Bourbon and beyond

Every Kentuckian shares a strong connection with bourbon and distilleries are finding ways to make the spirit more accessible to everyone, finds Rashmi Narayan.

Paid partnership with Kentucky Department of Tourism

Hitting the Trail

Rashmi Narayan learns about the progressive and diverse Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

“Bourbon represents more than just a drink—it embodies a rich tapestry of culture, tradition, and community. A culture that I’ve often felt I have one foot in and one foot out of,” Missy Spears, Executive Director of Queer Kentucky, tells me. “Since Bourbon is often the centrepiece of social gatherings, whether it’s a fundraiser, family barbecue, or a night out with friends, it feels as deeply intertwined with Kentucky’s history as our own,”.

It’s clear to me now that Kentucky’s residents are proud of their bourbon heritage – from tales during Prohibition to mixologists today bringing a new take on the old-fashioned (usually made with sugar and Angostura bitters).

As bourbon is such a key part of the state’s economy, it also plays a recurring role in the state’s cuisine. I came across bourbon in many restaurants in all the good things – steak marinade, ice-cream and even in coffee, which many cafes cheekily refer to as a ‘breakfast old-fashioned.’

Many bourbon drinkers head to Kentucky as they are enticed by the legend of Pappy Van Winkle, a highly desired drink made even more famous by a famous heist. But local Kentuckians are perfectly content drinking a dram of Blanton’s, made in Frankfort, or Elijah Craig, distilled in Bardstown, after a long day’s work. 

Feeling overwhelmed by all the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail, I decided to start with Kentucky’s first licensed distiller Evan Williams where I learnt that the distillery utilises the same style of pot stills as the early Bourbon-making days. 

After walking past Prohibition-era exhibits, where pharmacy receipts prescribing ‘whiskey for a fever’ are displayed, I headed to the top floor here for a tasting session with ‘Whiskey’ Jean Michalak, a Kentucky native who taught me the Kentucky Chew

“Don’t drink it yet, swirl it around your mouth and let the bourbon settle. Make friends with it first,” she says. This is a clever method to introduce anyone to the art of drinking bourbon, as many find it harsh on the nose and are easily put off by the distinct whiff of ethanol.

There’s also something I heard often in distilleries – “All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon.” This is what many tours lead with as they go about educating the masses on what makes a good bourbon, right from its maturation to its terminology.

The best part of it is that there’s not a single tour that’s boring. Each distillery makes an effort to involve visitors.

I managed to dip my own bottle in the iconic red wax of Maker’s Mark as a part of my tour, and at the brilliant barrel houses in swanky distilleries like Lux Row in Bardstown, I got to use the ‘whiskey thief’ – the tool that master distillers use to extract whiskey.

As I drive towards Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, the first sight that catches my eye is its impressive overhead water tank. The distillery sits on 440 acres of green space and countless barrels of whiskies.

Before I embark on a historic journey in bourbon making, I stumble upon the ‘Bourbon Pompeii’ site, right by the Kentucky River. This is where the ruins of the OFC Distillery were discovered; here, archaeologist Nick Laracuente tells me that he is still supervising and discovering new artefacts in many of Kentucky’s lost distilleries.

“I’m going to take you to my playground. I started playing here when I was five years old,” says Freddie Johnson, one of the VIP distillery tour managers at Buffalo Trace, whose grandfather was also a friend to the moonshiners in the area.

When I ask what would make drinking bourbon blasphemous in Kentucky, Freddie says with a smile, “There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy whiskey. We’re not snobbish about our bourbon. You see, that’s the beauty of it – for everyone to enjoy however they want to. Add ice or water or anything you want, it’s your whiskey to be cherished after all.”

Attending the Kentucky Bourbon Festival last September, I felt like I had entered bourbon heaven. It’s held every year in conjunction with National Bourbon Heritage Month.

There’s more than sipping on the schedule here: I even attended panel discussions on bourbon, especially on how climate change is affecting the industry with temperatures rising in Kentucky every year.

The three-day festival also hosts auctions and live bluegrass music by talented local artists. I got to meet in-person some of the distillers, such as the mother-daughter duo behind Jeptha Creed Distillery in Shelbyville. Their stunning signature bourbon is made with bloody butcher corn that’s they farm and harvest themselves.

This autumn, Kentuckians are getting ready to welcome their first Bourbon and Belonging festival. This week-long celebration is an ode to the state’s LGBTQ+ legends that are making a difference in the industry by offering experiences that are inclusive and shattering the idea that bourbon is largely only enjoyed by men.

My last stop was the excellent Trouble Bar in Louisville, where along with quirky bourbon cocktails, the staff talked to me about issues faced by many Americans today, including abortion rights and gun safety laws.

My whiskey-drinking friends have had the Kentucky Bourbon Trail high up on their travel list for years. Given its constant transformation, I tell them how it’s something they’ll keep coming back to, even if they are a long-standing bourbon aficionado.

Missy concludes: “The future of Bourbon embraces sustainability, inclusion, and diversity. As this industry continues to explode, I expect to see a focus on developing sustainable practices, and a concerted effort to connect with Bourbon connoisseurs within underserved populations.”

Need to know

Getting there

Direct flight from London Heathrow to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky (CVG) airport on British Airways, or connect to any of its major airports (Louisville and Lexington, Northern Kentucky).

Best time to go

Though Kentucky is a year-round warm-weather destination, spring and fall are best times to visit.

Where to stay

There’s a wide range of accommodation in every price range. All the major hotel chains are represented and there are dozens of smaller hotels and motels throughout the state. Bed and Breakfast inns dot the state but they should not necessarily imply low cost, as a B & B is often an historic home or unique property, usually of extremely high standard, and priced accordingly.

Must-pack item

Good walking shoes – distillery tours can last for two hours and most of them are walking tours.

Possibly an extra suitcase to carry home any bourbon you buy.

How to do it

The three most popular and recommended ways of exploring Kentucky are by self-drive, travelling in a motorhome, or joining an escorted tour. Each option offers a unique perspective and experience of Kentucky’s diverse attractions

Anything else

The Commonwealth of Kentucky is bordered by seven states: Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois. The Ohio River flows 664 miles along the northern and western borders of the state.

The position of Kentucky makes the Bluegrass State a perfect place to start your self-drive holidays, whether you want to explore the southern states or venture north.

HOLIDAY IDEAS

In partnership with travel inspiration specialist Inspire My Holiday, you can find a selection of their favourite holiday ideas for exploring Kentucky your way.

Like a 15-day Sips, Sights & Sounds of Kentucky tailor-made self-drive tour from £1,905pp, including return flights on British Airways from London Heathrow to Covington, car hire and accommodation.

Find out more >

More information

This article was brought to you in partnership with Kentucky Department of Tourism.

Explore the beauty of Kentucky. From outdoor adventures to cultural wonders, discover unforgettable experiences in the Bluegrass State.

Go to kentuckytourism.com for more details, suggested itineraries and booking.


JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.