Planning a Trip to Bourbon Country

Louisville. Bardstown. Frankfort. An area of rich soil for corn, limestone filtered water, and the extreme temperature changes – three ideal conditions made Kentucky a hotbed for American whiskey, and bourbon in particular. Awhile back, I visited the area with a group of friends in celebration of my 40th birthday and wanted to share what we learned about planning a visit to the bourbon holy land.


Geography and Distillers

To start, this is not meant to be an all-inclusive list of distilleries — the area is chock full of them. There are plenty of online resources dedicated to this if you want to find all the options (the best one I’ve found is 

For us, we started our search by grouping distilleries into three geographic regions: Louisville, Bardstown, and Frankfort. Each area had a good concentration of distilleries and were easily accessible from Louisville, so we decided to stay central in Louisville for our base of operations. We had several people flying, so having access to Louisville Mohammad Ali International Airport (SDF) was important. It also allowed us to plan visits to several of the distilleries located in the city and, for the distilleries where some travel is required, we were able to find an embarrassment of reasonably priced tour operators who gladly pick up groups in Louisville and take you wherever you want to go. 

Basing ourselves in Louisville also allowed us to decide on taking a tour to Bardstown or Frankfort based on distillery tour availability instead of being tied to our lodging reservations. Finally, being a large city, there are fantastic options for restaurants, nightlight, and lodging. 


Next, we made a list of the distilleries that we might want to visit in each area.  The list started like this:

– Angel’s Envy
– Cooper & Kings
– Evan Williams
– Michter’s
– Old Forester
– Rabbit Hole
– Stizel-Weller
– Buffalo Trace
– Bulleit
– Castle & Key
– Four Roses
– Whiskey Thief
– Wild Turkey
– Woodford Reserve  
– Bardstown Bourbon
– James B Beam
– Heaven Hill
– Lux Row
– Makers Mark
– Preservation
– Willett

Obviously, this was way too extensive to cover in under a week. There are so many great options in this region, and each distillery offers multiple experiences. Make sure you have an idea where you’d like to go, and especially what you would like to experience – it will help you narrow down the list.

Booking Tours

This brings us to the first big lesson learned: plan early.

I would recommend trying to have tours booked, drivers arranged, and lodging squared away at least three months in advance, but four would be ideal. We spoke with several tour companies who said they booked three or four months in advance, so we were a bit behind the power curve when we started our efforts two months from departure. It was not an insurmountable challenge, but one that I would try to avoid next time.

The tour operator we selected, the aptly named Mint Julep Tours, worked with us to create a custom tour in and around the Bardstown area. We gave them a list of distilleries that we were interested in visiting, and they took it from there. They were super friendly, responsive, and made it very easy. We ended up with a 4-stop tour: Bardstown Distilling, lunch, Heaven Hill, and Maker’s Mark. Willett was also on our list and our all-star driver, Doug, was able to fit in a stop at their bar. 

They took care of booking all the tours for the group, so the only thing we had to worry about was showing up on time. The cost of transportation for the entire day came to about $300 per person, while the cost of the three tours came to about $100 per person. The only additional costs for the day were lunch, gratuity, and anything you chose to purchase at the distillery gift shop or bar.


Which is the second big lesson learned: if the distillery does not have tours available, look at what they offer at the visitor center. We were able to experience Willett this way, as well as Michter’s. The Bar at Fort Nelson is a fantastic Michter’s bar with a diverse craft cocktail menu in a great space in downtown Louisville. You don’t need to do the official tour at each distillery to make it a successful and enjoyable experience. 

If a custom private tour is not your thing, there are public tours available. These are more cost effective tours on a large motor coach, most of which allow you to visit three distilleries with a driver (be safe, y’all). Each stop includes a tour and tasting, along with time to visit the gift shops and a local lunch. These can be a more budget friendly way to plan your visit.


Not Every Distillery Tour Is Created Equally

Some distilleries only have one tour, others have multiple options to choose from ranging from $20 to $200. This is where you have the chance to really customize your tour for your group. 

When we visited Heaven Hill, we had the basic tour. Same goes for Makers Mark. But our visit to Bardstown Distillery was their “Rickhouse Thieving” tour, where our tasting took place in a rickhouse and included three different bourbons that were pulled straight from the barrel. This is a great way for those who want more insight or higher end tastings you can pick and choose the tours for a perfect day. 


