Riding the Bourbon Trail
The Bourbon Trail draws about half a million visitors per year to the rural area that stretches from Louisville to Lexington. The industry, which dates back to the late 1700s, has survived time, Prohibition and a handful of natural disasters, from tornados to floods. One of the most resilient distilleries is Buffalo Trace, which is also the oldest continuously operating distillery in bourbon country. It's located on sprawling grounds with warehouses filled with thousands of barrels and the centerpiece: a 60,000-gallon, four-story-tall still. Buffalo Trace bottles 3,600 bottles every day, from the signature Buffalo Trace and Blanton’s Single Barrel to the sought-after Pappy Van Winkle.
From one of the oldest distilleries to one of the youngest: The Woodford Reserve brand has only been produced for six years, although the property has housed a functioning distillery since 1780. Unlike Buffalo Trace’s wide selection, Woodford Reserve only produces its signature Distiller’s Select bourbon, using its unique corn-heavy mash that is fermented in cypress tanks, and the innovative Double Oaked, a rich and sweet dessertlike bourbon. The crown jewel of the property is the new visitor center, which opened in early April with a glass-encased tasting room, copper-accented fireplace and a cafe with a menu created by chef-in-residence and James Beard Award Nominee Ouita Michel.
In addition to the larger-production distilleries, the area is dotted with smaller craft distilleries. Willett is a must-see on the trail, with its famous copper pot still and spring-fed lake. Although the family’s distilling roots dates back to the Civil War, the current generation has been distilling since 2012 when siblings Britt and Drew Kulsveen restored the family distillery as well as opened a gift shop and tasting room. The distillery may be small, processing 18 to 21 barrels per day into bottles that are hand-dipped in wax and adorned with handwritten labels, but it has big plans, including the release of a 7-year rye aged in orange-liqueur barrels as well as a bed-and-breakfast that will hopefully open next year.
A hands-on bourbon experience can be found back in Louisville at Moonshine University. The school, which is held in a former auto garage that was converted into a classroom and microdistillery, teaches crash courses in everything from whiskey to rum, vodka, gin and absinthe. Professionals can learn about the process of opening a distillery with the school’s “Headmaster of Liquor Studies” Colin Blake and guest master distillers. Novices can partake in the University’s Summer Bourbon Series with courses in bourbon making, bourbon history and cooking with bourbon.