Lexington is a hard place not to love. Who doesn’t enjoy rolling pastures, winding country roads, idyllic horse farms, and historic bourbon distilleries? We knew going in we would like the area, but our visit was made even more enjoyable when old friends from D.C. flew out to join us for the weekend. Danielle and Art also joined us way back when we were imprisoned in Massachusetts. They’re kind of our traveling drinking buddies which makes sense because I met them back in college, the ‘formative drinking years.’ (I once sent them home from a party at my apartment with a plastic garbage can full of grain alcohol Kool-Aid. Some people forge lifelong friendships on the field of battle; I do it by handing out grain alcohol party favors). The point is, as much fun as it’s been for us to make new friends on the road, there’s nothing quite like hanging out with people who’ve know you longer than you’ve known your spouse.

Photo of Kevin, Laura, Danielle, and Art at Four Roses Distillery

Our trip to Lexington was also made easier by a former colleague of mine and his wife who recently traveled to Lexington and who were kind enough to share all their good intel about the area. Benjamin and Rachel gave us a complete itinerary to work with – distilleries, restaurants, and sightseeing options, for both Lexington and Louisville. They saved us a ton of time and gave us great recommendations. Thanks so much, guys!!

Bourbon barrels sitting in warehouse in Lexington, Kentucky

Four Roses

If Four Roses had a theme, it would be “a work in progress.” We learned that the distillery had once been highly regarded but fell out of favor when its management opted to send the company’s high quality bourbon overseas while distributing a low quality liquor in the United States. In recent years, the company has gone back to its roots and is once again producing high quality bourbons for the domestic market. As a result, the company has been steadily winning back its reputation.

Bottles of Four Roses Bourbons

The factory itself is currently undergoing major renovations, so we were unable to go inside. Instead, our tour guide showed us the grounds, explained the history of the company, and described the bourbon making process. She also explained the method by which all of these Kentucky distilleries survived Prohibition – by producing the “medicine” that so many people suddenly needed…

Bottle of Four Roses Bourbon with prescription sticker affixed to it.
A bottle of “prescription bourbon” from the 1920’s. 2 ounces in hot water” – AKA: a hot toddy.

While we couldn’t see everything, our visit to Four Roses was still a decent introduction to the Bourbon Trail. I will say, however, if you’re visiting the area and you don’t have time to go to all four local distilleries, this is the obvious one to skip, at least until they complete their renovations.

A bench in front of several stacked barrels at Four Roses Distillery

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey had a much bigger, newer, industrial feel to it, featuring lots of stainless steel equipment and highly automated facilities. Their tour involved taking a bus to the distillery to see the distilling process followed by a trip to one of their giant warehouses where the bourbons are aged.

The Wild Turkey bourbon distillery building including grain silos

Large stainless steel fermentation vats at Wild Turkey distillery
Massive fermentation vats at Wild Turkey.

Speaking of warehouses, one of the reasons most bourbon is produced in Kentucky is the region’s climate. As wooden barrels full of bourbon age in these warehouses, they are subjected to extreme heat and humidity in the summer and significant cold in the winter. When the weather is hot, the bourbon expands into the sides of the barrels. When it’s cold, the liquor contracts away from the walls. This repeated expansion and contraction causes the bourbon to take on the flavors from the barrels (the insides of which have been charred) and causes the liquid, which starts off clear, to turn brown.

The distilleries all maintain their own warehouses to handle this lengthy process, but the warehouses at Wild Turkey were the most foreboding buildings I’ve ever seen. They were like something out of a dystopian novel…

Large gray and black buildings - barrel warehouses at Wild Turkey Distillery

Large gray and black buildings - barrel warehouses at Wild Turkey Distillery

Their visitor’s center, on the other hand, was lovely and filled with natural light.

The visitor center at Wild Turkey Distillery

It sat high on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful valley below.

View of the valley and bridges at Wild Turkey Distillery

And the interior had one of the coolest walkways we’ve seen.  This is the ramp that leads to the tasting room.

Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace was our favorite experience. It’s a National Historic Landmark and has the feel of a place where things are done the same way they’ve always been done. It also helped that we had a very entertaining tour guide. That was important since this was the third time we were hearing some of the same information.

Buffalo Trace water tower and building

Window with green shutters at Buffalo Trace Distillery
The warehouses at Buffalo Trace were 100% less terrifying than those at Wild Turkey….

Collage of photos from Buffalo Trace grounds - flowers, statue, bench

The tour was also fun because, in addition to tasting some of their bourbons, our guide let us sample the clear liquid that goes into the barrels before its aged (which is called “white dog”), as well as their Bourbon Cream liquor, which is sorda like Bailey’s Irish Cream. It was a nice way to mix things up.

Woodford Reserve

Our final stop was Woodford Reserve. This place was packed and they have the whole visitor experience down to a science, which kind of made the whole thing feel a bit corporate. They had large group tours, complete with headsets so visitors could hear the tour guides, leaving every couple of minutes. However, as big and impersonal as the tour sometimes felt, it was also the one where we got closest to some of the facilities. And without question, the grounds and the buildings were the prettiest of all the distilleries.