Other tour examples include:

Heaven Hill’s “Bottled-in-Bond” tour, where you learn more about the specific requirements for Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and taste bourbons that meet those requirements. 

Maker’s Mark’s “Art & Design Tour” where you get a tour of the more than 20 original art pieces & structures throughout the grounds. Don’t worry, it comes with a welcome cocktail, and a Private Select tasting as you admire the “Spirit of the Maker”, a Dale Chihuly glass installation in the ceiling of the main rickhouse.

“Spirit of the Maker” installation at Maker’s Mark

The distilleries do their best to bring out the unique flavors of their whiskey. At Angel’s Envy, they paired a tasting of 3 Angel’s Envy products: Angel’s Envy, Angel’s Envy Rye, and Angel’s Envy Private Select with chocolates. Each whiskey was paired with a chocolate: a chocolate truffle, white chocolate, and dark chocolate cherry truffle. It was interesting to taste how the flavors blended well with the right chocolate pairing.


Some higher end tours can cost several hundred dollars, but you typically get to leave these tours with a rare bottle of bourbon. Had the timing worked out, I was ready to book a tasting at Old Forester Birthday Bourbon tasting. Sadly, it did not work out — which meant an empty spot in my luggage, but also another $300 in my pocket.

This brings us to the third lesson learned: look at the operating hours of the distilleries. Many of the Louisville distilleries were not open late, and not open on Sunday or Monday. Our visit was from Friday to Monday – so we were limited in our options.

Food and Dining

I did not know what to expect, but we were able to find some amazing restaurants. 

Right down the street from our Airbnb was Feast BBQ. While it doesn’t compare to some of my favorite Austin spots (not many places do), they still threw down some pretty good smoked meat. Don’t sleep on the smoked wings – this was the hands down my favorite item. Also, they have a bourbon slushie, which was reminiscent of the frozen Coke drink they used to have in my college dorms. 


After our full day of bourbon tasting, we needed something full of carbs and filling. Pizza seemed to fit the bill perfectly. We found Emmy Squared Pizza in the Nulu neighborhood, with a menu filled with a Louisville take on Detroit-style pizza (think: thick, pan-pizza-ish crunchy crust with sauce on top). 

We finished our weekend with a delicious steak dinner at Repeal Oak Fired Steakhouse. If you find yourself looking for a great high-end dining experience in Louisville, I cannot recommend Repeal enough. The service was impeccable, the food was delicious, and, most importantly, they have revolutionized French Onion soup by serving it with a small pair of scissors. 

But Dan, Not Everyone in My Group Drinks Bourbon

Well, get new friends because bourbon is delicious.

Okay, fine… you don’t have to get rid of them, just judge them at little. 

We had three non-bourbon drinkers in our group. After the weekend, when asked, they all mentioned that they loved the experience. Learning about the process and seeing the grounds and facilities gave them a new appreciation for bourbon (especially when it’s paired with chocolate). 


Our resident wine connoisseur said the following: 

“I would 100% recommend that a non-bourbon drinker join friends/family/random strangers on a trip to Bourbon Country. For me, it was really interesting for a booze nerd who is interested in how drinks are made, the different flavors that can be played with, and the details of the process even if they aren’t in love with the taste of the end result, totally fascinating to learn about the history of our relationship with spirits in this country and the world, and just a beautiful place to spend a day.”

Warning: if you are with someone who is not normally a bourbon drinker… prepare to drink extra. For every tour, I drank 1.5 tours worth of whiskey. Pacing and water becomes extra important if you have non-bourbon drinkers with your group.



This article barely scratches the surface – Louisville and the overall Bourbon Country area is vibrant and has something for everyone. While we visited six distilleries over a long weekend, we easily could have done more had we started to plan earlier and stayed longer. 

Don’t forget the three big lessons we learned:

  • Plan early, at least three months in advance (but four is even better)
  • Guided tours and tastings aren’t the only way to experience the distilleries
  • Check the operating hours – and avoid Sunday / Monday

Finally, the most important rule: remember that you are presumably going to be drinking all day and make sure you have a sober driver. Drinking and driving is pretty much a guaranteed recipe for a terrible time (and a ruined vacation).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.