Kentucky Bourbon Trail - The Napa-fication of Kentucky's Bourbon Trail

When people hear the name Kentucky they generally think of two things; thoroughbred horses and bourbon. In fact, it’s not uncommon while traveling around the Bluegrass State to see a thoroughbred farm surrounded by a picturesque four board fence while traveling to visit one’s favorite distillery. Horses and bourbon actually have a lot in common in particular limestone water. They say that Kentucky’s unique rolling hills and water aquifers contribute to this ideal water source. As the horses graze in pastures grown on limestone they consume calcium carbonate which helps to harden their bones. On the bourbon front the limestone rich water is high in mineral content and low in iron creating the perfect combination for fermenting and distilling of Bourbon – America’s Native Spirit.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail – A Bourbon Lover’s Paradise

Kentucky Distillers' Association - 2020 Quickshots About Tourisms Impact on Kentucky
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The Kentucky Distillers’ Association has been around since the late 19th century. The Association was founded in 1880 and has been operating ever since except for that 13 year dark period in American history known as Prohibition. Restarted in 1935 the Association’s mission has remained steadfast to protect the trade interests of the industry and to handle common problems in a concerted action. In 1999 that mission expanded with the addition of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail™ which has become one of the state’s most famous and fastest-growing tourism attractions. Since the Trail was created it’s continued to grow in the number of distilleries participating and in the number of visitors it attracts each year. In 2019 the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour welcomed 1,719,821 visits in 2019. That’s a 171% increase in attendance over just the last seven years. As not all distillers are members of the Association the total number of visits to distilleries is actually much higher.

It’s hard to believe today but it wasn’t too long ago that visitors to a distillery could watch their favorite product being made but often could not taste it because many of the county’s that are home to these distilleries were dry. As the laws have changed over the last several years so has the distillery tour experience. Distilleries can now offer up to 1 ¾ ounces of samples, cocktails, food, and up to six 750mL bottle purchases per person per day. These changes just in the last few years have opened up opportunities for distilleries like never before. These changes continue to help distillers achieve their goal of becoming the Napa Valley of Bourbon.

“Kentucky’s revered distilling industry continues to grow at a tremendous rate, fueling the state’s economy and revolutionizing tourism for Kentucky,” said Eric Gregory, President of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.

Here’s the way the state’s Governor once put it. “As I promote Kentucky around the world, I’m frequently asked about our historic Bourbon industry. The love of Bourbon is a global phenomenon with deep roots planted in Kentucky, and the economic impact of the industry is growing rapidly. Kentucky’s Bourbon industry proudly employs farmers, manufacturing workers, engineers, marketers, business professionals, and many others.”

The Napa-fication of Kentucky?

Like a lot of projects you have to have a cool name and in 2019 a New York Times article by bourbon author Clay Risen put a name on the movement with the Napa-fication of Kentucky. Kentucky distillers and tourism industry professionals from around the state have made many visits to California’s Napa Valley to learn how they became America’s premiere wine destination. As Kentucky’s laws have changed and distilleries continue to invest in the communities this dream is becoming a reality.

Kentucky distilleries have been working for years to become destinations. The vision for distilleries has expanded from a one-time visit to becoming destinations not just for a few hours but for an entire day to multiple days. Distilleries now have beautiful tasting rooms, multiple tour options, restaurants, bars and soon B&B’s. In years past people would say I did the Bourbon Trail and check it off their bucket list. With these new amenities there’s now a reason to return to the distillery again and again. And, not just for out of town visitors but for locals that want to experience a nice dinner and cocktails as the scent of aging bourbon and the Angels Share wafts through the air.

Just as Napa Valley experience has evolved over the years Kentucky distilleries and communities along the Trail are looking to offer more reasons for tourist to come visit again to experience the bourbon lifestyle. It’s the Napa-fication of Kentucky.

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Napa Valley Tourism by the Numbers

California’s Napa Valley is America’s premier wine, food, arts and wellness visitor destination. A visit to Napa Valley is filled with rolling hills, beautiful sunsets, events, weddings, weekend getaways and memories that last a lifetime.

The most recent research data shows that Napa Valley welcomed 3.85 million guests in 2018 with 19.2% coming from outside of the U.S. Visitors to the area spent a whopping $2.23 billion supporting local businesses. Overall Napa Valley’s visitor industry genera $85.1 million in tax revenue for local services and created an estimated 15,872 jobs with a combined payroll of $492 million.  

Why Do Visitors Love the Napa Valley?

When asked why people visited Napa Valley survey respondents used words like relaxing, serene, beautiful, peaceful, tasty, lifestyle experience and authentic.

It’s one thing to talk about the impact of adult beverages and impact tourism can have on a community but it’s another thing to back them up with numbers and that’s just what the Visit Napa Valley group has done. Here’s an Infographic that provides a snapshot of the most recent data.

Kentucky Bourbon by the Numbers

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association provides annual data with the impact of bourbon on the state of Kentucky. The distilleries have spent $100s of millions of dollars in creating the bourbon visitor experience and it’s paying off for the distilleries and the communities they are a part of.

Here is a snapshot of how the bourbon industry has impacted the Bluegrass State.

2020 has certainly not turned out like anyone had planned but a drive around the Kentucky countryside reveals the sweet sound of saws, the beeping of trucks backing up and the pounding of hammers as the bourbon construction boom continues as the Napa-fication of Kentucky continues non-stop.

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Bourbon Comes from Bardstown – ‘Building a Tourism Economy in Small-Town, USA’ [Sample Chapter]

View all Kentucky Distilleries.
Learn more about the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Learn more about the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour.

Sources: Kentucky Distillers’ Association |

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