That's the Spirit of Kentucky
Even though the Kentucky General Assembly named milk the state beverage in 2005, bourbon is the drink most associated with the state. An $8.6 billion industry in Kentucky, there are more than 70 working bourbon distilleries in Kentucky that produce more than 200 brands.
In 1964, Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit,” meaning that to be called bourbon, it needs to be made in the United States. And, about 95% of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky. The state is more or less the perfect place to produce bourbon. The rich fertile soil is perfect for growing corn, a key ingredient of the spirit. The blue limestone of the ground here naturally filters out unwanted minerals, making the water tastier than most tap water in other places. The chilly winters and hot summers cause the charred oak barrels to alternately absorb and release the whiskey.
Now that you know the reasons why it’s so good, it’s time to road trip around the state (with a designated driver) to taste Kentucky’s sweet nectar. Here are six of our favorite places to check out, along with what you can do in the area.
Silent Brigade Distillery
Location: Paducah, in far western Kentucky
What’s on tap: Founded by two friends who had a passion for designing and crafting copper stills, downtown Paducah-based Silent Brigade Distillery invites visitors to get a first-hand look at the distillation process or just relax at the bar with the distillers themselves while listening to live music.
Sample bourbons like Apple Sin, a natural apple-cinnamon flavored whiskey that won gold at the 2021 International S.I.P. Awards; or the spicy smoke cherry flavor of “Whatever” Kentucky Straight Bourbon that finishes with a taste of smoke and almond. The distillery offers several varieties of flavored moonshine, including apple pie, peach, blackberry, chocolate coconut and pina colada. Tours are available from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
While you're in the area: Paducah is one of nine UNESCO Creative Cities in the United States, so it’s no surprise that local attractions highlight this fact. The National Quilt Museum, celebrating its 30th anniversary, has more than 600 contemporary quilts in its collection; dispel yourself of the notion that these are quilts you’ve seen at grandma’s house – many of these look like paintings and have won regional or national contests.
For a public art experience, walk along the city’s floodwalls where the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers meet and enjoy more than 50 panoramic life-sized murals showcasing “Portraits from Paducah’s Past”. If you prefer nature over manmade beauty head to the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, where you can see elk and bison roaming free within a 700-acre enclosure or enjoy the heavens at the Golden Pond Planetarium and Observatory.
Where to eat: Located in the historic Greyhound Bus Station, Paducah Beer Werks is a pub and restaurant serving craft beer and an eclectic menu that ranges from schnitzel sandwiches and beer brats and sauerkraut on a hoagie bun to artisanal pizza.
Green River Distilling Co.
Location: Owensboro, in northwestern Kentucky
What’s on tap: Green River Distilling Company can trace its roots back to 1885 when J.W. McCulloch began making Green River whiskey, whose slogan included “Green River – The Whiskey Without a Headache.” Today the distillery flows with Green River Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which is aged at least four years under the Kentucky sun.
While you're in the area: Interact with the history of bluegrass music through limited-time exhibits, permanent exhibits as well as concerts featuring live bluegrass bands at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum.
Where to eat: If you’re hankering to try some mutton barbecue or burgoo (a stew often served with cornbread or corn muffins) or more well-known meats, head to the Old Hickory Bar-B-Que, a tradition that started in 1918 when a local blacksmith decided to try his hand at cooking instead. Head to a historic home and dine at the Miller House Restaurant for appetizers like jalapeno corn hushpuppies or entrees like pork chop with bourbon peach sauce. (With its Wall of Whiskey featuring about 600 different bourbons, Miller House Restaurant also boasts Kentucky’s largest bourbon bar.)
Bardstown Bourbon Company
Location: Bardstown, in central Kentucky, about 39 miles southeast of Louisville
What’s on tap: The Bardstown Bourbon Company is a one-stop shop where you can take a tour, do a cocktail class, grab a drink or have a meal. Located on 100 acres of farmland, the distillery works with 25 award-winning domestic and international brands to distill, barrel, age, bottle and blend bourbons such as Jefferson’s, High West, Calumet and James E. Pepper.
