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7 tips for visiting bourbon distilleries and traveling the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

So you’ve scratched the bourbon itch and you’re eager to tackle the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Cool – but so do hundreds of thousands of other people.

The Kentucky Distillers Association reported 2.55 million visits to Kentucky distilleries in 2023, with visitors coming from 48 states, 20 countries and six continents. Kentucky Bourbon’s popularity has exploded over the past decade, and craft distilling and the tourism industry have also flourished. Due to demand, walk-in tours and tastings are not always available and reservations for accommodation, experiences and dining are often encouraged.

If you plan to hike the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, be prepared.

Ahead of the summer travel season, The Courier Journal contacted tourism officials in Louisville, Bardstown and Frankfort to determine how far in advance you should make your plans.

Ready to hit the road? Here’s what you need to know about planning a bourbon adventure in Kentucky.

Is there a time of year when the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is less busy?

The barrels of bourbon mature for two years in a small rickhouse at the Limestone Branch Distillery.The barrels of bourbon mature for two years in a small rickhouse at the Limestone Branch Distillery.

The barrels of bourbon mature for two years in a small rickhouse at the Limestone Branch Distillery.

The end of winter is generally the least busy time to visit Kentucky, but in recent years many distilleries have seen an uptick around the winter holiday season and even in January, February and early March.

When should you book a tour of a bourbon distillery in Kentucky?

Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KentuckyBuffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky

Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky

Tourism officials recommend booking tours at least a month in advance, but this largely depends on the distillery you want to visit. Distilleries individually release calendars for booking dates. Some distilleries, such as the ever-popular Buffalo Trace Distillery (which is not on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail), open bookings two months in advance and offer a waiting list. Other distilleries have calendars that extend three months or more in advance.

Officials recommend first researching the distilleries you know you want to visit, finding out when those calendars are released and booking those must-see experiences as soon as possible. Set calendar reminders on your phone so you can go back when the time comes.

When should I book a hotel or Airbnb for a trip along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?

Entrance to the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville.Entrance to the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville.

Entrance to the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville.

If you are planning a weekend away in April, early May, September or October, book in advance as much as possible. In most cases, you can find accommodation in Frankfort with about two weeks’ notice. Bardstown officials recommended booking at least 1-2 months in advance. For big events, like the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown in September, some people reserve their rooms a full year in advance.

When should I make a reservation at a Kentucky Bourbon Distillery restaurant?

The kitchen table at the Jim Beam Distillery offers several signature cocktails, from the Chaiball that Jim Beam mixes with chai and sparkling water to the Crop Circle, with Old Crow, a poblano pepper, charred corn, lime and chipotle oil. The kitchen table at the Jim Beam Distillery offers several signature cocktails, from the Chaiball that Jim Beam mixes with chai and sparkling water to the Crop Circle, with Old Crow, a poblano pepper, charred corn, lime and chipotle oil.

The kitchen table at the Jim Beam Distillery offers several signature cocktails, from the Chaiball that Jim Beam mixes with chai and sparkling water to the Crop Circle, with Old Crow, a poblano pepper, charred corn, lime and chipotle oil.

In general, officials recommend making dinner reservations at least two weeks in advance. Distillery restaurants tend to be less open than traditional restaurants, so reservations will be scarcer. If you’ve already secured a bourbon experience at a distillery, try to make a reservation to coincide with it.

When should I book a tour company to help me travel the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?

A distillation column at the Rabbit Hole Distillery.  September 22, 2018A distillation column at the Rabbit Hole Distillery.  September 22, 2018

A distillation column at the Rabbit Hole Distillery. September 22, 2018

Again, officials recommend closing this as soon as possible. Many travel organizations open their calendars for bookings a year in advance.

How many Kentucky Bourbon Distilleries can you visit in one day?

The extensive gift shop at Louisville bourbon distiller Angel's Envy.  The distiller is expanding to meet demand for its products and interest in factory tours.  June 8, 2022The extensive gift shop at Louisville bourbon distiller Angel's Envy.  The distiller is expanding to meet demand for its products and interest in factory tours.  June 8, 2022

The extensive gift shop at Louisville bourbon distiller Angel’s Envy. The distiller is expanding to meet demand for its products and interest in factory tours. June 8, 2022

Tours typically range from 30 to 90 minutes. When planning your agenda, make sure you keep an eye on how close you stack them together and what your travel time between distilleries might be. Many distilleries have cocktail bars and gift shops, so even if you’re delayed, you’ll almost certainly find somewhere interesting to linger.

The closer the distilleries are to each other, the more you can visit in one day. For example, Louisville has several distilleries within walking distance of each other, and in Lexington you can visit three distilleries in a row in the Distillery District. Travelers will need a car or tour bus to explore the distilleries in Bardstown or Frankfort.

A leisurely traveler might hit about three in one day, while a more thorough planner might hit five.

What are the hidden gems along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail?

Whiskey Thief Distilling Co.Whiskey Thief Distilling Co.

Whiskey Thief Distilling Co.

It is usually easier to book a tour at smaller craft distilleries than at internationally known brands. Distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour may have more availability than the traditional Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

For example, Whiskey Thief Distilling Company in Frankfort still offers walk-in tours, but they recommend calling ahead.

Many newer or smaller distilleries are not on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail, such as the J. Mattingly 1845 Distillery in Frankfort, as well as Louisville’s Buzzards Roost and NuLu Whiskey Company.

Bardstown Bourbon Company and Castle & Key also operate tasting rooms in downtown Louisville.

Featured columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, beautiful and sometimes a little weird. If you have something in your family, your city, or even your closet that fits that description, she wants to hear from you. Sometimes she also writes about bourbon. Say hello at [email protected]. Follow us on Instagram @MaggieMenderski.

This article originally appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal: Tips and Advice for Booking Kentucky Bourbon Trail Distillery Tours