Road trips and whiskey. Now while we would never suggest mixing the two simultaneously, in separate forms these two pastimes are uniquely American. The urge of exploration, perusing the frontier in search of adventure in a sense of wonderment is what enabled our forefathers to settle and develop this once foreign landmass. And whiskey, bourbon specifically, was there along for the ride, sitting shotgun atop the Wells Fargo stagecoach, acting as a secondary handshake between strangers, enabling pioneers in a new land to rest easy at night after the campfire dwindled and eyelids became heavy.
This, of course, is a glorified version of the journey across the continent, but it’s how we like to picture what the original whiskey road-trip looked like. Either way you cut it, if you’re going to go all in on a bucket list of must-see whiskey distilleries, you better believe some history will be involved. That’s why we worked to include distilleries both old and new, so those interested can witness a full spectrum of American whiskey, from where we’ve been to where we’re going. One thing’s for certain though, regardless of the technology and facilities in which this fine spirit is distilled, whiskey will always be whiskey. And in a world of ever-changing environments and lightening-fast innovation, it’s the old-time fashion of sipping whiskey that puts the world around us on pause. So go ahead, dust off the denim, exchange your button down for a flannel and be sure to check out this bucket list of American whiskey distilleries that allow you to taste the time capsule that is American whiskey. Cheers.
Location: Clermont, KY
Impressive. That’s the one word the comes to mind when considering the Beam family history. Truly a bourbon tradition, they got started in 1795, interrupted by Prohibition of course, but initially got the ball rolling with their Old Tub bourbon. Over the years, however, the recipe has remained the same, and Jim Beam, while maintaining an affordable profile, also offers small batch brands such as Knob Creek, Bookers, Bakers, and Basil Hayden’s.
Location: Versailles, KY
Another one of Kentucky’s oldest distilleries, Woodford Reserve is located in the rolling bluegrass hills of Kentucky’s Woodford Country. While it wasn’t until 1838 when the first building was erected, (distilling on the site dates all the way back to 1780) today Woodford Reserve is home to the same iconic copper pot stills, 100+-year-old Cyprus wood fermenters, and 500-foot-long-gravity-fed-barrel run that were used way back in the day to produce a significant amount of “small batch” bourbon. Clearly a unique destination for any fan of bourbon and history.
Location: Frankfort, KY
If you’ve ever wanted to see the distillery equivalent to a division-one college campus then Buffalo Trace is a must. Distilling everything from their flagship bourbon to the high and mighty Pappy Van Wrinkle on site, Buffalo Trace offers plenty for the bourbon fanatic. It’s claimed that distilling on the site began as early as 1775 but the distillery itself wasn’t constructed until 1812. However, the first building constructed on the site, know as the Riverside House, was built in 1792 and still stands today. Buffalo trace offers several tour options of the location as well as sampled tastings along the way.
Location: Warship, UT
What began as a 250-gallon still in a garage in backcountry Utah has since grown into a nationwide brand known for their quality bourbon. Inspired by a trip to the Maker’s Mark Distillery, owners David Perkins and his wife Jane successfully opened the first legal distillery in the state of Utah since 1870. And that was just the beginning. Just seven years later, High West Distilling now offers their own old western style saloon and fine dining restaurant near the location. Not bad for little over half a decade.
Location: Lynchburg, TN
Every whiskey fan, either big or small, has had Jack. And the ubiquitous nature of Jack Daniel’s permeates through almost every whiskey drinker’s story, serving almost as a coming-of-age saga. And while it may not be regarded as top shelf whiskey for fans of rare small batches, the history and purely American stigma behind each bottle of Jack should be enough to entice fans to visit their famed Tennessee distillery. They offer several tour options, all of which are strictly Southern in practice, and intrigue both the history fanatic and thirsty whiskey warrior.
