PHOTO BY ANDREW HYSLOP
For 20 years, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has encouraged visitors to try the Bluegrass State’s most celebrated export on a self-guided road trip. These days, no car is required to taste some of the best producers. Last year, Louisville, the “urban bourbon” center, welcomed two more distilleries: Old Forester, America’s oldest bottled bourbon, and Rabbit Hole, one of the newest. Plus, the Frazier History Museum opened a Bourbon Trail welcome center and an exhibit on the history of “America’s only native spirit.” With the Derby this month and National Bourbon Day on June 14, there’s never been a better time to raise your glass.
First made in Louisville in 1870, Old Forester is the only bourbon to be distilled and sold before, during, and after Prohibition—the family company secured a license to produce it for, ahem, “medicinal purposes.” That history, says president Campbell Brown, is a huge selling point: “There are a lot of great distilleries to visit downtown in Louisville, but there aren’t many that have 150 years of history that’s laid out for you to touch and gander at.” Though Old Forester still produces most of its bourbon in its Shively, Kentucky, distillery, the new Whiskey Row location—which housed the brand from 1882 to 1919—is fully operational, filled with the sweet, beer-like scent of fermenting corn, rye, and malted barley. Brown couldn’t be happier about the brand’s return to downtown: “As politics are to D.C. and film is to LA, bourbon is to Louisville.” Hour-long tours take visitors through every step of the process, including cooperage, where the barrels are charred by fire. It’s all capped off with a taste of that history, which is delicious—especially if you upgrade to the “Nothing Better in the Market” tour, including a pour of the elusive Birthday Bourbon.
Founded by an Iranian-American clinical psychologist who fell in love with a Kentucky girl, Rabbit Hole is one of the newest bourbons on the block, first released in 2016. Last summer, the brand launched tours at its 55,000-square-foot NuLu distillery, where an open floor plan lets visitors see every aspect of the production process. “The distillery itself is an embodiment of our philosophy of transparency,” says founder and whiskey maker Kaveh Zamanian. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in the industry, and we wanted to show you what’s going on behind the scenes.” Tours start with a tasting and finish in the Overlook lounge, where guests can also sample Rabbit Hole’s two bourbons, gin, and Kentucky straight rye in cocktails created by New York bar Death & Co. “We want to be the next big spirit company in America, period,” says Zamanian. “There’s no way that we can compete with the Old Foresters or the Jim Beams of the world. They’ve been around for decades, and there’s something very respectful about it, but I’m here to show that we can add a new voice in the chorus of the wonderful products that are out there.”