spots you want to hit. And if you don’t, allow us to recommend a few in the following lines.

Toasting over an Elijah Craig barrel pick (image via Steve Coomes/The Whiskey Wash)

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival: Held in Bardstown, Kentucky, during the third week of September, this event draws some 50,000 visitors to a town of 13,000. The six-day festival includes a lineup of nearly 60 events running the gamut from no-cost family fun to pricey black-tie blowouts. There’s something for everyone here.

But we recommend this experience mostly because it’s a taste of the culture of bourbon: the people who make it, sell it, sip it, and travel a long way to celebrate it. The common thread of whiskey trickling through any KBF event will yield more friends than you can count or recall—partly because you’re drinking whiskey the whole time.

The 2017 festival is scheduled for Sept. 11-17. Click here for the event lineup and tickets.

Kentucky Bourbon Affair: Held (typically) in the second month of every June, this four-year-old event has grown exponentially in a short time. Described by organizers as “the ultimate Bourbon fantasy camp,” the KBA’s dozens of events are hosted by Kentucky’s distillers—sometimes at their distilleries, other times off premise. The KBA is interactive, hands-on, educational and celebratory, and sometimes all at once. Sessions range from tuning your palate to pair food and whiskey, to sampling barrels in rickhouses, to clay pigeon shooting with master distillers, to seminars on bourbon science, to elegant dinners served on the lawn of historic distilleries … and so much more. Click here to see this incredible lineup.

And there’s a bonus! Though not officially connected to the KBA, Whisky Live Louisville, a massive tasting event, is held on the final Saturday of KBA and at its host hotel.

A private bourbon barrel pick: It’s one thing to tour a whiskey rickhouse, but it’s a completely different experience to thieve liquid from those casks, drink it at barrel strength, and chose which will be bottled as your own. Or, more likely, to be divided between a group. Depending on the age and the angels’ share, you’ll get an average yield of 150 bottles, multiplied by, say, $35 to $55 per bottle, and you’re looking at dropping between $5,000 to $8,000—and much more for older whiskeys.

The ultimate barrel pick really isn’t a single-barrel pick: it’s the Maker’s Mark Private Select program, where, as described in this story, your group customizes the secondary maturation of a barrel of Maker’s 46 by choosing a combination of unique flavoring staves. The price for this extravagance is around $15,000, but the experience is unparalleled, and the whiskey you create will be mind-blowing.

Note: While nearly every major distillery does such private selections, the soaring demand for Bourbon has reduced the amount of private selections allowed. So schedule well ahead.

Jack Rose Dining Saloon: Yep, Washington, D.C., way off the Kentucky campus. At last check, owner Bill Thomas had 2,687 different whiskeys on the walls of his establishment, many of which are rare bourbons. He visits Kentucky at least monthly to shop for “old dustys” that sell for premium prices in D.C. Chances are strong that he has a better bourbon collection than any Kentucky-based collector, and it’s all there for the drinking if you’ve got the time and money.

A Buffalo Trace tour inside the rickhouse (image via Steve Coomes/The Whiskey Wash)

Distillery tours; at least two old, and at least two new: To get a good look into modern bourbon tourism, educate yourself with a look in to the present and the past. Here are some options for doing both.

New: Angel’s Envy. Why? Because it’s gorgeous and arguably the epitome of a working, tourism-centered distillery. Plus, it’s in downtown Louisville and within walking distance of many great restaurants, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, and what will become Rabbit Hole and Old Forester distilleries next year. There’s a beautiful bar at which you can linger with cocktails, too.

New: Jeptha Creed. Why? Because it’s an honest-to-God “ground to glass” distillery. Also beautifully designed and tourism centered, it rests on the edge of the farm where the Nethery family, who owns Jeptha Creed, grows their heirloom Bloody Butcher Corn used in its mashbills. (Ever seen a purple mash? The color comes from the red corn.) Visit in May and you’ll even find master distiller Joyce Nethery driving a massive tractor pulling a corn planter across the family’s fields. That it’s out in quiet countryside is a plus as well, a perfect place to sip cocktails and have a light meal.

Old: Maker’s Mark: Why? Because you won’t find a prettier, more polished, every-blade-of-grass-in-place Bourbon distillery than this one. It’s Bourbon Disneyland and Bill Samuel’s, Jr. is its Walt Disney. None of its three massive copper column stills bears a speck of patina; all are polished to a mirror finish. The banks of a creek bisecting the bucolic campus are lined with stone walls. Its Whisky Cellar, opened in 2016, is located in the base of a limestone hill, where the Earth’s year-round, 51-degree temperature is ideal for low-loss aging of its Maker’s 46 and Private Select barrels. A dramatic Dale Chihuly blown glass installation makes for an ideal photo op, and a meal at the brand-new Star Hill Provisions restaurant on campus will complete your experience. (Note: To get to Maker’s from Louisville, you have to pass Jim Beam, Heaven Hill’s visitor center and Willett Distillery, all of which are worth visiting. And rare bottles can be bought at Willett and Heaven Hill.)

Old: Buffalo Trace. Why? Because its Hardhat Tour is extensive, detailed loud, steamy, and gritty. Your shoes will be veiled in grain dust after walking the many lanes, stairs, and hallways to see where the whiskey is made here. The highly industrial campus also manages to be lovely and haunting at the same time. (Note: Just 20-30 minutes from BT are Four Roses Distillery, Wild Turkey Distillery and Woodford Reserve Distillery, all of which are great sites.)

About the author

Steve Coomes

Steve Coomes is an award-winning restaurant industry veteran turned food writer. In his 26-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. In 2013, he published his first book, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke." A past restaurant critic for Louisville magazine, he pens features for Edible Louisville, Food & Dining Magazine and ghostwrites for multiple clients.

  • Brian Lanich

    After taking it this past spring The Estate Tour at the Barton Distillery is definitely a Bucket Lister. Having taken every tour at Buffalo Trace multiple times I have to say The Sazerac Company has taken everything they’ve learned at Buffalo Trace and perfected it in this one tour at Barton Distillery.