Central Kentucky is bourbon country. Its rolling meadows, limestone-filtered streams, and cool hardwood forests have long provided ideal conditions for producing the honey-colored drink as crucial to Kentucky legend as Daniel Boone himself.
The bluegrass byways winding through bourbon country make for a great road trip. These lanes, including 31E, 52, 127, 60, among others, connect Louisville, Bardstown, and Frankfort in a large triangle, taking in numerous distilleries offering free tours and tastings and revealing pockets of rich southern history. A drive along the Bourbon Trail provides glimpses of white-water rapids and grazing Thoroughbreds—both great for riding—and even whiffs of mint growing wild along the roadsides, lending the landscape the aroma of a perfect julep.
Start in Louisville
Stroll along the Ohio River to reach the Belle of Louisville steamboat (4th St. at River Rd.; tel. 1 502 574 2992; www.belleoflouisville.org), where Travis Vasconcelos plays the calliope. "Louisville would not exist if it weren't for steamboats," he says. "The city grew up on the Falls of the Ohio, where the boats had to stop until the water rose high enough to pass."
The Heart of Bourbon Country
The heart of bourbon country lies about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Louisville, where Knob Creek winds through low, cave-pocked hills to join the Rolling Fork River. At this site in 1780, Waddie Boone, a relative to Daniel, established a small distillery, one of the first in Kentucky. Three decades later, in 1811, a farmer named Thomas Lincoln moved into a farm on Knob Creek, not far from the distillery, along with his wife, daughter, and young son, Abraham. That cabin formed some of the earliest lasting memories for our nation's 16th President. Today Knob Creek is better known as the name of one of several boutique bourbons produced along the route that have gained popularity over the past decade. Many aficionados of America's native drink have turned away from mass-produced brands to hand-crafted spirits that better capture the authentic flavor of the place.
Grab a walking-tour map at the Bardstown's Welcome Center (One Court Sq.; tel. 800 638 4877) listing 48 historic buildings. Cross the street for a bite at the Old Talbott Tavern (107 W. Stephen Foster Ave.; tel. 1 502 348 3494; www.talbotts.com), where bourbon has been served for more than 200 years. Next door is the 1819 Nelson County Jail, once the oldest working jail in Kentucky but now a bed-and-breakfast called Jailer's Inn (tel. 1 502 348 5551, www.jailersinn.com). At the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History (114 N. 5th St.; tel. 1 502 348 2999; www.whiskeymuseum.com), learn about whiskey in general and bourbon in particular.
My Old Kentucky Dinner Train
The best meal in Bardstown is on wheels. My Old Kentucky Dinner Train (602 N. 3rd St.; tel. 1 859 881 3463; www.kydinnertrain.com) departs from the town's stone depot for a 40-mile (64-kilometer) lunch or dinner excursion. The train has three beautifully restored 1940s dining cars and two 50-year-old diesel locomotives. The Eisenhower Car, which in 1969 carried the family of the 34th President during his funeral procession, is supposedly haunted. Fortify yourself with a bourbon on the rocks, then ask any server for ghost stories and a quick, informal tour.
Bourbon Heritage Center
Visit the Bourbon Heritage Center run by Heaven Hill Distilleries (1311 Gilkey Run Rd., Bardstown; tel. 1 502 337 1000; www.bourbonheritagecenter.com). And don't miss the free museum and a film on bourbon making at Jim Beam's American Stillhouse (149 Happy Hollow Rd., Clermont; tel. 1 502 543 9877; www.jimbeam.com/american-stillhouse). Visitors can tour the Beam family home and sample the company's wares.
Abe Lincoln's Birthplace
At the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace (2995 Lincoln Farm Road, Hodgenville; tel. 1 270 358 3137; www.nps.gov/abli), a simple cabin in a green valley, hike through the pasture behind the house to the small brook on the right known as Knob Creek, take off your shoes, and wade among the crawdads and fossil rocks.
Maker's Mark Distillery
In Loretto, tour the Maker's Mark Distillery (3350 Burks Spring Road; tel. 1 270 865 2099; www.makersmark.com). The brand has only existed since 1953, but the farm that fourth-generation distiller Bill Samuels bought to create his signature bourbon has been a working mill since 1805. "I've taken all the distillery tours and this is the best of them," says a well-traveled bourbon aficionado. "You can see every step from the grinding of the corn to the final bottling."
Run Elkhorn Creek
Except for tasting the bourbon itself, there is no better way to enjoy the water it's made from than by white-water rafting on Elkhorn Creek. Canoe Kentucky (7323 Peaks Mill Rd., Frankfort; tel. 1 502 227 4492; www.canoeky.com) offers guided and unguided tours, from relaxing canoe floats to Class II and III raft trips. Nearby is the Buffalo Trace Distillery (1001 Wilkinson Blvd.; tel. 1 502 223 7461), where visitors can tour aromatic wooden warehouses packed with whiskey barrels.
In Georgetown, 19 miles (31 kilometers) east of Frankfort, you'll find historic homes and inns like Blackridge Hall (4055 Paris Pike; tel. 1 502 863 2069; www.blackridgehall.com). At the center of town, a spring emerges from a cave to form the municipal water supply.
Baptist minister Elijah Craig built a classical school here in 1787 and began making whiskey two years later. According to local tradition, a fire damaged his stock of white oak barrels, but when he saw they were merely charred, he used them to store a fresh batch of corn squeezings. The charcoal worked wonders on the aging process of his whiskey, and bourbon was born—to the delight of generations that followed.
For more information about distilleries and other attractions along the Bourbon Trail, as well as a history of the drink, see www.kybourbon.com. For travel information about the entire state, see www.kentuckytourism.com. As you find your way along the country roads making up this route, keep a map or GPS handy and don't be shy about asking the locals for directions. Otherwise, you could wind up like Daniel Boone, who at one time famously quipped, "I've never been lost, but I was bewildered once for three days."
—Text by Michael Ray Taylor, adapted from National Geographic Traveler