Trips: Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail – A Great RV Tour

 Trips: Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail – A Great RV Tour

The Jim Beam Distillery on the Bourbon Trail

Looking for a fascinating and fun RV Road Trip? Camp and taste your way along Bourbon Trail!

In the heart of central Kentucky – not far from its famed bluegrass country – is an area known as the Bourbon Trail, a confluence of numerous distilleries that produce the bulk of the world’s Bourbon. 

The distilleries are roughly in a circle between Lexington on the east and Louisville on the west with the town of Bardstown, KY smack dab in the middle.

Formally designated by Congress as “America’s Official Native Spirit.”  The distilleries offer tours and tastings and offer a perfect RV getaway.

Here's a video we did when we did an RV trip to the Bourbon Trail a while back.

The History of the Bourbon Trail and the Beam family

Kentucky Bourbon has a rich history and proud tradition that dates back to the late 1700s.

For more than two centuries, no family has influenced bourbon-making more deeply than the Beam family, maker of the world’s best selling bourbon.

The tour of the Jim Beam distillery near Clermont, KY offers an up-close look at how they make the world’s best-selling bourbon–from grain to barrel to bottle and beyond.

Here, you learn that bourbon is unique among whiskeys because, by law, it must be at least 51% corn. Why is it called Bourbon?

Well, one of Kentucky’s original counties was Bourbon County, established in 1785 when Kentucky was still part of Virginia.

Farmers shipped their whiskey in oak barrels — stamped from Bourbon County — down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans.

The long trip aged the whiskey, with the oak wood giving it the distinct mellow flavor and amber color. Pretty soon, whiskey from Bourbon County grew in popularity and became known as Bourbon whiskey.

photos of empty boubon bottles on the Bourbon Trail
Knob Creek Bourbon about to be bottled on the line of the Jim Beam Distillery on the Bourbon Trail

Allow at least three hours for the Beam tour, which always ends in the tasting room, where visitors can sample some of the 12 different brands the company makes.

But remember, the Beam operation is just one of seven distilleries on the Bourbon Trail.

Your central campground on the Bourbon Trail: Bardstown, KY

Photo of Bardstown, KY on the Bourbon Trail
Bardstown, KY is the headquarters town of Kentucky's Bourbon Trail

 
A great place to use as your RVing base while touring the Bourbon Trail is Bardstown, KY, recently designated by USA Today as America's most beautiful small town.

It's a delightful town, steeped in history. Abraham Lincoln walked its streets. So did Daniel Boone. Upstairs at the Old Talbott Inn, built in 1779, are bullet holes reportedly fired by Jesse James.  Bardstown has museums and quaint shops.

What the Napa Valley is to California wine, Bardstown is to the Bourbon Trail.

bt2

Just outside of town, we used the My Old Kentucky Home State Park as our camping base,  named after the famous Steven Foster song celebrating the mansion the state park is home to.

photo of my old kentucky home state park on the bourbon trail
Our campsite at My Old Kentucky Home State Park on the Bourbon Trail

The Heaven Hill Distillery on the Bourbon Trail

Just down the road from the State Park is the Heaven Hill distillery.

It, too, offers great tours and lots of history. Oh yeah, they have tastings, too.

It was founded by the Heavenhill family. One word. Heavenhill.

But rumor has it that when a teetotaler daughter saw a typo referring to the place as Heaven Hill  – two words – she let the mistake stay so as to distance the family name from the whiskey business.

The Makers Mark Distillery on the Bourbon Trail

About a half-hour drive from Bardstown is the Makers Mark distillery.

Situated on gorgeous grounds with Whiskey Creek running right through it and providing the pure water used in making of its bourbon, I was offered a tin cup sip straight out of a distilling tank before the product had aged.

My tongue burned.

Jennifer got no further than a sniff.

At Maker’s Mark, visitors have the opportunity to hand dip a bottle themselves… sealing it with the brand's distinctive melted red wax.

Each distillery is unique. Each distillery has a story.

Red Roses Distillery on the Bourbon Trail

Take Red Roses Bourbon, for example. Seems its founder was smitten by a beautiful young lady.

He asked her to marry him. She refused to answer immediately but said, if the next time he saw her she was wearing a corsage, the answer was yes.

The next time he saw her she was wearing a corsage of four red roses. Thus a bourbon brand was born.

Bardstown Brewing Company on the Bourbon Trail

The Bardstown Brewing Company bills itself as the most sophisticated and technically flexible distillery in the nation.

Touring this new distillery is very easy. Everything is in the open, all processes are done in open spaces behind clear glass.

This distillery makes private-label bourbons for a number of different brands, including Jefferson’s, High West, Belle Meade, Hirsch, Calumet, James E. Pepper, Cyrus Noble. as well as its own in-house brand, Bardstown Brewing Co.

Can't make the trip just yet? Check out a virtual tour

Over in Frankfort, the Buffalo Trace Distillery has put together an awesome app that features a virtual reality tour of its historic distillery.

Here's a preview of the app:

But if you can visit the actual distillery, it's well worth the trip. It sits on 400 acres of beautiful Kentucky countryside and is a National Historic Site.

Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon – for the true connoisseur 

alt photo of the pappy van winkle lanbel on the bourbon trail
This is perhaps the most famed label on the Bourbon Trail

They make many different brands here, including the infamous Pappy Van Winkle, a brand that is aged from 10 to 23 years and is considered a very rare, limited edition bourbon. It commands a very high price. 

The folks who own the brand and bottle it at Buffalo Trace – the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery – sell a 15-year-old aged bottle for $119. The 20-year-old reserve is $199.  The 23-year-old is $299.

The distillery all that demand has caused tome profiteering on the brand.

Says the distillery: “Unfortunately, some retailers choose to use this demand as a reason to increase their pricing. We know it’s often sold for far beyond our suggested retail prices, which you can find on the product pages of this site.”

Check online and you'll see some folks trying to get thousands of dollars for a bottle of Pappy's.

By the way, there really was a namesake for the brand. His was is Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle who was a traveling whiskey salesman who wanted to make a decent bourbon so he started distilling his own over 100 years ago,

The business has been passed on through the generations to family members.

Budget a week to fully experience the Bourbon Trail

Even if you don't drink alcohol or bourbon is not your thing, the bourbon trail is a fascinating look at history in some of the most beautiful country you can find.

If you decide to visit Kentucky's Bourbon Trail, allow at least a week to really take it all in.

There are lots of campgrounds servicing the area.

We can't stress how much fun we had on The Bourbon Trail and we think you, too, will find it one of the most enjoyable trips around.

All of the distilleries have plenty of parking for RVs.

Most tours have an age limit, so check before bringing kids. And pets, as expected, are not allowed.

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Trips: Kentucky\'s Bourbon Trail - A Great RV Tour

Mike Wendland

Mike Wendland is a veteran journalist who, with his wife, Jennifer, travels North America in a small motorhome, blogging about the people, places, joys and adventure of RV life on the road at RVLifestyle.com. He and Jennifer also host the weekly RV Podcast and do twice-weekly videos on the YouTube RV Lifestyle Channel. They have written 10 books on RV travel.

8 Comments

  • Great story Jennifer and Mike.

  • That was a great video. I want to go. Hope you didn’t try to get the RT through that covered bridge. Thanks for leaving out the background music and the silly graphics. Well done.

  • Great video. I was down that way a few years ago but never stopped. I will have to put it on my “bucket list” of places to visit.

    One day you might want to consider a visit to Niagara’s Wine Country. Centred in the Niagara Region it is home to over 50 family and estate wineries. And of course no visit would be complete without visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake which has been maintained in its’ nineteen century charm with some of the best restaurants, and boutique shopping available. Many of the wineries are in NOTL.

    And then of course there is always Niagara Falls … just a short drive along this picturesque Niagara River.

    Enjoy your travels … hope to meet you some day in passing.

  • You guys and your reports here are the highlights of our day. We check your blog in the morning and at night and read every word. This was a great report. Felt like we were riding with you two. We have your newsletter sent each week and we are also members of your forum. Thank you for all you do in encouraging motorhome travel through this great land of ours. Keep it up!!!

  • enjoyed the site.

  • Well the family that should be on the list is Jake Spears, who INVENTED Bourbon…in Bourbon County Kentucky. He had a drive up window installed in his home where you could ride up on your horse and buy some. His stone house is still standing…though it has been sold outside the Spears’ family. The former Jake Spears home and Barn is being restored. And now you know the rest of the story.

  • I went to high school in Bardstown many years ago and still have fond memories. Our National Honor Society science trip was across the street at the (then) Barton Distillery – maker of Old Bardstown bourbon among others. We were too young to sample the wares, but my wife and I will be taking this trip one of these days, probably in conjunction with a high school reunion. We were told at that visit that there were “sixteen legal distilleries in Nelson County” at the time.
    For years Nelson County supplied whiskey to surrounding dry counties because it was the only majority Catholic county in a sea of Baptists. One of my classmates mother was a bootlegger until the late 1950s running whiskey in her modified Hudson and she earned enough money to start her own business (not whiskey related) as a result.
    Bardstown has a wonderful proto-cathedral that is a reminder of an interesting pre-revolutionary war migration of Catholics from Maryland (led by the Talbott who is named in the inn) to establish a place to live in the west. You need to see it as part of the tour. It has art that was donated by a king of France and is the oldest cathedral west of the Appalachians.

  • You captured the essence of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We’ve made three trips so far usually in May to visit Bourbon distilleries and have covered them all on the official major tour. They have added craft (small) distilleries to the tour beyond the original eight. One is Willett just past Heaven Hill. The craft distilleries give you a more intimate tour. One major distiller not on the official list of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is Buffalo Trace (Blanton’s, Pappy Van Winkle) in Frankfort. That one is a must tour, IMO. Actually they have several different tours depending on your interests. Over the past few years the distillers have been upping their touring game with new visitor centers. As an architect, I especially liked the Wild Turkey visitor center. Also top notch is Woodford Reserve located in the center of some of the most beautiful Kentucky horse farm country. The stone walls you will see around Woodford are almost identical to the stone walls that line the roads in north Wales. My surname ancestor immigrated to Kentucky shortly after 1778. I have a fondness for the area.

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