It happens almost every single time. As I ease the tour bus through Marion County and around the curves of Highway 49, one of my passengers will notice that silly sign. It stands just before the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Holy Cross and has been confounding Bourbon Trail tour guides for decades. One glance in my rear view mirror and I see some concerned passengers. I can’t blame them for being a bit confused since they all just read a highway sign that indicates I just missed the sharp left turn to the Maker’s Mark Distillery.
“Don’t worry,” I say reassuringly. “We all call that the lying sign.”
“Is that turn not the way to Maker’s Mark?”
“Oh, that road will get you there, but it’s certainly not the fastest way.”
No Two Bourbon Trips Are The Same
A large part of being Kentucky Bourbon Trail® tour guide is knowing the best shortcuts from distillery to distillery and town to town. And, almost more importantly, knowing when there are no shortcuts. We often have guests who are eager to dodge interstates and take a scenic route through Kentucky instead. Requests like these are usually very easy to accommodate since the so-called scenic route is often the only route.
Some of the distances between any two of the 24 stops on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail® and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® can be remarkably short. For example, you can make the quick jaunt from the Jim Beam American Stillhouse to Four Roses Cox’s Creek location in under seven minutes.
However, the distance between any given pairing can be also ridiculously long. If your plans include a visit to both the MB Roland Distillery in Hopkinsville and Old Pogue Distillery across the state in Maysville, the drive will take you every bit of five hours along with a change in time zones. And remember, just because Google Maps tells you the distance to the next distillery is 50 miles away, that almost never means it’s only going to take you 50 minutes to get there!
A Little Planning Goes a Long Way
One thing you pick up on very quickly as a guide is the importance of booking tours in advance at the more sought-after Kentucky distilleries. The crowds, especially on Fridays and Saturday in spring and fall, are big and getting bigger. Last year nearly 1,200,000 excited bourbon-loving guests visited at least one stop on The Kentucky Bourbon Trail®.
Along with stunningly handsome tour guides, a top benefit of riding with a tour operator like Mint Julep Experiences is making sure that you never get shut out of a tour. My guests always have a seat at the tasting table that’s been booked well in advance.
Time and time again, I’ve seen the forlorn faces of guests walking out of places like Woodford Reserve and Jim Beam. Do-it-yourself bachelor parties and other small groups who have just been told that the distillery is sold out of tours and tasting for the day. Most locations schedule that final tour early in the afternoon between 3:30 and 4:30 PM. I often see those without reservations scrambling to jet off to find another spot before everything is closed.
Growing To Capacity and Beyond
What many guests don’t see is how much has changed in a remarkably short time at bourbon distilleries across Kentucky. The growth has been nothing short of jaw dropping. New massive bourbon aging warehouses holding upwards of 50,000 barrels sit where only cornfields were found two years earlier. Tall, state-of-the-art column stills are being installed to either replace or double the output of existing stills. All to satiate the domestic and international demand for our beloved whiskey.
But the current bourbon boom is most apparent in the visitor centers, gift shops and homeplaces of distilleries. Nearly every company has expanded, moved, or built gorgeous new facilities for guests in the last decade. I’ve seen tour staffs double and triple to accommodate crowds. And I see no end in sight.
Can’t Beat The View From My Office
Travel times and crowded distilleries aside, I count myself as one of the luckiest working stiffs in Kentucky. My job has perks that you just won’t find in any other gig. One of my favorite parts of any day is taking a turn past a spot that you know is going to generate audible gasps from your passengers.
Scenic views like Young’s High Bridge near Wild Turkey (especially when they are bungee jumping), turning past the thoroughbred practice track at Pin Oak Stud in Woodford County, and slowly ambling down 3rd Street in Bardstown.
I see amazed faces every time I pull into the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort or first arrive at Claiborne Farms near Paris. And no matter how many times I’ve visit these places, the sites simply never get old.
A Souvenir Every Bourbon Trail Tour Guide Wants
Every now and then, luck and timing has me wandering around a distillery just when a gift shop is rolling out a limited-edition or distillery exclusive rare whiskey release that will likely be gone from the shelves within hours. I’ve ended up with some amazing sought-after bottles in my cabinet that come complete with a story of a memorable bourbon tour group. But since each purchase leaves my wallet a little lighter and my wife a little grumpier, I guess this perk also doubles as a job hazard.
And, while we’re on the topic, no, I don’t know where in Kentucky you can buy a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. But that doesn’t stop the question from coming up on nearly every tour. Often before we’re five minutes into the day.
Beyond The Bourbon There Is Chocolate
And of course, I’ve learned who gives out the most delicious Bourbon Ball in Kentucky. Since I’m unable to imbibe in any samples, I subsist on a steady diet of that delectable treat of sugar, chocolate, butter, pecans and a touch of bourbon. Since these can be found in many tasting rooms across the state, I’ve consumed nearly 32,500 bourbon balls to date. At this point, I can say definitively who serves up the epitome of the perfect Bourbon Ball…but I’ll never tell.
About the Author – Phil Kollin
Phil Kollin has been a Tour Guide & Host for Mint Julep Tours since 2015. He has hosted over 450 groups on bourbon adventures, horse tours and other custom experiences across the state. Phil is both a Louisville Certified Tourism Ambassador and a Certified Bourbon Steward through the Stave and Thief Society. Like Daniel Boone, Phil also believes that “Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.” He can usually be found wandering around distilleries while wearing fun socks.