When you think of Kentucky bourbon distilleries, you're likely imagining a towering column still, the aromas of charred oak barrels and ageing whiskey along racks upon racks, or the classic 1800s exterior donning many fine facilities. Often lost in this distillery magnificence is the visitor centres themselves.
The Kentucky bourbon visitor centres are constantly expanding and adding new wings and tastings rooms. They've become their own signature to their respective brands and offer so much more than a few choice gifts to take home and enjoy.
Visitor centres are becoming so important that their visitor centre management position has quickly become one of the more coveted positions in all of bourbon. If you think about it, the visitor centres are the definitive gateway into bourbon. Last year, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and its craft section recorded 725,000 visits and Buffalo Trace, which is not on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, reported 123,331 visitors. Both are significant increases from the year prior and are an indicator that the world loves bourbon.
"Some of our distilleries are up 200 percent in attendance over the last five years, which is great news for local communities that are reaping the tourism benefits," said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillery Association. "And that best news is that we keep adding more and more distilleries."
Here are a few visitor centres worth checking out.
501 Cathedral Manor, Bardstown
Once closed to the public, 1792 Barton - formerly the Tom Moore Distillery, formerly the Barton Distillery - is a true bourbon geek's experience. The tour gives an industrial look at one of the more underrated bourbon facilities.
Bourbon Heritage Centre
1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown
When Heaven Hill opened the Bourbon Heritage Centre in 2004, it became an integral piece to the growing bourbon tourism movement. Although the centre is a fantastic ride down memory lane, its greatest attribute is a mini bourbon mall, offering more apparel and bourbon than any other visitor centre. In other words, it's a great place to buy gifts!
113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort
This magnificent and historic facility is vast, and you could tour it 20 times and still feel the need to visit Buffalo Trace again. The good news is: with its current renovations, we will all need to walk the grounds again. Buffalo Trace is repurposing 5,500 square feet above its current foot print that will be completed by Kentucky Derby 2015. The vertical expansion will give the visitor centre 11,000 square feet.
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
528 W Main Street, Louisville
When the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience was built in 2013, it immediately leapfrogged all visitor centres as the most visual and interactive. Using actors, Heaven Hill Brands recreated the late 1700s experiences of the real Evan Williams. Through film and tastings, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience takes you through so many historical whiskey moments that if you only had one hour to spend on Bourbon, your only stop should be the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.
1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, KY 624 Lotus Road, Cox's Creek, KY
Four Roses has two locations worth visiting - the Lawrenceburg and Cox's Creek facilities. And while these both offer lovely visuals, the greatest aspect of Four Roses is the best-in-Bourbon education you receive from well-trained tour guides. Of course, you'd expect nothing less from guides trained by Whisky Magazine Hall-of-Famers Al Young and Jim Rutledge.
Jim Beam American Stillhouse
526 Happy Hollow Road Clermont, KY
When Jim Beam unveiled its $30-million American Stillhouse visitor centre in 2012, Kentucky governor Steve Beshear said "it was a great day for the Commonwealth." Indeed. The world's No. 1 selling Bourbon deserved an all-encompassing visitor's centre like this, showing Beam in all its glory.
1280 Veterans Memorial Highway, Lebanon
Have you seen the popular reality TV show Moonshiners? Well, Limestone Branch used to contract distill for the Moonshiner's reality TV star Tim Smith. At Limestone, you'll see Steve and Paul Beam's operation that includes their side of the Beam family heritage - Yellowstone Bourbon - and a one-on-one experience with lots of laughs and knowledge.
3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto
Since Rob Samuels has taken the lead at Maker's Mark, the founder's grandson has made the visitor centre a priority. He's developed a Napa Valley-like tasting room and commissioned artists to bring a little atypical colour to Bourbon. Most notably, legendary Dale Chihuly installed a hand-blown glass piece inside a visitor Bourbon rackhouse. It's called 'The Spirit of the Maker.'
1417 Versailles Road, Lawrenceburg
The newly renovated Wild Turkey visitor centre is a walk down memory lane, taking you through a timeline of the brand's history and its iconic master distiller Jimmy Russell's accomplishments. The exterior looks like a barrel warehouse, and the inside smells and feels like one, too. The original still is on display, and the open design gives you lots of room to wander and look upon the greatest view in all of bourbon - a bluff's glance over the Kentucky River.
1869 Loretto Road, Bardstown
Perhaps no distillery embodies visitor enthusiasm better than Willett. The site is a treasure trove for fine bourbons and ryes, and its people offer the great all-round tours, giving you a behind-the-scenes feel for bourbon, its heritage and why family matters.
The Woodford Reserve Distillery Visitor Experience sings an extravagant tune with fine leather chairs, a fireplace in the winter and a stellar tasting room. For all of its polish the visitor's experience best attraction is its porch, where you could sit all day in a rocking chair and just look at the distillery.