Lots of 'New to Do' on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail - The Whiskey Wash

Lots of ‘New to Do’ on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail and the number of fans using it are growing so quickly that a name change to the Bourbon Highway seems inevitable. Last year, a record 1.4 million people visited all Kentucky Distillers’ Association related distilleries, while craft distilleries accounted for 340,000 visits, another record. Overall, visits have increased 370 percent over the last decade.

And, since we need to be fully and factually correct, these numbers only represent visits to distilleries that are Bourbon Trail members. Yes, while the Bourbon Trail sounds like a colloquialism, it’s a trademarked name of a group that doesn’t include every Kentucky distillery. So to get back to the numbers, add a few hundred-thousand more visits to non-members Buffalo Trace, Barton 1792 and Castle & Key to get an even better look at the crowds touring Kentucky distilleries.

Of course, there is and will be lots of brown water for visitors to drink for many years to come. In 2018, 1.7 million barrels of whiskey were filled (the highest total since 1972), which drove the total number of barrels in storage to 8.1 million. And while 7.5 million of those hold bourbon, distillers still talk of tight supplies.

But what’s just as interesting as the distillery boom is its effect on other industries, particularly restaurants, bars and museums. Depending on where you visit, distillery tours last just an hour or two, leaving visitors with plenty of time to venture out for food and drink. What follows is a look at what’s new at distilleries along the trail, as well as mentions of must-visit places nearby.

Louisville:

Michter's Fort Nelson Distillery

Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery (image via Michter’s)

Old Forester Distillery: The Whiskey Row building where this distillery operates was where the brand was headquartered in the late 1800s. The highlight of the tour here is its working cooperage. Yep, they raise and char the barrels right before your eyes. Stop for a cocktail at George’s Bar while you’re there.

Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery: Newly opened in January, Michter’s spent untold millions rehabbing the famed and falling-apart Fort Nelson building. The makeover is miraculous and the tour experience innovative and unique. But The Bar at Fort Nelson is the show stopper. Not surprisingly, its New York ownership group created a Big Apple bar experience. You gotta drink there.

Rabbit Hole Distillery: An architectural masterpiece, this elegant modern structure virtually turns its distillery into an art gallery. For now, it lacks a public bar, but tours end with tastings. It’s London Dry Gin is a knockout.

Recommended bars and restaurants nearby

ALEX&NDER: This sleek, modern bar is located within Copper & Kings American Brandy Distillery. The base spirits of nearly every cocktail here are sourced from the distillery’s line of brandies and gins. What its bartenders do with those is simply amazing and worth the trip if you’re a cocktail fan. The bar also has a rooftop patio that provides a gorgeous view of the city’s skyline.

Hell or High Water: Located conveniently on the backside of Whiskey Row, this hip speakeasy is loaded with whiskey choices and superb cocktails in a relaxing space.

Frankfort:

The revived Castle & Key distillery (image via Steve Coomes/The Whiskey Wash)

Buffalo Trace: When friends ask me for distillery tour suggestions, my answer is another question: “Do you prefer a gritty tour or a pretty tour?” Buffalo Trace is on the gritty list since it’s industrial in every respect, which is part of the thrill. Fermentation for a special line of whiskey is underway in its Bourbon Pompeii exhibit, which is worth seeing on its own. And since all tours are free, the price is right. Make sure to reserve a spot for the Hard Hat tour. Fully gritty, I promise.

Castle & Key: This grand restoration of the grandiose Old Taylor Distilling Co. continues with the opening of Taylorton Station and its Counter 17 Bar. Taylorton Station was the eponymously named depot where E.H. Taylor’s private train line dropped his guests for parties in the late 1800s. By reservation only you can enjoy The Curated Cocktail Experience which includes a 45-minute instructional session on Castle & Key’s gin and making cocktails with it. (Once its brown spirits mature, they’ll be on the list, too.) If you just want a cocktail while at the distillery, stop at Counter 17’s window, where one can also buy beer, wine, meats and cheeses to enjoy.

