By: Dana McMahan
Oh, what a beautiful day! You’re Kentucky Bourbon Trail® adventure-bound for the first time since the pandemic put a screeching halt to most of our favorite pastimes.
And many of the distilleries along the way are enthusiastically welcoming visitors. It’s open arms for sure, but times are still what they are, so it’s also with safety and well-being in mind. The world has changed in ways we’re still coming to grips with, and along with it there are changes to the Bourbon industry and the distillery visit experience.
A silver lining is how much we’ve come to appreciate things we may have taken for granted before — spending time with friends over a pour of good Bourbon, traipsing through rickhouses, and discovering new favorite whiskeys.
As the world begins to re-open, it’s beyond exciting to think about grabbing a few friends and heading out for Bourbon adventures. I’m not here to slow your roll, but I’ve gone out a couple of times in the COVID era, and can tell you things are different now. We’re different, for that matter! To make the absolute most of your time, you’ll want to be prepared.
A few industry pros shared their best advice for an incredible Kentucky Bourbon Trail® outing. Read up, take it to heart, and go have an amazing time! Thanks to the following for offering up their tips and insights:
- Bruce Ashford, Central Kentucky Tours
- Jeff Crowe, Director, KY Visitor Experiences, Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience
- Eddie Fieldhouse III, Pegasus Distillery Experiences
- Dee Ford, Brand Home Manager, Angel’s Envy
- Lisa Higgins, Mint Julep Experiences
- Roy Lee Wigginton, Distillery Events Manager, Maker’s Mark
Plan ahead, and plan ahead some more
The first rule of post-pandemic touring is to plan (well!) in advance. Even before, the more our native spirit grew in popularity, the tougher it was to just pop into distilleries unannounced and get on a tour. Those days are behind us. Now? You’ll need to plan as far in advance as possible. A few weeks is ideal (even up to a few months, Bruce Ashford said).
I learned the hard way myself recently when there were no tours available at my first picks two weeks out. It’s not that anyone wants to make things hard; it’s just math. With restricted group sizes due to social distancing requirements and capacity limits, distilleries just can’t bring the same number of folks through anymore.
Take it straight from the horse’s mouth: a few distillery folks weighed in on this front.
From Heaven Hill’s Jeff Crowe: Reservations are strongly encouraged due to capacity limits and social distancing on tours and tastings. This means a tour pre Covid that accommodated 20 guests now can only accommodate 6-10. [As of mid-April] we are currently sold out until the end of May 2021.
From Roy Lee Wigginton: Maker’s Mark is requiring visitors to make a reservation in advance at makersmark.com/tours in order to keep a handle on the number of guests on the campus at any given time.
From Dee Ford, Angel’s Envy: We are hosting smaller group experiences in our Finishing Room where one of our Distillery Guardians will share our production process digitally with a video, describe our barrel finishing process and provide a brief history of the Henderson family legacy. Your host then leads you on an educational guided tasting paired with chocolates. We strongly suggest you make a reservation online at angelsenvy.com. Tickets are selling quickly, so to ensure your visit is secured, plan ahead. We are continuing to practice social distancing and masks are required.
The good news with some of these changes? These smaller, more intimate tours and experiences can be even better than before, Eddie said.
Flexibility is the name of the game
Along with planning in advance, you’ll want to bring an open mind, our experts said. Maybe the distillery tour your heart was set on isn’t available, or you can’t get into it at all. Guess what? You may find a new favorite! Why not explore some of the up-close-and-personal experiences available at the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® distilleries? Some of these smaller places are really stepping up their offerings during this time, Bruce said.
As we’re emerging from the pandemic, rules are changing. Every industry is scrambling to keep up with ever-shifting mandates, and Bourbon is no exception. Bring your sense of adventure and be ready to adapt if rules change.
A tip from Jeff: Continue to check distillery and Kentucky Bourbon Trail® websites along with social media posts as we continue to change protocols and evolve to accommodate our consumers safely. Although Kentucky protocol is the same, each of us may handle the daily operations differently.
From Dee: While planning your trip to visit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® distilleries post-COVID, it is important to have realistic expectations about the way tours may look and feel. At Angel’s Envy, we are currently not taking visitors into our production areas. We offer hands-free shopping displaying all our retail items and bottles. Our Distillery Guardians will happily assist you with your shopping questions and requests.
“Be mindful when you walk into these places, and of the people that you’ll interact with,” Eddie said, “because they really want more than anything to give you an exceptional experience. It’s just sometimes you’ll have to wait, sometimes you’ll have to plan in advance, and sometimes it won’t go exactly to plan.”
But that’s ok, really. Because:
This doesn’t have to be a once in a lifetime experience
Visitors calling Eddie about a limo are often treating this outing as a once in a lifetime experience, he said. But it doesn’t have to be.
Look. The Bourbon Trail™ tour isn’t going anywhere. Legacy distillers and new craft producers are in it for the long haul. Nobody says you can only do this once. If you go with the outlook that this is just one trip, but there will be others, it’ll be a lot easier to relax and enjoy yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day and you can’t see all the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® offerings in a day (or a weekend, or honestly even a week). Savor it and plan to come back.
Rely on local partners
You can plan your trip and do it on your own, for sure. But take it from me: it’s a lot more fun when someone else does the legwork. Not only that, outfits likePegasus Distillery Experiences, Central Kentucky Tours, and Mint Julep Experiences have serious ins with these distillers. You might look at the schedule on the distillery website and see no tours available, Lisa said, but Mint Julep may have their own exclusive experience. Eddie had me at “how much do you want to turn up the dial?” when he handled my recent excursion.
Not only that, these folks know the distilleries, and the industry, inside and out. They even know the best back roads to take, the best restaurants, basically the best everything, Eddie said. A knowledgeable guide or chauffeur can make the difference in a great trip and an epic one. Not to mention they can make sure you’re able to safely and responsibly enjoy yourself.
And on that note, keep in mind that we’ve had a year-plus of not going out. A lot of us may not be used to having a few cocktails like we did in the before times. It can catch up with you quicker than you’d expect as you get back into the swing of things. It’s tempting to go all in, but whether you’re on a family-friendly outing with Central Kentucky Tours, or, say, a bachelorette’s day out, if you truly want to enjoy your experience, be smart about it.
Hydrating is a real thing. In this new world we have a chance to start new habits, Eddie said, like “now I’m going to make it a habit to always have a water between drinks.”
And for the love of Bourbon, please, please eat before you go out for the day. Especially if you’re going to have barrel proof (we’re talking up into the 120-130-proof range here) samplings, You. Need. A. Base. If nothing else, coating your stomach will help you avoid an acid reflux reaction to alcohol hitting an empty stomach, Eddie said. So have a hearty breakfast before you head out. You’ll thank yourself later.
Above all, have fun, and enjoy this long-awaited return to one of the best things in life – Kentucky Bourbon.
Dana McMahan is a Kentucky Colonel, Executive Bourbon Steward, and freelance journalist covering travel, spirits, and food for national outlets across the country. She lives in historic Old Louisville and when she’s not drinking or writing about whiskey you can find her walking her big mutt, polishing her ’77 El Camino, or renovating old houses. Follow her Bourbon country adventures on Instagram and bodybybourbon.com.