The spirit of the south: the origins of Kentucky's bourbon

From small-scale urban whisky producers to tasting rooms set in spectacular countryside, sip your way through Kentucky in style.

Immerse yourself in the history of the spirit at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Photograph by Kentucky Department of Tourism
By Zoey Goto
Published 6 Apr 2023, 10:00 BST

Kentucky’s craft bourbon scene is having a moment. Last year, the state attracted a record-breaking two million visitors to tour its famous distilleries and meet the makers of what is officially ‘America’s native spirit’.

Bourbon is king in the Bluegrass State. This is a place where, at any given time, 11 million barrels of it can be found ageing in vast brick warehouses – that’s two barrels to every single Kentucky resident. Where a staggering 95% of the world’s bourbon is created, it is complete with tours, tastings, specialist bars where the artisan cocktail list reads like a small novel, and quaint rural retreats that mix rolling paddocks with bourbon-soaked cuisine. 

A great jumping-off point for exploring the state’s spirited bourbon industry is Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city, situated on the banks of the Ohio River. Follow Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail to tour downtown distilleries, such as Evan Williams and Old Forester Distilling Co, and visit bars and restaurants getting seriously creative with bourbon and stroll along its storied Whiskey Row. This colourful block of cast-iron-fronted bourbon warehouses that’s seen a recent renaissance as hip speakeasy bars and distilleries make a welcome return. 

At the Derby Café at The Kentucky Derby Museum, grab its ‘hot brown sandwich’, a local delicacy, and have a bar-side chat with Johnny ‘Bourbon’ Arnett, the clued-up mixologist who can race you through the impressive collection of 170 bourbons lining the shelves behind him. But you really can’t go wrong with a classic mint julep cocktail, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, a heart-pumping horse race dubbed the ‘greatest two minutes in sports’. 

Horses grazing in pasture in Lexington, Kentucky.

Horses grazing in pasture in Lexington, Kentucky.

Photograph by Kentucky Department of Tourism

Leaving the bright lights of the city behind, journey 30 minutes south from Louisville to Clermont to visit the leafy sanctuary of the James B Beam Distilling Co. Since production started in 1795, this family-run empire has seen eight generations of master distillers rolling its creaky oak barrels. Nowadays, the distillery, which recently underwent a £50 million investment, produces major players in the beverage world, including Jim Beam and the bold-hitting Knob Creek brand. 

Driving through a patchwork of gentle hills and handsome thoroughbred farms bordered with white picket fences, arrive at Lexington, situated in the heart of Kentucky. Here, a network of 15 bourbon distilleries dot the scenic landscape, giving the racecourses, equestrian museums and riding stables a run for their money. 

The saying goes that in Lexington every bar is a bourbon bar, but the famous Bluegrass Tavern takes things up a level with the largest collection of individual bourbons in all of Kentucky. Rows of amber bottles, glowing invitingly, line the back bar. Here, you’ll find both well-known and rare bourbon labels, nicknamed ‘dusties’. Unsure what to order? Just ask the bar staff, who’ll readily share their encyclopaedic knowledge. 

At over 200 years old, the nearby Buffalo Trace Distillery is one of the oldest continuously operating distilleries in the US, somehow even keeping the lights on during the Prohibition era. Home to a dazzling arboretum and peaceful botanical gardens, this sprawling distillery offers tours that blend history with science. Remarkably, they’re free to join and culminate in a tasting session. It’s the perfect way to round off an intoxicating trip through Kentucky’s legendary bourbon country.

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Discover more about Kentucky and its whisky's origins, plus information on how to book your trip, at

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