Recommended bars and restaurants nearby

The Stave: Located 5 minutes from Castle & Key and 10 minutes from Woodford Reserve, this  casual cafe is an excellent stop for modernized Kentucky grub and cocktails. Don’t skip the pimento cheese grit bites.

Firehouse Sandwich Shop: This sandwich spot just opened on the Buffalo Trace campus. Talk about convenient!

Rick’s White Light Diner: A legendary Frankfort restaurant where Cajun food is a specialty. Yep, Cajun food. Get the crawfish pie.

Lexington:

No distillery news to mention here, but check out the must-visit side stops below. Know, too, that Lexington is just a short drive from Frankfort or Lawrenceburg, and just a great place to visit. Downtown especially.

Justins’ House of Bourbon: Owned by collectors Justin Sloan and Justin Thompson, this place is the only freestanding liquor store in the country that buys and sells vintage spirits. The collection of old whiskey here is amazing and can be bought for jaw-dropping prices. It has a tasting bar and a private tasting room for groups, plus a sizeable modern liquor selection for package sales.

The good news for Louisvillians is a second JHOB is scheduled to open there this summer.

Recommended bars and restaurants nearby

Corto y Lima: Fantastic Latin-American restaurant with a terrific vibe and buzz. Not the place for a bourbon experience, which might be the break you need from it. But the Latin cocktails and superb food will blow you away.

OBC Kitchen: Want a whiskey experience at a restaurant? Go here. Food’s solid, but the whiskey options are the real show. More than 500 American whiskey choices and hundreds more from around the world. Check out this exhaustive list. Servers and bartenders are incredibly knowledgeable and helpful in creating a great drinking experience.

Lawrenceburg:

Nothing new in this town’s two super-star distilleries, Four Roses and Wild Turkey. But while you’re in Kentucky, keep an eye out for the Russell’s Reserve private picked bottles (usually high $50 range). These bottles hold some of Eddie Russell’s best work as a picker of honey barrels. Watch out for Four Roses private picks as well. These bottles are incredibly unique one-offs (usually high $60 range). And while I’m at it, I’ll throw in Knob Creek private picks as well (incredible bargains in the $40 range). Many of these picks are 13 to 15 years old.

Editorial alert: To me, these single barrel picks should be counted among the unicorns of the whiskey world. And Kentucky is awash in them.

Bardstown:

The new Lux Row Distillers (image via Lux Row Distillers)

After the openings of Bardstown Bourbon Co. and Lux Row Distillers in the past two years, a rickhouse building boom at nearly every distillery in Nelson County is where the labor is focused. Heaven Hill is building a 56,000-barrel rickhouse every quarter at its Barrel Preserve in Cox’s Creek, and it has plans to buy additional land to build even more of these massive warehouses costing $7 million each. The company also just announced a $17.5 million expansion of its Bourbon Heritage Center, which will be completed in 2020.

Despite its struggles with a collapsed rick house last year and damage done to a pair of fermentation tanks this year, Barton 1792 is doing well. It’s arguably my favorite distillery tour because, like its Sazerac sibling Buffalo Trace, it’s a “gritty” tour and it’s also free. I highly recommend making reservations for the 2-hour Estate Tour for four people.

If you’re in the mood for whiskey history, visit the Oscar Getz Museum’s new Prohibition exhibit. It’s a really well curated experience.

Restaurants and bars to visit

Bottled & Bond Kitchen & Bar is the swanky-modern restaurant and bar at Bardstown Bourbon Co. You’ll find modern riffs on comfort foods, a super selection of vintage whiskeys and great cocktails. (The distillery isn’t doing public tours yet.)

Star Hill Provisions: Nearby in Loretto, at Maker’s Mark, chef Newman Miller has created Star Hill Provisions restaurant. Miller is a tremendous talent in anyone’s kitchen, but to have a guy like this at distillery restaurant is unusual. Regardless of whether you tour Maker’s Mark–the prettiest on the “pretty” tours list–try to make time to visit the restaurant, which is open daily for lunch. Cocktails are good, too.

Whiskey to watch for: If you’re headed to Maker’s, you’ll be traveling down Loretto Road where Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center and Willett Distillery are located. If you’re bottle hunting, stop at both.