The historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively is a great spot for an historic tour. | All photos by Steve Coomes

I talk to lots of bourbon drinkers, many of whom are aficionados of the spirit. But surprisingly few of these folks say they’ve toured an actual distillery, which is a bit surprising given that the Bourbon Trail’s tourist visits last year exceeded the 1 million mark.

There’s nothing like it—not even the next bourbon distillery, because none is the same as the next—especially if you’re a bourbon fan. To see it made, taste it coming off a still, smell the aromas of fermenting and cooking mash, tour a rickhouse where its aged and hear the endless stories of these legendary producers never gets old for me.

The heart of Four Roses' distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky.
The heart of Four Roses’ distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky.

Maybe I’m dim and easily fascinated by the experience, or maybe I’m like some of my peers who return knowing they’ll learn something new. Fortunately, many of my distillery tours are press visits that include behind-the-scenes looks at grittier areas regular tourists don’t always get to see. That’s where the machines are louder and hotter and their metal more patinaed, where the floors and dark surfaces bear a scrim of grain dust from that day’s milling. These visits will remind you that making bourbon is hard and dirty work.

Other times tours include a visit to the “to Q-A,” a.k.a. the quality-assurance lab, where skilled tasters do their enviable work and the master distiller approves or rejects a barrel or batch. The shelves in these labs have countless samples of batches going back from weeks old to decades ancient to mark the flavor path that brand must follow to perpetuate its house style. These are the rooms in which you want to be if foul weather or imminent war necessitates you shelter in place for an extended period.

The Q-A lab at Four Roses, the place where you want to be if the lights go out.
The Q-A lab at Four Roses, the place where you want to be if the lights go out.

With the opening of Angel’s Envy this year and Kentucky Peerless Distilling nearly two years ago, and the Stitzel-Weller Experience before that, it’s easier than ever to tour a distillery and remain in Louisville. Both are striking and stylish examples of the confluence bourbon making and bourbon tourism. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is also excellent, and with this summer’s opening of Old Forester’s tourist distillery and next year’s unveiling of Mitcher’s tourist distillery, the choices right under our noses rise to six. Seven when you count Copper & Kings American Brandy Distillery in Butchertown, which definitely is worth visiting.

The rest of the “legacy distilleries,” as the older and larger ones are known, are located less than two hours from the city, yet often so close to each other that it’s easy to visit more than one in a day.

Concerned about drinking and driving? Most tastings that come with tour visits include enough bourbon for some good sips, but far less than would affect one’s sobriety. Still, some stops on the Bourbon Trail are now selling cocktails, and if you choose to indulge, designate a driver who doesn’t. Or find a paid tour where you let someone else handle the driving.

Fermentation vats at Four Roses. The aroma is amazing.
Fermentation vats at Four Roses. The aroma is amazing.

Want to go? Visit this link to see the complete lineup of all distillery stops on the Bourbon Trail. And don’t neglect the craft distillery stops. Oftentimes these stops include facetime with master distillers who love answering questions.

Either way, get out and go see how bourbon is made. Trust me, it’ll even taste better once you’ve enjoyed the experience.

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Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 25-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass, Whisky Magazine, and The Bourbon Review. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.