Kentucky Bourbon Trail
a big hit with tourists
Tours give visitors an inside look
at flourishing industry
(March 2013) – Bourbon is big business for the Bluegrass State. With more than 95 percent of the world’s bourbon distilled and aged in the Commonwealth, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience provides a fascinating look into this centuries-old tradition.
From the first settlers in the state’s history in 1792 who took excess corn and turned it into bourbon and whiskey, it has become a symbol of Kentucky craftsmanship and tradition. U.S. Congress even declared bourbon to be “America’s Official Native Spirit.”
While all of the state’s bourbon distilleries follow the same basic steps, it is the individual age-old recipes and production techniques that produce distinctive differences and flavors sure to please any palette.
Adam Johnson, Director of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, said the bourbon industry in Kentucky is booming. “We’re experiencing a real bourbon renaissance. You can see it at any of the tour stops.”
There are 19 major distilleries in the state. The seven included on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour are Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve and Town Branch.
|"We are experiencing a real bourbon renaissance. You can see it at any of the tour stops."
– Kentucky Bourbon Trail Director Adam Johnson
Johnson said, “Bourbon is a very popular spirit right now. What’s old is new again. We have visitors come from all 50 states. It’s a national, regional and international draw.”
Part of the goal of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tours is to attract new visitors but also look for ways to reward returning or loyal visitors, Johnson said. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail began in 1999, and the Passport program was added in 2007. The Passport Program rewards visitors who have toured all of the participating distilleries with a complimentary T-shirt.
Johnson compared the Kentucky Bourbon Trail experience to “what you’d see in the Napa Valley. People are starting to look at Kentucky and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got that here.’ ” He believes Kentucky has the support it needs to keep the industry going.
“We’ve got cooking with bourbon, restaurants that support it and other attractions.” He said many times the purpose of visitors to Kentucky is “to visit the distilleries. And there are other things to see, too.”
|Photos courtesy of the Kentucky Distillers Association; second photo from top courtesy of Maker’s Mark Lounge, Louisville
Johnson said, “I think the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is one of the signature attractions in the state.” It complements a newer program, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, which gives statewide coverage to the bourbon industry.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour expands awareness of all distilleries instead of just focusing on the more popular ones, which are centrally located in the state. Even in a down economy, distilleries have continued to expand.
Johnson cited Jim Beam’s American Stillhouse in Clermont, Ky., as an example. The American Stillhouse has a new visitor’s center. Beam also opened a state-of-the-art Global Innovation Center. Beam plans to expand even more by locating its Global Business Services Center on Fourth Street in downtown Louisville.
Such expansion “bumps up the experience for visitors,” said Johnson. Another example is Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown. It is building a multimillion-dollar tourist attraction on Whiskey Row in Louisville to be known as the Evan Williams Experience.
Attractions such as these will be a “great experience for that kind of town, in a major section of the city,” Johnson said.
Louisville wants to make its own connection with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail adventure. Tricia Smallwood, a landscape architect with Rundell Ernstberger Associates LLC, is project manager for a bourbon themed downtown district project, an idea created by the Louisville Downtown Development Corp. “The master plan is very close to being completed,” she said.
The location of the district would basically stretch from the overpass on I-64 to the overpass on I-65, said Smallwood. It would be comprised of about 14 blocks in the city.
Her firm has been looking at the area “to design the ideal elements for a bourbon district. These elements will help tell the story of bourbon and its influence on Louisville,” she said.
Some amenities the downtown area might incorporate include artwork, banners, pavement patterns, signage, lighting and plaques. These interpretive elements will “create a feel for the district,” said Smallwood.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
The Kentucky Distillers Association in 1999 created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail as a way to promote tourism and the seven distilleries throughout the state. The trail gives visitors a first-hand look at the art and science of crafting bourbon and to educate them about the rich history and proud tradition of the state's signature spirit. The trail includes the following distilleries:
1. Four Roses, 1224 Bonds Mill Rd., Lawrenceburg, Ky. (502) 839-3436. www.fourroses.us
2. Heaven Hill, 1311 Gilkey Run Rd., Bardstown, Ky. (502) 337-1000. www.heavenhill.com
3. Jim Beam, 526 Happy Hollow Rd., Clermont, Ky. (502) 543-9877. www.jimbeam.com
4. Maker's Mark, 3350 Burks Spring Rd., Loretto, Ky. (270) 875-2099. www.makersmark.com
5. Wild Turkey, 1525 Tyrone Rd., Lawrenceburg, Ky. (502) 839-4544. www.wildturkey.com
6. Woodford Reserve, 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, Ky. (859) 879-1812. www.woodfordreserve.com
7. Town Branch Bourbon, at Alltech's Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co., 401 Cross St., Lexington, Ky. www.kentuckyale.com/town-branch
• Information: Kentucky Distillers' Association, 614 Shelby St., Louisville, Ky. (502) 875-9354. www.kybourbon.com or www.kybourbontrail.com.
