Bourbon tasting and baseball bats: Why Louisville is the perfect destination for a father-daughter trip
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“I’m never leaving,” my dad said as soon as we walked into the barn-like visitor center at Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky.
Keep in mind: Jim Beam was the very first distillery we were visiting on a multiday trip to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, and my dad was already this excited. I laughed as soon as he said it, knowing we were in for a fun few days in Lousiville as we explored its distilleries and other iconic spots like Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby takes place, and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory.
My dad and I share a love of bourbon, as does the rest of my family (although my mom prefers Irish whiskey, specifically Jameson), so it’s been a goal of mine to get to Louisville with him so that we could learn more about our favorite spirit. And let me tell you: Louisville did not disappoint. In fact, this was one of my favorite trips I’ve ever taken. It was even more special sharing it with my dad.
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My dad may stand 6 feet, 4 inches tall (and he’s shorter than his two siblings), but he is the epitome of a gentle giant. Kind, thoughtful and caring, he’s always shared his calming aura and words with me to help me when I’ve needed it most. Not only has he been an emotionally strong fixture in my life, but he’s also been one of my favorite travel buddies.
When I was younger, Disney World was at the top of our list of destinations. As a child, I loved anything Disney had to offer, including Mickey Mouse chocolate ice cream pops, collectible pins and light-up accessories. And my dad enjoyed them along with me, every step of the way on our father-daughter trips and family trips alike.
My dad and I took two Disney trips together while my sister and mom did their own thing. We planned our Disney trips down to the hour (of course, this was when there were still paper Fast Passes and you didn’t have to reserve anything in advance); we kept everything organized in a portfolio and referred to it to stay on track.
I did basically the same thing for the Bourbon Trail because, knowing my dad, we would have a lot of bourbon to taste and a lot of places to cross off the list. As self-described master planners, here’s how we conquered Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, what we learned along the way and why it made for the perfect father-daughter trip.
Tracing the Bourbon Trail by car
It was challenging to narrow down the distilleries we wanted to visit, but some of our decisions were made for us since plenty of the experiences at various ones were already sold out, even a month in advance. While we were able to visit a lot of the distilleries we had in mind (eight total), such as Willett and Four Roses, we weren’t able to get to Maker’s Mark, which is a hallmark destination along the trail (where you even get to dip your own bottle in the brand’s signature bright red wax).
I recommend scheduling your absolute must-visits at least two months in advance and working your way down your list from there.
Fortunately for us, there are tons of distilleries that we hadn’t ever heard of but that sounded like they’d make for great visits.
According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, which created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999, there are 41 distilleries to choose from at the moment, although that number excludes some well-known distilleries that aren’t a part of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, like Buffalo Trace, so there are even more options available to travelers.
Many of the distilleries are quite a distance from downtown Louisville as well as from each other. Taking Ubers and Lyfts could get expensive as they add up, so you might want to have your own car.
That said, driving responsibly is paramount, so consider limiting the number of distilleries you visit on a given day and designate a driver who won’t be tasting or only doing so in moderation. We capped our visits at two to three per day (with plenty of time in between), I only took small sips of various bourbons on offer, and I frequently offered my leftovers to my dad while I hydrated.
I recommend budgeting at least three days, but it’s very dependent on what tours, tastings and classes you are able to book. I also suggest mixing it up and not doing tours at every single distillery — but if you want to walk through aisles and aisles of bourbon barrels for a few days in a row, by all means, go ahead. Also, if possible, I recommend booking the most distant distillery first and working your way closer to your hotel from there. But again, it really depends on availability.
We started with a cocktail-mixing class ($30 per person) featuring mint juleps at Jim Beam (the regular tour was sold out but this option was quite fun) and enjoyed the on-site restaurant, The Kitchen Table. We also got to keep the metal cups we were given to mix our drinks in, which was a nice souvenir. Then my dad and I jumped in the car and headed down the road to Willett Distillery, another favorite of ours.
The tasting was inexpensive (only $12 each) and our guide poured sips straight into a special Willett glass that we also got to keep. I highly recommend sitting upstairs at the restaurant at Willett — the cocktails were delicious (ours were finished off with a beautiful “W” for Willett stenciled on top) and the bar itself was stunning, with backlit bottles and a rustic farm-kitchen aesthetic. The bartender was a fellow St. Louis Cardinals fan, a major plus of our experience since my dad is a huge fan himself (more on that later).
Two days later, we ventured to Buffalo Trace, Four Roses and Heaven Hill distilleries. Buffalo Trace is a definite must in my book. The tour and tasting are completely free, which is surprising considering they produce a very expensive bourbon called Blanton’s that every bourbon aficionado should be familiar with. You would think it would be a pricey experience due to their other high-quality releases as well, but I wasn’t about to argue with free.
Just for reference, most of the tastings included around three to six small glasses of bourbon (or other spirits depending on the distillery). Buffalo Trace had the most, with six, but not all were bourbon as they allowed us to taste a liqueur and a soda that they also make.
I highly recommend mapping out the distilleries before trying to arrange your visits because they sit in clusters around Louisville. It’s obviously easier to combine the ones that are situated together rather than driving back and forth along the trail. This can get complicated if experiences are sold out, but you’ll be happier in the long run. If a tour is sold out, don’t forget to put your name on a wait list — I managed to get us onto the Buffalo Trace tour only because I was on a waiting list and was alerted the day before visiting that we were able to go.
