“We should go to Kentucky,” she said. “For the bourbon.” And that was it, that was all the convincing I needed. A few months later we were on our way, heading west on I-64 toward Louisville, a full schedule of distillery tours, bourbon tastings and dinner reservations ahead of us.
DAY 1 || TRAVEL, ANGEL’S ENVY & PROOF ON MAIN
We’re both very determined travelers, so we left super early on a Thursday morning, stopping for food along the way at a taxidermy-bedecked BBQ place before rolling into Louisville with just enough time to check into our AirBnB and fluff our hair before our first bourbon appointment at Angel’s Envy.
I’d visited Louisville a few years before and was generally familiar with the basics of bourbon. I knew the ABCs, that bourbon must be American-made, that it must be aged in new oak barrels and that it had to be made of at least 51% corn. A for America, B for barrel, C for corn. Roger, got it.
This was my travel companion’s first foray into Bourbon Country, USA, and as we talked on the way down, we both declared we wanted the same thing, to learn more about bourbon, especially if learning involved tasting.
We walked into Angel’s Envy just a few minutes before the start of our 4 p.m. tour, grabbed a complimentary box of water and set off, learning the family history behind the company, exploring the distillery and then, finally, getting our first taste of bourbon.
We were giddy with excitement by this point, both feeling like we’d finally reached the real start of our bourbon adventure. We learned to take a tiny sip of bourbon first and swish it around for a few seconds before taking a proper sip to neutralize the burn, we learned to open our mouths a little bit while smelling the bourbon and mostly we just confirmed that we really like bourbon.
After that, we set out into the night, getting a pretzel and a beer across the street at Against the Grain before hopping our way through Louisville drinking cocktails until we got to Proof on Main, a quirky restaurant and bar inside the 21c Museum Hotel. You’ll know it by the giant gold David positioned out front. (If there’s anything that gets our attention, it’s street penis.) I’d heard about this place the last time I was in town, but didn’t remember anything about it, other than that it came highly recommended. It was a highlight of the trip, with a perfect bourbon flight and one of the most beautiful cheese plates I’ve enjoyed outside my own home.
DAY 1 || ABE LINCOLN, WILLETT & JIM BEAM
You should know I’m incapable of going anywhere without checking out a nearby national park unit, so we started our second day with a visit to the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park.
“This is really neat,” my friend said. “I’m not sure I would have made it here without you.” I’m like the Grinch, every time someone tells me something like this, my heart grows two sizes.
After the park, we had a quick lunch in Bardstown, the bourbon capital of of the world, before doing a short tour and tasting at Willett, a family-owned, small-batch distillery. I’ve been a fan of Willett since a friend brought a bottle when he visited a few years ago, and was excited for the chance to learn more about the brand.
Angel’s Envy laid the foundation of our bourbon knowledge, and since we’d opted for a shorter tour at Willett, it felt like an advanced course, skipping over the more basic bits of bourbon creation and going more in depth into the process and how flavors develop inside the barrel. Also, there was a cat.
Next, it was on to Jim Beam, which is the world’s top-selling bourbon. I don’t drink a lot of Beam, but Beam is a big name in the bourbon industry, they produce a staggering amount of bourbon every year, they’ve got a handful of other labels under their umbrella and the place is iconic. If you only visit a few distilleries in Kentucky, I’d encourage you to put Jim Beam on your list.
Visiting Willett and Beam on the same day provided a stark contrast. They’re very, very different, these two operations, with Beam housing as many barrels in just one of their rick-houses as Willett has in all of theirs combined.
After bottling our own bottle of bourbon, tasting some bourbon and ending our tour, we headed back to Louisville for a drink at Bourbon’s Bistro, dinner at the Fat Lamb and a night cap at Lilly’s Bistro before calling it a early night.
DAY 3 || WOODFORD, FOUR ROSES & LEXINGTON
I like to say that time isn’t real inside of airports, that you can drink whenever you want to drink, at 8 a.m. or 10 p.m. or any point in between. In planning this trip, I decided the same is true for Kentucky, and that’s why we found ourselves at Woodford Reserve at 9 a.m.
“It’s breakfast bourbon,” I said, as we wandered around. Woodford is beautiful, all lush lawns and historic buildings. They talk a lot about history here, too, about how the place is a historic landmark, about how the barrel run dates back to 1934. According to my travel companion, it was one of the best distilleries we visited, mostly because it is so picture perfect and because we did our tasting in the warehouse amidst thousands of barrels of bourbon.
Next, we headed to Four Roses, our fifth and final distillery. By this point, we felt pretty confident about our bourbon knowledge. We’d heard all about the ABCs of bourbon on each tour we’d taken, we’d refined our bourbon tasting techniques on tours and in a handful of bars and by the time we reached Four Roses, we felt very smart on all things bourbon. But, there was still more learn. Four Roses has their own history and that’s probably my favorite part of any distillery tour, the part where they tell me about how they came to be. At Four Roses, you first watch a short movie about their history, then you head out for a tour of facilities with an ill-fitting headphone set that allegedly helps you hear the tour guide better. They let you stick your fingers into the fermentation tanks here which delighted me and the bourbon was delicious.
We spent the rest of our day in Lexington, popping into West Sixth Brewing for a few beers, then wandering around downtown. We popped into Bourbon on Rye for a few pre-dinner drinks and were delighted by the patrons and the bar staff who gave us some of the best things we drank all weekend. After that, we ate dinner at Middle Fork Kitchen Bar and called it an early night in order to get some rest before the return trip the next day. I guess this is what you’d call adulthood, that thing where you make responsible choices the day before traveling a few hundred miles across America.
WHAT IT COSTS TO TOUR DISTILLERIES IN KENTUCKY
Prices can vary pretty widely from distillery to distillery, from free tastings to “experiences” that will run you a few hundred dollars. Here’s what a tour and tasting will cost you at the places we visited:
- ANGEL’S ENVY: $20 for a one-hour tour & tasting
- WILLETT: $18 for the 30 minute “Seasoned to Perfection” tour & tasting
- JIM BEAM: $14 for a 90 minute tour & tasting
- WOODFORD RESERVE: $20 for a one-hour tour & tasting
- FOUR ROSES: $10 for a one-hour tour & tasting
PRO (MILITARY) TIP: Most of the distilleries we visited offered complimentary tours and tastings to military members, and those who didn’t at least offered a sizable discount. If they don’t show a military discount on their website, be sure to call – both Angel’s Envy and Jim Beam gave me complimentary tours over the phone.
5 TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL BOURBON ADVENTURES
- Make reservations, especially if you’re distillery-hopping on a weekend. Tours have a limited number of available spots, especially at the smaller distilleries, and some only let you tour and taste if you’ve made an advance reservation.
- If your tour guide tells you to taste something by dipping your finger into a glass or vat of future bourbon, do it. Sure, there are germs in the world, but we’re tasting booze here, kids, so calm the fuck down.
- If you’re a member of our Armed Forces, rock your military discount for free or discounted tours and tastings at most distilleries.
- Vary the type of distilleries you visit and tours you take. You can only sit through so many one-hour tours that cover the same basics of bourbon before your attention span takes a hiatus, so mix it up. Go to one of the big distilleries, like Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam, then pop into a smaller craft distillery to learn (and taste) the difference of how they operate.
- Drink at the bars. There are some incredible bourbon bars in both Louisville and Lexington, with top-notch, super-knowledgeable bar staff that can guide you to the bourbon of your dreams and help you learn more about your palate.
(Also, drink responsibly.)