More on Bourbon
• On a side note, several Louisville-area restaurants have recently joined forces to create the "Urban Bourbon Trail." This group lists 19 establishments throughout the city where bourbon takes pride of place in the glass and sometimes on the plate. The locations include Baxter Station Bar & Grill, Brown Hotel Lobby Bar, Buck's Restaurant, Old Seelbach Bar, and many more. See the entire list at: www.bourboncountry.com/urban-bourbon.
• Lonely Planet publisher recently named Louisville No. 1 in its U.S. Destinations for 2013, citing the city's bourbon industry as a top tourism draw. The travel guide called Louisville "a lively, offbeat cultural mecca on the Ohio River," and added that its growing status as a bourbon theme park is one of the reasons it beat out such destinations as Fairbanks, Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St. Paul for the top spot.
• In a recently released hardback book by Acclaim press titled, "The Kentucky Bourbon Experience: A Visual Tour of Kentucky's Bourbon Distilleries," renown photographer Leon Howlett combines his passions of photography and Kentucky bourbon. He toured eight Kentucky distilleries, including Barton Brands, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. The book presents beautiful images of each distillery, from exterior view to milling to bottling, along with a brief history of each distillery. Learn more at: www.acclaimpress.com.
Her firm hopes to have the plan completed soon and move on to the next phase, which will involve presenting it to the public. After that, we can nail down materials and move forward, she said.
The idea behind this downtown bourbon district is to add a tourism aspect, Smallwood said. “A lot of people come to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.” They stay a while in one place, but not for very long, then they go off on the trail, she said. “The district could be a way to draw them into Louisville,” to visit other sites as well.
Although the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tours and the downtown bourbon district project are completely separate, Smallwood sees the trail as a way to get people interested in the downtown bourbon district project and what it will have to offer.
“Bourbon is a large industry. We hope it (the district) plays a significant part,” said Ethan Howard, Business Development & Project Coordinator for Louisville Downtown Development Corp. The group hopes to “bring a lot more interest to bourbon, to Kentucky and to its heritage. We want to bring in new audiences.”
Howard said, “We asked Rundell to take a look at the area as a whole and bring some connectivity to it.”
Louisville Downtown Development Corp wanted to create this bourbon-themed downtown district because “there is a fairly rich history of bourbon in downtown Louisville. Some distilleries are interested in coming back to the area, and it carries a strong tourism component.”
Steve Thompson is someone who is very aware of the state’s bourbon heritage. He said he has had experience in the distilling industry “pretty much all of my life.” An engineering technology major, Thompson worked in California and Connecticut before taking a position with Brown Forman Corp. in Louisville. As president of this latter company, Thompson was responsible for overseeing many areas of the business and gained vital expertise to run his own distilling company.
Thompson, a Pewee Valley, Ky., resident, is one of three partners who will soon open The Kentucky Artisan Distillery in Crestwood, Ky. The distillery will be unique in that it will function as a cooperative, allowing other distillers to make and bottle their own bourbon or other beverage product there.
“I know a lot of people who have come into the business and went broke,” Thompson said. “They spent all their money on making bourbon and not realizing how hard it was to sell it” without advertising experience or financial backing.
With The Kentucky Artisan Distillery, “They can use our facility then go out and try to market their product.” Individuals can then construct their own building to manufacture their product, once they’ve gained some marketing know-how. This will cut down on initial start-up costs, Thompson said, for those who are serious about creating bourbon.
Thompson said he hopes his distilling business will become part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. For Kentucky businesses, the tour will “reinforce in the minds of distilling folks that Kentucky is basically a distilling center,” said Thompson.
He believes the tour will be instrumental in promoting Kentucky, “as more people will learn about bourbon products.” Through advertising and marketing, people will learn the values and qualities of the state’s bourbon heritage.
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