Kentucky Bourbon Trail

By Clifton Thuma

Years ago, I visited a bourbon distillery in Clifton, Kentucky. It was the name thing. What a dreary place. It was gritty with patched siding, weathered roofs — just dust and rust. ‘This is where my ‘Clifton’ bourbon is from?’ I thought. The foreman showed me around. He explained that the United States got into Scotch whisky after WWII, but then shifted in preference to vodka. Bourbon sales fell heavily. A few years later, new owners removed the Clifton whiskey inventory, the copper stills and closed it down.

My how things have changed since 1981!  In an attempt to revive the bourbon industry, in 1999 the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA) started a marketing promotion called the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour ( The purpose was to give visitors a firsthand 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 Origins Of Bourbon
According to historians at the KDA, the love for bourbon began in the 1700s with the first settlers of Kentucky. Like most farmers and frontiersmen, they found that getting crops to market over narrow trails and steep mountains was a daunting task.

They soon learned that converting corn and other grains to whiskey made them easily transportable, prevented the excess grain from simply rotting, and gave them some welcome diversion from the rough life of the frontier. Since then, generations of Kentuckians have continued the heritage and time-honored tradition of making fine bourbon, unchanged from the process used by their ancestors centuries before.

What’s In The Name?
How did bourbon get its name? Guests on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour learn that 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.

Soon, say experts at the KDA, whiskey from Bourbon County grew in popularity and became known as bourbon whiskey. In 1964, Congress officially recognized bourbon’s place in Kentucky’s history — and its future — by declaring it a distinctive product of the United States. Or, as bourbon distillers like to say, “America’s Official Native Spirit.”

What Officially Qualifies as Bourbon?
The ‘grain recipe’ of bourbon is up to the distiller, although it must be at least 51 percent corn. The water the distiller uses for the fermentation of the ‘mash’ affects the flavors of the distilled liquid, too. The result is a clear, high-alcohol distillant (the ‘white dog’), which is aged in new, charred, white oak barrels. The bourbon is then cut with water from 125 proof (62.5% alcohol) to between 100 and 80 (the legal minimum) for bottling.

Water is why you want to go around visiting different distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The Appalachian Mountains drain into aquifers that cross Kentucky’s deep underground, passing through limestone and gravel. This mineral-rich water comes up in small springs across much of the state. Early settlers discovered that the springs in central and eastern Kentucky made for better whiskey. (The limestone filters out the dissolved iron, which would cause a sulphuric residue.)

Bourbon For Aficionados
Today, Kentucky is experiencing a renaissance in ‘high-end’ bourbon. Famous brands your great-grandfather would have imbibed are sharing the tony boar shelves with new, small-production bottlings. These are very fine drinking indeed.

Members of the KDA are pleased that Kentucky Bourbon is receiving the American recognition it deserves. Bourbon is a signature industry that has helped create 9,000 jobs, generating more than $125 million in tax revenue each year and is a growing international symbol of Kentucky craftsmanship and tradition. Bourbon tourism is skyrocketing, too, with nearly 2.5 million visitors from all 50 states and 25 countries to the world-famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour in the last five years alone.

New facilities are being built and old ones restored to meet the demand for high quality bourbon.  (Even my old Clifton distillery is being rehabbed!)  Whiskey fans love the backstory — to see where these bourbons are made. (I was definitely an early adapter!)

With so many options now for visiting, a bourbon amateur or aficionado may need help choosing which distilleries and tasting rooms to experience. Opulence spoke with
David Nichols of Louisville’s Mint Julep Tours ( for recommendations.

“We work with the KDA and other partners in meeting the demand for distillery tours. We offer the smaller distilleries on the Craft Trail, too,” Nichols said. “Anytime is great to tour, but the autumn and springtime are especially beautiful here in Kentucky.” Several times a week, Mint Julep has a public tour of two distilleries and a tasting. With transportation, guide, admission fees and lunch, the tour is $139.

Bourbon 101
Bourbon labels tell you a lot if you know the lingo: ‘Straight’ bourbons state how long they were barreled (at least two years).  They cannot have any other spirits, caramel coloring or flavorings added. ‘Blended’ bourbon is half straight bourbon mixed with vodka-like ‘neutral grain spirits’ and additives to ‘smooth’ it out.

The Trace Tour
The Trace Tour begins with an engaging video of the history of Buffalo Trace Distillery. You will then walk amidst the path of rolling bourbon barrels and enjoy the alluring smell and atmosphere of bourbon sleeping inside the aging warehouses. Then you will go inside the renowned Blanton’s Bottling Hall where you will see signature bourbons being filled, sealed, labeled, and packaged—all by hand.

All tours are complimentary and include a tasting of some of our award-winning products.

All visitors are welcome to walk in and there is no need to make a reservation unless you have a group of 25 or more. Please contact for booking large group tours.