Inside the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

October 14, 2017

Kentucky Bourbon tourism is booming. Almost one million distillery visitors took part in the Kentucky Bourbon Trail program in 2015. Distiller spoke with the program’s director, Adam Johnson, for an insider’s look at bourbon tourism and his personal recommendations for getting the most out of a trip to Kentucky.

Inside The Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Distiller: Could you give us an overview of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® programs?

Johnson: The Kentucky Bourbon Trail started in 1999 and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour is now going on it’s third year. Both are designed to get visitors behind the scenes to learn more about their favorite brands and learn their histories, learn the techniques, learn about the [bourbon] category in general but also what makes them all unique.

Distiller: How has the introduction of the Craft Tour changed the experience?

Johnson: The craft guys have been a good bookend to the experience because Freddie Noe at Beam – he’s traveling the world more promoting the brand – and he may not be there as much as, say, Paul and Mary Beth at MB Roland. You’re probably going to find the owners and the head distillers [from the Craft Tour] a little bit more frequently.

That’s not to say Jimmy Russell isn’t still sitting in his chair signing bottles at Wild Turkey! But you’re just going to see a bit more of that on the Craft Tour side.

Distiller: You were hired into this role five years ago. What changes have you seen over that time?

Johnson: When I first started, people coming to the bourbon trail [were] oftentimes more casual like, “oh, I’m in Kentucky and Kentucky’s known for bourbon so I’m gonna go hit Woodford.”

Now it’s, “This is my bucket list. This is something that I’ve dreamed about coming to do.”

Kentucky Bourbon Trail: Beam StatuePhoto Credit: Kentucky Distillers’ Association

What to know before you head out

Distiller: What do you recommend for people planning their trip?

Johnson: First of all, allocate enough time. If I had one mantra it’s ‘Don’t feel rushed.’ I want people to take at least three days—four is better – and move around a little bit.

Hit up a couple of tours and hang out a little bit. That’s why the rocking chairs are there; just hang out a little bit and sip on something.

I like it when people can see our big anchor cities. Obviously Louisville, our biggest, and then Lexington and you can do that horseshoe down to some of our smaller communities like Shepardsville and Bardstown and Lebanon and Danville.

And then if you have a little extra time you can pop up to northern Kentucky – it has so many cool new distilleries. New Riff, Second Sight, Old Pogue, Boone County.

You’re going to be on the road a lot but you really get to see a lot of beautiful Kentucky on some of those roads. That’s one of the top three reasons [visitors] come. They love the scenic drive – it’s the horse farms and the woods. I just did the trip through the Western Kentucky swing and it is beautiful there, too.

Take in other things that Kentucky is great for. I could go on forever about our other attractions but we try to boil it down a little bit on our trip planner page.

Four Roses Barrels: Kentucky Bourbon TrailPhoto Credit: Kentucky Distillers’ Association

Make sure to plan ahead

Distiller: Any other recommendations?

Johnson: Be prepared to take advantage of those visitors center releases, too!

Not that I’m trying to get you to buy more bourbon – honestly I don’t mind if you do that! – but there’s some really cool [barrel] picks. I was just down at Maker’s and saw the Private Select that they have up there. Four Roses has all kinds of special picks. There’s stuff at Beam that they can’t get at other places. Heaven Hill’s always got something unique. I mean I could go on forever!

Don’t you want to make your friends jealous when you go back and say, “This is what I got!”?

Distiller: Last question. What do people tell you is their number one regret that they didn’t do while they’re here?

Johnson: Keep an eye on that calendar. Sometimes our distilleries might be in shut down for a couple of weeks—especially during the summer.

Do a little research to make sure – depending on when you’re coming in – everything is there that you want to see. Maybe you won’t see fermentation at Maker’s Mark that day because they may not be in production at that time. So go to multiple distilleries to see everything.

Most of that information should be on our website—or just hit us up on social media.

Maker's Mark: Kentucky Bourbon TrailPhoto Credit: Kentucky Distillers’ Association

Much more to come

Distiller: Anything else you want to mention?

Johnson: I’ll just say we’ve got more stuff coming. Angel’s Envy just opened up. There’s always something new and even if you’ve been here before I guarantee you we got something new for you.

Whether you’re new to bourbon or you’re a seasoned collector, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail will make for a great trip!

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