For bourbon lovers, Central Kentucky is the fabled horn of plenty. Between the 14 bourbon distilleries (and more on the way!), bourbon bars and bourbon events, the region is said to be the bourbon lover’s ultimate playground.
Over the past ten years. America’s appetite for bourbon has skyrocketed, as has bourbon’s stature as the true American spirit. Alongside horses, bourbon is warmly embraced as Kentucky’s signature industry.
According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, visitors to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail spend between $400 and $1,200 per trip, and the majority of those tourists are from out of state.
“It’s an exciting time with all the new releases and top-shelf releases coming out that have really helped drive bourbon growth in the premium market and for the collectors,” said Adam Johnson, senior director of Kentucky Bourbon Trail Experiences for the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.
“But at the same time, it’s still every man, every woman’s drink,” Johnson said. “There’s a price point for everybody, and in my mind, that’s what makes bourbon special. There are the special occasion bourbons, but there’s great everyday value, especially when you put it up against other spirits.”
The Distillery District
Lexington is a nice hub if you’re looking for a base of operations for your Central Kentucky bourbon adventure. Fourteen unique bourbon distilleries are within an hour’s drive, and bourbon bars and events are easy to find.
“Bourbon experiences continue to top the list of what visitors want to do while they are in the area,” said Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLex. “Bourbon tourism is a natural complement to equine tourism, our state’s other signature industry. Both are tied to the land—and the abundance of natural resources that make Central Kentucky such a special place.”
Even if people come to Central Kentucky for another reason, they often are drawn into the bourbon experience through the Bourbon Trail or lively spots like Lexington’s Distillery District, which has become a primary entertainment district for visitors and locals alike.
“Starting with one distillery in 2008, Barrel House, the Lexington Distillery District has expanded greatly and now includes the James E. Pepper Distillery, two breweries and a cidery in addition to a variety of bars, coffee shops, restaurants and retail businesses,” said Ramer.
“Bourbon is evolving into something much more than just tours,” said Amir Peay, owner of James E. Pepper Distillery. “We are seeing a lot of new concepts around distilleries that involve restaurants, lodging and entertainment. It’s a very exciting time in the industry.”
“We are very fortunate to have built up a great national distribution network and have a lot of fans for our whiskies across the country,” Peay said.” So, while our retail and tour operation hit during the pandemic, our wholesale business grew 45% in 2020, and we had our best year ever.”
Unique craft distilleries
As you dig in and become more familiar with Kentucky’s distilleries, you find the factors that make each one unique and keep people returning to their facilities and products.
Bluegrass Distillers, a craft distillery located in Lexington, is experiencing growth typical of the industry. Their flagship product is Kentucky Straight High Rye Bourbon. While many consumers prefer the softer, sweeter profile of wheat, High Rye is all about the rye and is described as having “the aromatic notes of butterscotch and spices with a peppery, spiced flavor.”
Bluegrass Distillers’ Kentucky Straight Blue Corn Bourbon is unique to the bourbon industry. It is made from heirloom blue corn grown in Central Kentucky that yields an “earthy, nutty and mildly vanilla flavor.”
The distillery was founded in 2012 and operates from the Bread Box, a mixed-use development on Lexington’s Jefferson Street in a repurposed Rainbo Bread factory. It is open for tours seven days a week at the present.
“Our plan is to move Bluegrass Distillers out to Midway, where we have 64 acres at the corner of Georgetown and Leestown Road. We’ll have a much larger facility and be able to grow our own grain,” said Maggie Young, director of marketing and distribution.
That property, known as Elkwood Farm, includes an 1835 mansion on the National Historic Registry that will serve as a visitor’s center, gift shop, tasting room and a starting point for tours. “We’ll be able to host different events or farmers markets,” Young said. “The plan is to be out there sometime next year.”
The distillery, which ran about 200 barrels this year, is looking to ramp up to 20,000 at its new facility.
In Central Kentucky, you’ll find a busy event calendar at nearly every distillery, like the Castle & Key Distillery Springhouse Music Series in Frankfort, which runs spring through fall.
There’s also the Bourbon County Burn, a three-day, fully supported bicycle tour of bourbon distilleries and Thoroughbred horse farms. The annual September event invites guests to explore quiet country roads and quaint communities en route to world-famous distilleries.
More distilleries are finding unique ways to connect with guests through immersive experiences by homing in on certain flavor profiles to attract new bourbon drinkers. Some distilleries are hosting bourbon pairing events or encouraging the use of bourbon as a culinary ingredient in home cooking, including Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Castle & Key and Four Roses.
There are over 10 million barrels of bourbon aging in the rickhouses of Kentucky according to VisitLex. That’s more than two barrels for every person living in the state and should be more than adequate for your next bourbon adventure.
Frequently recognized as one of the best bourbon bars in the South, The Bluegrass Tavern in downtown Lexington carries more than 800 unique bourbon labels on their shelves.
“We believe it’s the largest collection in the United States, but to avoid a little bit of controversy, we just say one of the largest in the U.S., but with certainty the largest selection in Kentucky,” said owner Sean Ebbitt.
Bourbon is Kentucky’s $8.6 billion signature industry. Right now, Kentucky has $2.3 billion in bourbon-related capital projects planned, including a $1.2 billion expansion at Buffalo Trace. The premier distillery dates back to the 1700s and crafts some of the most cherished brands like Elmer T. Lee, E.H. Taylor and Pappy Van Winkle, which can retail for more than $1,000 a bottle.
Keeping up with the growing world demand for bourbon, other area expansions include Woodford Reserve, which will double its production capacity and add three new iconic copper pot stills.
An old Kentucky bourbon name from the 1860s, E.J. Curley & Co., will come back to life in Jessamine County. The new E.J. Curley distillery will be on the site of the historic original at Camp Nelson, a Civil War era supply depot.