Five of the best distilleries on the American Whiskey Trail | Travel

US whiskey has experienced dramatic growth over the last decade, propelled by an unslakable thirst for it from Europe, China and India. But while the spirits themselves – mostly bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye – have gained distinction worldwide, their places of origin remain somewhat mysterious. This has a lot to do with their terroirs, Kentucky and Tennessee – two southern states that are low on the destination list for many visiting Europeans. The fact that some counties in these states are dry and until recently wouldn’t allow their distilleries to offer tastings, has further complicated matters.

Whiskey Trail map

But no more. The American Whiskey Trail is pinging the radar of whiskey-loving tourists. “Interest in bourbon has risen steadily over the past 10 years and with that we’ve seen bourbon tourism growing, too,” says Sydina Bradshaw, director of visitor relations at Maker’s Mark’s distillery, Kentucky. “In 2010 we hit a record 100,000 visitors and it hasn’t slowed down. In 2016 we welcomed nearly 140,000.”

Maker’s Mark is not alone. Visitors to Wild Turkey’s Lawrenceburg campus have grown by more than 10% over the last five years, and Woodford Reserve has increased by 5% each year. Jack Daniel’s saw more than a quarter of a million visitors walk through its door in the fiscal year ending in April. The tourist interest is a reflection of US whiskey’s skyrocketing global sales. After a crash in the 90s when vodka took over bars’ shelves, brown spirits are back: last year the UK consumed a record $122m in US whiskey imports (second only to Canada).

Despite being distilled in the Appalachian foothills for centuries, the idea of a formal “trail” is a relatively new concept. The “American Whiskey Trail” only dates back to 2004, when the Distilled Spirits Council recognised the growing interest and realised there was a need for a more organised visitor experience. The trail is not a linear route, rather it snakes around points of interest, such as historic bars, museums, coopers, and still-makers. The distilleries remain the real focus, however.

These five are the most interesting distilleries I visited on the trail, though I should also give a mention to cooperages such as Brown-Forman and still-maker Vendome Copper & Brass, both in Louisville.

Maker’s Mark, Loretto, Kentucky

The print shop at Maker’s Mark

The Maker’s Mark campus is arguably the most grand, its arboretum grounds flourishing with almost 300 species of flora. Yes, the heritage is there – ancestors of the Samuels clan have produced whiskey on these grounds almost continuously since 1805 – but it is the last three generations of Samuels who have created something truly special here. A tour reveals a family that cares about quality over the bottom line, in ways few can match. Efficiency, they proudly say, is overrated. This credo is apparent in humans still hand-dipping the bottle cap in signature red wax and the use of a vintage-looking press to print every label, which is then torn by hand. It also extends to the whiskey process itself, which must be seen in person to fully appreciate. Longtime patrons of the arts, Maker’s recently collaborated with renowned Kentucky glass artist Dale Chihuly to create seven sculptures installed throughout the campus in a project that runs until 31 October 2017.

Glass artist Dale Chihuly has created seven sculptures at Maker’s Mark distillery.

Glass artist Dale Chihuly has created seven sculptures at Maker’s Mark distillery.

Standard: $12 online or at the distillery (first come first serve). The one-hour tour concludes with a guided tasting of five Maker’s Mark bourbons: Maker’s White, Maker’s Mark, Maker 46, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength and a rotating sample of Maker’s Mark Private Select. Touring the grounds is normally free but the Chihuly at Maker’s exhibit costs $5.

Speciality tours
Beyond the Mark ($35) offers a more in-depth tour with behind-the-scenes stops, and in smaller groups. Inside the Barrel ($50) focuses on the wood behind your whiskey and an introduction to the distillery’s new custom barrel programme, Private Select, with speciality samplings.
3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto, +1 270 865 2099

George Dickel, Tullahoma, Tennessee

George Dickel distillery, Tullahoma, Tennessee

Photograph: David Handschu

Without question, this tiny distillery in a bucolic nook called Cascade Hollow is the region’s most quaint – and well worth a visit to see how whiskey was distilled a century ago. It is the only major distiller without a single computer on the premises, which speaks volumes for the hand-crafted dedication. The brick rickhouse (where the whiskey is aged), babbling brook and wood-framed country store all echo the distillery’s charmingly anachronistic ways. Plus, it’s the only place you can pick up a bottle of the ultra-rare George Dickel 17-Year Reserve expression – the oldest Tennessee whiskey ever bottled – for $75.