Our rental car made it easier for us to see more of the trail and allowed us to spend quality time together. My dad navigated while I drove, and we enjoyed each other’s company as we explored the winding back roads of Kentucky. That said, if you plan to do some serious tasting, consider budgeting for Ubers or Lyfts so someone else is doing the driving.
Sit back, relax and join a group tour
Another great way to experience the Bourbon Trail is by joining a tour group. We chose Mint Julep Tours, which was recommended by TPG’s executive editor, Scott Mayerowitz. The tour group also offers its service in Nashville.
As soon as our tour began, I knew immediately why he told me to book it. Our tour guides, Tom and Jerry (no, really, those were their names), were so endearing and knowledgeable about bourbon and other types of alcohol produced domestically as well as abroad that the tour was like a master class in spirits.
I chose a public outing, which lasted nine hours and cost $179 per person, but it was worth every penny. Transportation to each distillery was provided as well as lunch at a restaurant called Ricardo’s Grill and Pub (you can choose from a prix fixe menu), and the educational tidbits about bourbon were an added bonus. There were a total of 22 guests on our tour, and I was by far the youngest.
The tour started at the Omni Hotel in downtown Louisville, which was a quick walk from our hotel. We piled into a comfortable black Ford van with Mint Julep branding and we hit the road.
First, the tour took us to Kentucky Artisan, a tiny distillery northwest of Louisville, then Woodford Reserve, a scenic distillery near beautiful horse farms, and then Bulleit Bourbon, a more industrial experience that takes you right up to the giant tanks of mash bill, which is the base of grain in a spirit (bourbon must be 51% or more corn, according to Kentucky Artisan Distillery).
The group tour felt personal and well-curated, and by the end of the day, our fellow tourists were happily chatting with one another (maybe because of all the bourbon). Taking a tour also means avoiding the possibility of drinking and driving, which allows you to fully enjoy the experience.
When it comes to deciding on a public tour or driving the trail on your own, they both have their pros and cons.
On the individual side, you’re obviously not on a schedule and can spend as much time as you want at each distillery. But on the other hand, all of the planning is left to you and so is the navigation and driving. If anything, I recommend spending at least one day on a public tour, even just for the educational aspect. Our main guide was so knowledgeable about the industry, and I came away with way more information compared to being on my own. Also, you’re guaranteed a tour or tasting without the headache of having to arrange everything yourself.
My dad and I now share favorite bourbons (that he’s already stocked up on), and it’s fun to spot them on drink menus in New York City, where I live. We even shared a glass of Jefferson’s Ocean, a bourbon made by Kentucky Artisan that is matured over the course of an ocean voyage, when I recently went home for the St. Louis to Frankfurt Lufthansa inaugural. If you like bourbon and want one that’s traveled as much as you have, I highly recommend Jefferson’s Ocean (specifically Voyage 24).
These museums are a must
I’m always a sucker for a good museum, and my dad was happy to come along. We started with the Kentucky Derby Museum, which is connected to Churchill Downs, where the iconic Kentucky Derby takes place. We splurged on a behind-the-scenes tour ($250 per person), but again, it was worth it. It was wildly cool to see Churchill Downs a week before the Kentucky Derby, as the preparations were underway and Derby horses were around getting ready for their races.
The tour takes you to many typically inaccessible places like Millionaires Row, where the rich and famous enjoy the Derby, and the barns where the horses are trained. Our tour guide, Audrey, was incredibly knowledgeable about how racehorses are bred, sold and trained, and we found out that her family raises racehorses (and has had more than one Kentucky Derby winner).
We enjoyed lunch where the stable hands eat near the barns, which is usually off-limits to everyday people. I munched on my grilled cheese sandwich (lunch is included in the tour) while staring straight at the track out the window.
My dad and I had a fantastic time getting up close and personal with the horses and trainers, and we even got to see trainer Todd Pletcher (whose horse Mo Donegal recently won the 2022 Belmont Stakes) out on the track watching his horses perform.
I can’t say enough about how fantastic the tour was at Churchill Downs, and the air was buzzing with the Kentucky Derby about to take place. While the price tag was hefty, the four hours we spent roaming around the facility were educational, thrilling and exclusive.
After the Churchill Downs tour, we drove back to downtown Louisville to visit the Louisville Slugger Museum. The Louisville Slugger is an industry-standard bat that Major League Baseball players use. My relatives are huge Cardinals fans, and we grew up with season tickets to the games at Busch Stadium. Nothing compares to eating a hot dog at Busch with a cold Bud Light that was brewed practically next door.
The actual museum isn’t spectacular, but the property also is home to the factory where MLB bats are made. The tickets are $18 for adults, $17 for seniors and $11 for kids 6-12 (kids under 6 are free), so it’s a great option if you have family with you, especially sports fans. We got to stroll through the factory floor and witness the blocks of wood, called billets, becoming bats. My dad even got to pick up samples that were being specially made for Tommy Edman, a current St. Louis Cardinal.
The memories we made
As someone who shares close ties with my immediate family, it’s difficult living in New York with my parents living in St. Louis. But it’s trips like these and sharing common interests that bridge those gaps, and this particular adventure was one I will look back on fondly for the rest of my life.
Even though we eventually had to leave (sorry, dad!) and get back to the real world, these memories will only get better with time, much like the finely aged bourbon we shared.
Featured image by Mimi Wright/The Points Guy.
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