While you're in the area: Play a round of golf, go camping or tour the historic mansion and see the farm that inspired Stephen Collin Foster’s famous song at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. History lovers can visit the Civil War Museum of the Western Theatre, home to Kentucky’s largest collection of Civil War artifacts, including uniforms, battle flags, weapons and documents.
Where to eat: Stay put at the Bardstown Bourbon Company and dine at The Kitchen and Bar, the on-site restaurant. Dishes include shrimp and grits, stuffed grilled poblano pepper, filet mignon and pan-seared verlasso salmon.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
Location: Frankfort, in central Kentucky, about 26 miles northwest of Lexington
What’s on tap: Named a National Historic Landmark, Buffalo Trace Distillery is the oldest continuously operating distillery in America and dates back to the late 1700s; it was even one of the very few distilleries permitted to bottle medicinal whiskey during Prohibition. The flagship brand is Buffalo Trace Bourbon, but the line includes several brands and collections like Eagle Rare, Van Winkle, Benchmark, and O.F.C. Vintages.
While you're in the area: When it became clear that the original Kentucky State Capitol built in 1830 in Frankfort was in a deteriorated condition and a fire risk due to its heating system (fireplaces), a battle ensued among Louisville, Lexington and Frankfort to become the capital city. Frankfort won and the new capitol was finished in 1910. You can still see the old Capitol in downtown or take a tour of the new one, but note that parking is limited as the automobile was seen as a fad in the early 1900s.
Head to the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, which uses more than 3,000 items in the signature exhibit “A Kentucky Journey” to tell the state’s 12,000-year history; dig into your own family roots in the genealogical research library.
Where to eat: The original bourbon balls came from Rebecca Ruth Chocolates, a fourth-generation family-owned business started by two former substitute schoolteachers in 1919. (The two women were unwed, which was scandalous at the time, and they were ridiculed, but still succeeded.)
Location: Covington & Newport, in northern Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio
What’s on tap: A collection of five craft distilleries, six bourbon bars and four bourbon-centric restaurants, the B-Line is Northern Kentucky’s bourbon trail. The distilleries include New Riff Distilling, Boone County Distilling Co., Neeley Family Distillery, The Old Pogue Distillery and Second Sight Spirits. If you get the free digital passport and stop in at two of the distilleries, two of the bars and two of the restaurants, you’ll receive some free bourbon souvenirs.
While you're in the area: Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Newport on the Levee is a multi-level retail entertainment complex on the south bank of the Ohio River. Along with a 20-screen AMC IMAX Theatre, restaurants and shopping, it’s also home to the Newport Aquarium (which is on many lists of the top aquariums in the U.S.) where you can get eye-to-eye with rare white alligators, touch sharks or watch penguins waddle around and zoom through the water. Check out the 70 exhibits and 14 galleries, including the five tunnels where you can watch aquatic life swim above and around you.
Where to eat: Munch on authentic Bavarian cuisine like giant pretzels, bratwurst and jägerschnitzel at the Hofbräuhaus Newport Brewery & Restaurant. Wash it down with pilsners, lagers, and other German beers.
Location: Downtown Louisville
What's on tap: At one point, more than 50 spirits-related businesses were located on this historic, block-long stretch of Main Street. Today, that tradition continues with places like Angel’s Envy Distillery, Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and Kentucky Peerless Distilling.
While you're in the area: Whether you’re a baseball fan or not, the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is worth a visit for its memorabilia and interactive exhibits. (At the very least, get a picture of yourself against the giant baseball bat leaning against the building.) At the factory tour, guests can see the bats being built, while the “Hold a Piece of History” exhibit lets visitors hold bats used by legends like Mickey Mantle, David Ortiz and Derek Jeter.
Where to eat: Stay put on Whiskey Row and head to Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen, which has the feel of a classic Western whiskey hall thanks to its historic interior that even features a bar built in the 1920s. Dine on Southern/American cuisine like whiskey wings, candied bourbon maple bacon or bourbon BBQ tacos while listening to live music.
Ready to go? Plan your trip to Bourbon Country here.
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