Monday to Saturday 9am-4.30pm (except major holidays), Sundays noon-4.30pm. $10pp for extended tours (includes complimentary tasting); all other tours are free.
1950 Cascade Hollow Road, Tullahoma, +1 931 857 4110,

Woodford Reserve, Versailles, Kentucky

Woofford distillery

Photograph: David Handschu

Woodford Reserve’s tasting experience is memorable: along with the whiskeys you are served a small plate of food – an orange slice, nibble of Parmesan, a single dried cranberry, dollop of sorghum molasses, chocolate and a toasted hazelnut – all to bring out the flavours of the whiskeys. For instance, cranberry delivers notes of cherry and raspberry. Along with Maker’s Mark the distillery is in one of the most stunning locations: a centuries-old campus of stone buildings tucked in among the hills of Kentucky’s famed thoroughbred farms. The 500ft barrel run – which looks like a tiny train track on which oak barrels are rolled downfield – is especially eye-catching. There’s also an onsite farm-to-table deli, Glenn’s Creek Cafe, run by award-winning chef Ouita Michael (sandwiches from $8.95).

The Distillery tour includes tastings of Distiller’s Select and Double Oaked ($14), while the Corn to Cork Tour ($30) is a two-hour dive into the mechanical, chemical, technical and sensory aspect of bourbon-making. Tours are year-round but closed on Sundays during January and February, and major holidays.
7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, +1 859 879 1812,

Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky

Wild Turkey visitor’s centre

Wild Turkey visitors’ centre

One thing the Russell family takes pride in is its adherence to retaining the same recipe and procedure even as the Wild Turkey brand has grown. Fitting, given Wild Turkey’s patriarch, Jimmy Russell, is the longest-tenured master distiller in the world (as well as one hell of a raconteur, if you’re lucky enough to pass him in the halls). It’s perhaps ironic, then, that it has the most state-of-the-art visitors’ centre. Dubbed “a cathedral to bourbon”, the stunning architectural structure opened in 2014 replete with museum, store and ornate wooden ramp leading up to the trail’s most breathtaking tasting room. Perched almost 300 feet over the Kentucky river, you can sip all sorts of Wild Turkey while watching people bungee jump from a 19th-century steel bridge.

The free visitor centre is open Monday to Saturday, 9am-5pm, and Sundays from March to December, 11am-4pm. Closed all major holidays. The standard tour costs $10 and includes a tasting; private tours cost from$25, minimum of 10 people. These tours feature the distillery, warehouse, packaging facility, dump room and cistern rooms, as well as a private tasting.
1417 Versailles Road, Lawrenceburg, +1 502 839 2182,

Jack Daniel’s, Lynchburg, Tennessee

Barrel making at Jack Daniel’s distillery

Photograph: David Handschu

Jack Daniel’s is the king of American whiskies. These grounds are hallowed, from the original rickhouse and the white clapboard office that precedes prohibition to the Hollow: a pristine open spring where crystal-clear water bubbles from the limestone cave and flows in a stream towards the distillery. It is from here that every drop of water is sourced for every bottle of JD. A statue of Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel stands by the spring, looking dapper and just a little smug. There are various expressions of JD that are very difficult to find elsewhere, such as its maple barrel-aged No 27 Gold Whiskey – so do not leave the store empty handed.

The visitor centre is open 9am-4.30pm (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day) and it’s possible stop by without a tour, as wandering the grounds and visitors’ centre is free. Tours include a Dry County tour for all ages ($14), and the Angel’s Share – with storytelling and a chance to taste its Single Barrel Collection and one limited edition whiskey ($22). All tours now highlight the story of Nathan Green, a Tennessee slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. Green’s role in creating has been researched by Black-American author Fawn Weaver who is writing a book about him and is creating a memorial park in his honour.
133 Lynchburg Highway, Lynchburg, +1 931 759 6357,

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