Kentucky’s bourbon country offers a taste of some of the boldest flavors in the Bluegrass.
From Whiskey Row in Louisville to the Distillery District in Lexington, distilleries pepper the rolling hills of central Kentucky, drawing thousands of visitors annually for tastings and tours. The small towns that surround these distilleries are nearly synonymous with the rich spirits they produce, but they also offer travelers historic downtowns, iconic attractions and breathtaking Kentucky scenery.
In addition to stopping at distilleries to enjoy behind-the-scenes tours and samples of some of the state’s most distinctive bourbons, groups should maximize their time in these small towns in bourbon country.
Home to famous distilleries such as Willett, Bardstown Bourbon Company, Heaven Hill and Lux Row, Bardstown claims the right to Bourbon Capital of the World. Founded in 1780, this small town just 40 miles outside of Louisville is a well of history, with over 300 of its buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the best known historic sites in Bardstown is My Old Kentucky Home State Park, home to Stephen Foster, who wrote the signature Kentucky ballad played before every Kentucky Derby. Groups can tour this historic home, complete with period furnishings and art, and wander its lush grounds. During warmer months, they can catch a production of “The Stephen Foster Story,” an outdoor musical production.
“We’re small town America with some big city amenities,” said Samantha Brady, executive director of the Bardstown Nelson County Tourist and Convention Commission. “Each distillery is different from the next, but on top of that we have rich history steeped in culture. A lot of that is bourbon culture, but a lot of that is just Southern hospitality culture.”
In addition to its vintage architecture, history buffs will enjoy Bardstown’s selection of museums, such as the Kentucky Railway Museum, the General Hal Moore Military Museum, the African American Heritage Museum and the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. At the Bardstown Civil War Museum, groups can purchase tickets to see Old Bardstown Colonial Village and Park, a re-creation of a 1790s village featuring historic cabins and an accurate representation of life on the frontier. Groups can also opt for self-guided historic downtown walking tours.
To enjoy fine dining with a side of scenery, groups can reserve seats on My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, where they’ll enjoy multicourse meals on a train ride through Bardstown and the surrounding countryside. Another town dining staple is Old Talbott Tavern, the oldest bourbon bar in the world and one of the oldest buildings in Bardstown. Groups can choose from a selection of hearty menu items, such as a traditional Hot Brown, ribeye and bourbon-inspired dishes. In addition to its many distilleries, Bardstown also has several wineries. Groups can tour the vineyards, taste some of the distinct varietals and dine at Forest Edge Winery, Springhill Winery, Chuckleberry Farm and Winery, and McIntyre’s Winery and Berries.
Due south of Bardstown is Lebanon, a town known for both bourbon and beer. Home to several distilleries, nature attractions, and a charming selection of local restaurants and shops, Lebanon makes an excellent stop on any group itinerary.
Nena Olivier, director of Visit Lebanon Kentucky, said what sets Lebanon apart is “the hospitality, and then the variety of not just bourbon attractions but outdoor activities, arts and other attractions you can visit.”
Maker’s Mark is among the most famous brands of bourbon, making its distillery an obvious destination for tours. Groups can take a guided tour of the distillery’s campus to learn about the brand’s history or opt for the more in-depth Behind the Bourbon Tour, which gives them a detailed walk-through of the bourbon’s production process. Both tours are rounded out with a tasting. Also in Lebanon is the Limestone Branch Distillery, which Steve and Paul Beam, descendants of the Jim Beam empire, opened in 2011; a tour through this facility explores the family’s heritage in the Kentucky bourbon industry. These distilleries aren’t Lebanon’s only claim to bourbon fame; the city is also home to Independent Stave Company’s Kentucky Cooperage, which makes the oak barrels that age bourbon at many distilleries in the state. Groups can tour the cooperage to see how each barrel is handcrafted and learn about the significance of oak barrels to the bourbon industry.
In addition to these bourbon hotspots, Lebanon offers plenty of outdoor activities for active groups, from hiking and biking its trails to canoeing in the Fagan Branch Reservoir. History buffs will enjoy the city’s self-guided Historic Homes and Landmarks Tour, which explores Lebanon’s rich Civil War history. They can visit the Lebanon National Cemetery, the historic cemetery where soldiers who perished in the Battle of Perryville were interred. Lebanon is also the site of the Loretto Motherhouse, where the Sisters of Loretto reside. Groups can visit its heritage center to check out artifacts and exhibits detailing the history of the organization and of Kentucky, dating back to pioneer days. Finally, groups can catch a theater production or participate in an art workshop at Kentucky Classic Arts.
Groups can grab a slice of pizza or some classic bar food at Pub 68. Or they can try the Rosewood Bar and Grill, where they’ll find a selection of choice steaks, seafood and sandwiches. At Cedarwood, groups can expect a home-cooked meal and a bit of Southern hospitality with country classics like bourbon chicken and country fried steak.
Prior to the prohibition, Lawrenceburg had a wealth of bourbon distilleries and was something of a hub for the spirit’s production. Its prominence in the bourbon industry stemmed from the vast network of waterways that once wound through Anderson County, before the Kentucky River was dammed. Today, it’s home to two well-known distilleries, Wild Turkey and Four Roses. Wild Turkey provides excellent views of the Kentucky River and pre-Prohibition memorabilia, while Four Roses was built in the Spanish Mission-style, making it some of the most unique architecture among Kentucky’s distilleries. A couple more distilleries are in the works, one of which will be built on the foundations of the pre-Prohibition Old Hoffman Distillery.