Collage of bottling area, fermentation vats, distillery, and barrel sealing tools from Woodford Reserve distillery tour.
Clockwise: Bottling line, fermentation vats, barrel sealing tools, and distilling apparatus at Woodford Reserve
The back of the distillery building at Woodford Reserve.
Barrels leave the distillery on a track and are sent to warehouses for aging

A small building at Woodford Reserve Distillery

Crowded waiting room at Woodford Reserve
The very busy visitors center at Woodford Reserve

Bottles of Woodford Reserve illuminated from behind

We really enjoyed our experience with the bourbon trail in Lexington and appreciated that each tour was a bit different. The companies obviously know that most visitors go to multiple distilleries and they each do a good job of offering something slightly different to keep the tours interesting. We also appreciated that while the companies would sometimes distinguish how they did certain things, they were all friendly toward their competition. No one bad mouthed the other guy or argued that their product was superior to any other. They seem to realize there’s plenty of business to go around and the current bourbon boom is good for all.

PS: If you’re wondering why I haven’t commented on the bourbons themselves, it’s because they all taste like turpentine to me. For expert analysis on the actual tastings, you’d have to talk to Kevin (who, at this very moment, is drinking a large glass of bourbon while updating our monthly budget and muttering “how did we go through so much money last month?” (hint: Nashville and Lexington)), but generally, he liked the bourbons at Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey best.

Horse Country

Of course, it probably goes without saying that Lexington is gorgeous.  Rolling green hills, matching fences that seem to go on for miles, bucolic horse farms….

Pastures and fence against blue sky in Lexington, Kentucky Country road in Lexington, kentucky Rolling hills and fences in Lexington, Kentucky

We spent several hours one afternoon just driving the back roads, taking it all in.

Collage of pictures of horses in Lexington, kentucky

But it’s not just horses that make up the animal population of Lexington. We also saw plenty of cattle. Unfortunately, the one time I stopped to take photos of some of the cows, I ran into two that did not look particularly pleased to see me. They just glared at me. Look at them…

Two cows staring straight ahead.

My immediate thought was that they read my blog and had heard one too many jokes about how Vegans are crazy and BBQ is delicious.

But then I started thinking about it and was like: “They’re cows. They can’t possibly read my blog. They don’t even have wifi!!”

But then their friends came over….

Four cows

And suddenly it was like a scene from West Side Story…

five cows

So, I concluded that there must be a little cow internet cafe and that’s where they read my blog.

And with that, I got the hell out of there because from what I’ve heard, cows can NOT take a joke.


Next up: Louisville and the Kentucky Derby!

Where we stayed in Lexington: Elkhorn Campground

13 COMMENTS

    • That was definitely the highlight for me! And, if you mix it with root beer, it’s like a root beer float (that gets you buzzed). YESSSSSS!!!!!

      • Shawn likes bourbon. Shawn likes Rumchata. So I bought him a bottle of a cream bourbon drink a year or so ago. He never touched it, and we gave it to a friend when we downsized into the RV. Apparently said friend LOVED it and drank the whole bottle in a week! Will have to get more in KY….

  1. Thanks for the valuable bourbon info. I do NOT think it tastes like turpentine. More like the nectar of the gods so I appreciate your insight. Love your posts!

    • I really really wish I could get into Bourbon (or other liquors), but I just have not been able to develop a taste for it. Maybe with time… I used to not like hoppy beers but now I do. So, ya never know!

  2. You are funny! Love your writing! We have been to Lexington and it is so pretty! My SIL lives in Louisville (ok, Shepherdsville actually) and we love visiting there! Last time was in summer and it was really, really humid though! Having fun following your travels!

    • Aw thanks! I appreciate it. And yes, I definitely think we went at the right time of year. We heard over and over that summers there are absolutely brutal. We’ll be back in that general area again in the fall, so it should be nice then as well. It’s a really gorgeous part of the country, that’s for sure!

  3. You did some serious bourbon tasting! We really enjoy visiting distilleries (and breweries, and wineries) in our travels. I think we’d get along well. :-)) Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve look great — but the warehouses at Wild Turkey are downright scary!

    • I think we would get along GREAT! In addition to trying some mighty fine beverages, we’ve often found these kinds of tours teach us a lot about the areas we’re visiting. It’s always interesting to learn about the interconnectedness of the natural resources, climate, population, culture, and history of particular places and how it leads them to produce certain products.

  4. Neither of us are bourbon drinkers but of course it could hurt to take on the bourbon trail. We did Buffalo Trace and Makers Mark (you would have enjoyed it there, it is quite picturesque).

    • We hope to visit Makers Mark when we visit the area again in the fall. We didn’t have time to make it to all the distilleries while we were in the area, but we should have more time when we return. And I have heard other folks mention Makers is a particularly pretty place, so I’m looking forward to seeing and photographing it!

    • If you ever want to know what the rules are for making bourbon, just ask! We heard the same spiel so many times, I have it down pat! I’m basically a master distiller now. 🙂

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