The Kentucky Bourbon Trail started out nearly 20 years ago in 1999 with humble beginnings. Two decades ago, the words “Homeplace” or “Experience” were rarely if ever used to describe the feeling that was created when bourbon fans would visit a distillery. Heck, back then, many of the cities and counties in Kentucky were dry and though fans made the pilgrimage to visit the “factory” that made their favorite spirit, they would often leave dismayed when they were told they could not sample or even buy a bottle of their favorite spirit. Oh my how things have changed.
Fast Forward 20 Years and it’s All about the Experience
In today’s distillery and craft spirits world, a visit to a distillery is far, far from a visit to a factory. Today, a visit to a heritage distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or a craft spirits maker on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour is all about the “Experience.” For years, Kentucky Distillers have referenced California wine country with aspirations to achieve a “Napa Valley” like experience in Kentucky. Well, these days, as I travel around the country talking to other distillers, they rarely if ever mention Napa Valley, no, what they want to create is a Kentucky Bourbon Trail like experience. Wow, you’ve come a long way baby.
Where Does the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Start?
Ask Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association what the number one question is from bourbon fans calling their office before they come to Kentucky and he’ll tell you, “We get calls on a daily basis…dozens, if not hundreds of calls every week from people asking ‘How do I do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, where do I start?’” Instead of a roundabout answer he and his team can now provide a definitive answer.
Q: Where does the Kentucky Bourbon Trail start?
A: It starts at the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center at the Frazier History Museum on Whiskey Row in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center & Spirit of Kentucky Exhibit is Officially Open
The “It Starts Here” banner that was covering the door to the Frazier History Museum was torn down and the project that has been in the works for nearly five years is now officially open. You can watch the ceremony and the tearing down of the banner in the video below featuring members of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, Frazier History Museum Chairman of the Board and former Brown-Forman Vice President J. McCauley “Mac” Brown, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles, Penny Peavler President and CEO of the Frazier History Museum, Rob Samuels Chairman of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and Chief Operating Officer at Maker’s Mark Distillery, and Stacey Yates Vice President Marketing Communications the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Watch the highlights of the ceremony and the official opening in the video here.
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“The Frazier History Museum is where the world meets Kentucky,” said Frazier President Penny Peavler. “With the launch of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® Welcome Center and The Spirit of Kentucky exhibit, we hope to spotlight Kentucky as the one, true home of Bourbon whiskey — America’s only native spirit.”
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome center is open and free for everyone. Visitors enter through the museum’s new main entrance and are greeted by people that are well trained on the secrets of the Amber Spirit and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. And to be clear, this is the starting point for the entire state from Cincinnati in the Eastern part of the state to Owensboro in the Western reaches of the state. Renovations to the museum also include a new free public park and rooftop garden that were designed by world renowned landscape artist Jon Carloftis.
The Spirit of Kentucky Exhibition
The Welcome Center is really nice but, to take in all the museum has to offer, visitors need to go to the third floor and experience the new 10,000 square foot Spirit of Kentucky Exhibition. This permanent exhibition is a visual and interactive guide to the history, craft and culture of Kentucky Bourbon. All I kept hearing as we walked through the new exhibit was words like, “Wow”, “Incredible”, “Awesome” and “Beautiful. ” I’ve got to tell you, it’s all true. It may have taken two decades to get to this point but it was worth the wait.
The Covered Bridge
As you walk into the covered Bridge area you are surrounded by 4K video on two walls and the ceiling. It features images, sounds and video that celebrates the state of Kentucky. As the museum’s Director of Marketing Andy Treinen told me, “We are introducing people to Kentucky… for people visiting from out of town it’s to give them a sense of the beauty of the land and if you are from here it’s to give you a sense of pride.” Videos take visitors from Red River Gorge to Cumberland Falls to historic Locust Grove that was once home to George Rogers Clark.
The Enchanted section of the exhibit starts to dig into the history and making of distilled spirits in the state of Kentucky from the early frontier days to today. Enchanted promotes the elements of Bourbon-making: water, limestone, soil, grains and wood. These five elements all play a unique role in making bourbon. There are hands on portions that let visitors touch limestone and oak. In fact, if you’ve ever wanted to be a Cooper, now’s your chance to get some hands on experience. Visitors can put together their own oak barrel piece by piece including the hoops, staves and heads. Unfortunately, it’s not a 53 gallon barrel but it is couple gallons. This section talks about the flavors that are imparted into bourbon from the barrels and the regions of the U.S. where American Oak can be found.
What better way to tell the Gracious story of bourbon than a huge dining room table. Gracious features a 24′ long immersive table wrapped in oak. (Think Blue Bloods Sunday night dinner here.) The table has a dozen giant interconnected touch screens where visitors can dive into bourbon’s Culture, Industry and People. If multiple people are using the screens and two or more users touch on something that connects the information, the table will light up and connect the two users. The table also has the ability to be run by a one person, in a classroom like situation, to tell a single story to everyone at the table.
The content for the table was provided by the people at the museum while the programming was done by Imagination. Treinen explained, “This is a repository for all of bourbon history. The brands all tell the stories but they tell them individually. These are all primary sourced or secondary sourced with two sources. Some of the lore that’s shared at the distillery will not be here, everything on this floor is a part of the history museum.”
The Refined room is a collection of vintage spirits from the 1800s, to Prohibition and medicinal bourbon to more modern bourbons. One of the differences between the Welcome center and the Spirit of Kentucky is the Welcome Center only represents members of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association while the third floor covers all bourbon makers. Bourbon history lovers will love this section. As the sign on the wall points out, “More than 250 distilleries operated before Prohibition, each with its own methods and recipes. Those variables produced a Bourbon melting pot of unique flavors and taste profiles – far more diverse than today’s market.” Many of the bottles look enticing while some of them might be a little dicey but, if someone is willing to break the seal on one of these bottle, I’m willing to try it.
The Bottle Hall
The Bottle Hall falls somewhere between bourbon heaven and social media hall of fame. The Bottle Hall features every bottle of bourbon currently being made in Kentucky, over 300, along with several bottles of rye. Similar to Refined, this part of the exhibit cover ALL distillers in the state. If you can find them, these bottles are currently available at retail somewhere. As the sign states, “Photography is permitted and encouraged for our guests over 21 years of age.” Get ready to see a lot of selfies coming out of this hallowed hall. You may even see a few proposals or weddings take place here.
We can neither confirm nor deny that a Speakeasy exists on the premises here. Rumor has it (and one of the pictures below confirms it) that there is a Speakeasy hidden behind one of these walls. Hit me up if you want to know the password.
Access to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center is free, while the Spirit of Kentucky is only accessible with the cost of admission.
The Kentucky Distillers’ Association was founded in 1888. The Association created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® Tour in 1999 to promote Bourbon tourism in the state and educate visitors about the art and science of Bourbon-making. In 2012, the Association added the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour to support the many startup craft spirits makers in the state. In 2017, visitors made more than 1 million stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center & Spirit of Kentucky Exhibition Photo Gallery
Click any image to enlarge.