“We are the heart of bourbon country,” said Robbie Morgan, director of tourism at the Lawrenceburg/Anderson County Tourism Commission. “We have the stories of people who were very passionate about bourbon that really tweaked these recipes and came up with processes and techniques for making it.”
Bourbon enthusiasts will also be thrilled to find the Lawrenceburg Bourbon Company, a bar and retail shop whose proprietors plan to add a micro-distillery in the next few years. The charming shop sells rare bourbons and wines, and groups can arrange private tastings with boxed lunches. The city is home to Lover’s Leap Winery, a picturesque vineyard that offers tours detailing the history of wine in Kentucky, and Rising Sons Winery, which also grows the rare pawpaw plant.
Lawrenceburg has several local eateries that can accommodate groups with the proper notice. At Bluegrass Sabor, guests can enjoy a Southern-American menu with classics like a hot brown or pecan-crusted chicken. At Bourbon Station, groups will find burgers, steak and a bistro menu, as well as a variety of wine, spirits and cocktails. At Heavens to Betsy! Bakery and Café, groups can try some famously massive sandwiches, including their highly praised Reuben.
Depending on the season, groups may catch one of Lawrenceburg’s many festivals and events, such as Food Truck Fridays, held in the summer, or the annual Anderson County Burgoo Festival, the last week of September.
The state capital of Kentucky is not one of its busiest cities. Still, this quaint seat of Franklin County offers attractions in abundance, as well as several key bourbon sites. The Frankfort Tourist Commission offers step-on guides for motorcoach groups as they roll through the scenic city.
“There’s plenty to do in a day or several days,” said Robin Antenucci, executive director of the Frankfort Tourist Commission. “It’s a good central location, and it’s more affordable than Lexington.”
Frankfort boasts one of the most iconic bourbon producers in the state, Buffalo Trace. This distillery produces some of the best known and the most coveted bourbons in the world, such as the Van Winkle collection, Blanton’s Single Barrel, Weller, E.H. Taylor Jr., Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare. Groups can arrange to tour its massive campus to learn about the brand’s history and its contributions to the industry. Castle and Key, a relatively new distillery with plenty of rustic charm, is nestled along Frankfort’s picturesque backroads and was built on the grounds of a nonoperational pre-Prohibition distillery. To learn more about the city’s history, groups can take the Bourbon and History Walking Tour, led by a guide dressed as E.H. Taylor, one of bourbon’s founding fathers.
Frankfort’s attractions are not limited to bourbon. Groups can tour the Capitol building, a historic, domed building sculpted from marble and decorated with murals, sculptures of famous Kentuckians and a floral clock on its grounds. They can also check out the Kentucky Military History Museum, Daniel Boone’s grave in the Frankfort Cemetery and Liberty Hall Historic Site, which includes two historic houses built by Kentucky’s first U.S. senator.
Frankfort also has a vibrant arts scene that’s easily accessible to visitors, from murals scattered throughout downtown to the city’s galleries to Josephine Sculpture Park, Kentucky’s only outdoor sculpture park.
At Rebecca Ruth’s Candy Factory, travelers can tour the facility and sample some of Frankfort’s sweetest local treats. For a unique dining experience, groups can arrange to enjoy a catered meal in the ambience of historic downtown buildings, such as the Elizabeth, a venue formerly known as the Good Shepherd Catholic Church.
A charming, historic downtown surrounded by miles of rolling hills, horse farms, vineyards and dry-stacked limestone fences, Versailles is steeped in the rich traditions of Kentucky life. It’s the seat of Woodford County, founded in 1792 and named to honor the Revolutionary War General Marquis de Lafayette. Today, it is home to several prominent attractions in the Bluegrass and is highly committed to creating customized, welcoming experiences for group travelers.
“Our rich agriculture land lends itself well to what have become its signature industries: bourbon, wine and bloodlines,” said Emily Downey, executive director of Reserve Woodford.
“Bloodlines” refers to the billion-dollar horse racing industry in Kentucky. The horse farms surrounding Versailles have raised many notable Thoroughbreds, including Kentucky Derby and even Triple Crown winners. Versailles’ most notable distillery is Woodford Reserve, formerly known as Labrot and Graham, one of the oldest distilling sites still operating in the state. This national historic landmark rests on the banks of a branch of Glenn’s Creek, which feeds other nearby distilleries and provides iron-free water central to the bourbon-making process. Groups can tour Woodford Reserve to learn about its unique distilling process and taste some of its most popular bourbons.
In addition to some of the most famous bourbon in Kentucky, Versailles boasts some iconic state attractions, like the Kentucky Castle. This medieval European-style castle was constructed as a passion project of its original owner in 1969. Though the original owner abandoned the project, the castle was eventually purchased, completed and opened as a hotel, restaurant and working farm. Groups can tour the castle grounds to glimpse its distinct architecture, eat at its farm-to-table restaurant or enjoy a bourbon pairing dinner. At Woodford Theater, groups can watch a production at one of the best community theaters in the state.
Downey said what makes Versailles stand out is its small-town charm,
adding that it’s purposefully kept itself “strategically charming and quaint.” This strategy allows Versailles to customize each group’s visit. Reserve Woodford frequently rolls out the red carpet and throws block parties in downtown’s historic district for visitors to enjoy local restaurants, live music and shopping.
Groups can get to know the town better with the Woodford Unreserved Tour, which consists of a walk around the historic downtown with a cocktail in hand. For fresh air and a basket or bushel of fresh produce, groups can visit Eckert’s Orchard, where they can pick seasonal fruits and vegetables and purchase food products made at the orchard. Popular dining options include Ricardo’s Grill and Pub, Spark Community Café and Holly Hill Inn.