The Good Life: Sipping and shopping along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Steve Palec on Bourbon

Steve Palec

Last updated on May 16th, 2023 at 10:35 pm

Life’s first milestones are memorable. First kiss. First job. “First time.” First child.

(First time usually coming between first job and child.)

My first, and actually only, trip to the legendary Kentucky Bourbon Trail is indelibly stamped in my mind, although I did not take notes.

I should have…𝙳𝚎𝚊𝚛 𝙳𝚒𝚊𝚛𝚢, 𝚠𝚑𝚊𝚝 𝚊 𝚍𝚊𝚢 𝚒𝚝’𝚜 𝚋𝚎𝚎𝚗
𝙳𝚎𝚊𝚛 𝙳𝚒𝚊𝚛𝚢, 𝚒𝚝’𝚜 𝚋𝚎𝚎𝚗 𝚓𝚞𝚜𝚝 𝚕𝚒𝚔𝚎 𝚊 𝚍𝚛𝚎𝚊𝚖
𝚆𝚘𝚔𝚎 𝚞𝚙 𝚝𝚘𝚘 𝚕𝚊𝚝𝚎, 𝚠𝚊𝚜𝚗’𝚝 𝚠𝚑𝚎𝚛𝚎 𝙸 𝚜𝚑𝚘𝚞𝚕𝚍 𝚑𝚊𝚟𝚎 𝚋𝚎𝚎𝚗
𝙵𝚘𝚛 𝚐𝚘𝚘𝚍𝚗𝚎𝚜𝚜 𝚜𝚊𝚔𝚎
𝚆𝚑𝚊𝚝’𝚜 𝚑𝚊𝚙𝚙𝚎𝚗𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚝𝚘 𝚖𝚎?
𝚆𝚛𝚒𝚝𝚎 𝚕𝚒𝚐𝚑𝚝𝚕𝚢, 𝚢𝚘𝚞𝚛𝚜 𝚝𝚛𝚞𝚕𝚢, 𝚍𝚎𝚊𝚛 𝙳𝚒𝚊𝚛𝚢

I apologize. I just started singing a Moody Blues song out loud.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a program created by the Kentucky Distillers Association to promote bourbon and encourage tours. If I had written down my memories from exploring the trail, it would go something like this:

Dear Diary:

Picked up by our friends Theresa and Dave for the six-hour drive from Milwaukee to Louisville.

Toured Angel’s Envy in the heart of the city where distilling, finishing and tasting all occur in the same building. Since this was our first tour, I didn’t realize they would all have gift shops, so I didn’t pace myself and bought one of everything.

Stopped by the Evan Williams Experience, also in downtown Louisville, and while still buying everything in sight, I was not aware that I had not yet experienced the big time, the massive sites where the acreage justifies the term “trail.”

Next day we headed out to the Bulleit distillery and their three hundred acres in Shelbyville (Kentucky). This was an enjoyable in-depth education on all the steps involved in making bourbon that was almost as cool as the fact that you can sit behind Tom Bulleit’s actual desk in his actual office when he’s not there. (That and the tastings and the gift shop.)

Next up, the Buffalo Trace complex on 429 in Frankfort, home of many of my favorites (Blanton’s, Pappy, Stagg, E.H.Taylor). Their hard hat tour was spectacular and got you up close to the mashbills, stills, and rickhouse (where the bourbon ages). Again, I went nuts in the gift shop not only procuring clothing, but taking advantage of a deal that made Blanton’s available for purchase at list price! One bottle per person. I hypnotized everyone near us to fool them into letting me take their bottles.

Also made it to Makers Mark (got to dip a bottle in the signature red wax) in Loretta, Jim Beam’s massive operation (got to bottle my own bottle of Knobs Creek right off the assembly line) in Clement, and the absolutely gorgeous grounds of Woodford Reserve in Versailles where great bourbon has been distilled since the early 1800s. Woodford’s historic Kentucky spot is so picturesque you expect Secretariat to gallop right by you (which meant I held on to my stuff from the gift shop with both hands).

We also made it to the Kentucky Artisan Distillery (Jefferson’s Reserve) in Crestwood, an outfit small enough that actually trusts you to poke your head in their lab.

You’ll note all of the Kentucky cities mentioned are a short drive from Louisville. So, if you go, you’ll want to budget as many days as you can.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you, Diary, of the other great attractions we experienced. The Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville is phenomenal. The restaurants are amazing, including Feast, where we feasted on barbecue, and an award-winning spot called 610 Magnolia where we had a gourmet BLT the size of a postage stamp. And not a commemorative stamp. While that appetizer made me concerned that we would leave unfulfilled, it was certainly not the case. Also enjoyed the bourbon themed bed and breakfast my wife and I stayed in for a night, the Louisville Bourbon Inn, as well as the hospitality of Julie and Doug, friends of Theresa and Dave’s. Doug is a pilot for Louisville based FedEx who was a pilot on Air Force One and had unbelievable stories, none of which I can share with you. Sorry, Diary.

Also, I figured it might be a good idea to stop at a liquor store to see if I could find bourbons I don’t normally get at home. Sure enough, I did, and while my credit card company’s fraud division will usually contact me if my card is used in Azerbaijan, or I buy a book on physics, they didn’t blink an eye at my purchase of $20 million worth of bourbon.

It is a good thing that Dave and Theresa have a massive pickup truck, because on the way home it was filled with all of my souvenirs and exceptional bottles of bourbon, many of which are now collector’s items.

There are, of course, even more distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail that we didn’t have time to hit. Whether you do the research, play it by ear, get a guide or emulate my diary, if you enjoy bourbon, you will love the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Or if you don’t even drink bourbon, like my wife, you will still enjoy the stories and scenery.

Steve Palec is chief marketing officer of Wauwatosa-based commercial real estate development firm Irgens. ‘The Good Life: Steve Palec on Bourbon’ lifestyle feature appears regularly at

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