Location: Breckenridge, CO
In 2007 Byan Nolt took a huge risk, quitting his job as a physician, cashing out his life savings, his kid’s college fund and selling his house to open a distillery in Colorado. Yeah, we’re sure he sounded crazy at the time too. However, today Breckenridge Distillery continues to grow and win awards for their blended whiskeys, for which they make their own grains and age their blended bourbons in select barrels from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana. They’re the self-proclaimed highest distillery in the world as well, so be sure to go easy on the tastings if you’re venturing up from the lowlands.
Location: Louisville, KY
Though it wasn’t until 1999 that Bulleit bourbon was first introduced to the whiskey-loving American palate, founder Tom Bulleit oversaw the first distillation of the spirit in 1987. He was the great-grandson of the famed Augustus Bulleit, a tavern owner in Louisville, KY, who distilled his own unique flavored bourbon. For a long time, folks thought that the recipe was all but lost when Augustus disappeared during a routine transport of barrels from Louisville to Louisiana in the 1830s. Thankfully for us, it was resurrected and now distilled at Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, KY where the high rye content of Bulleit’s famed bourbon continues to please.
Location: Gardiner, NY
For a uniquely Northeastern tasting experience, Tuthilltown is a must-see destination. Located in the famed Hudson Valley, Tuthilltown got started in 2003 when owners Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee distilled their first batch of vodka out of apple scraps from a local slicing plant. Today, they’re well known for their Hudson Baby Bourbon, a newly established New York tradition, with each batch made meticulously by hand. Take the tour and see for yourself, host an event at their location, or visit the restaurant after an afternoon of tours and tastings.
Location: Loretto, KY
With a timeless design that exhumes mid-century, Maker’s Mark has been the call-whiskey of choice for those willing to spend a bit extra without breaking the bank. It’s also a great distillery to add to the list of Kentucky bourbon trial must-sees. Take in the sights of the Bluegrass State, taste some of the finest batches of Maker’s, and stay a while for one of their many events held onsite. Oh, and pick yourself up one of their signature bottles that founders Bill and Rob Samuels may have signed in the process.
Location: Bardstown, KY
The first batch of whiskey produced by the Willett Distilling Company was christened on St. Patrick’s Day in 1937. Quite appropriately we may add. It amounted to 30 barrels and was stored in a warehouse capable of holding between 5,000 and 6,000 barrels. Needless to say, the Willetts were motivated. Today, Willett produces a myriad of whiskey variants for the American palate including their renowned Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill small batch bourbons. Their new facility, which opened in 2012, now hosts a tasting room and gift shop in addition to their daily tours for those looking to take a bit of Kentucky home with them.
Location: Waco, TX
Balcones began in true Texas fashion, as a bootstrapped, independent organization in which the founders hammered and welded their own still in a little welding shop under a bridge. It was quite a fixer-upper, but they managed to build out their own distillery where -up until they recently relocated- have been distilling Texas whiskey ever since. Balcones has won over 140 national and international awards for their batches as well, which goes to show that you don’t necessary need to be in Bourbon County to taste great whiskey. The Lone Star State definitely has something to say.
Location: Frankfort, KY
Castle & Key has an interesting story. They may be new in production but they’re to be housed in the Old Taylor Distillery, a 125-year-old building just four miles away from Woodford Reserve. The name Castle & Key pays homage to Colonel E.H. Taylor, the man who build the Old Taylor building back in 1887 which features a limestone castle, elaborate gazebos, and sunken gardens throughout the grounds. So now, Master Distiller Marianne Barnes, the only female Master Distiller in the state of Kentucky, plans to get to work and a release of the distillery’s first rye whiskey is slated for 2018.
Location: Seattle, WA
It was only a matter of time before the West Coast got a hold of the American whiskey tradition. And while some die-hards may shake their heads at the notion of West Coast whiskey, it’s distilleries such as Westland in Seattle that are working to debunk the myth. They offer tours and tastings of their carefully crafted spirits in the 13,000 sq. ft. facility. There’s also a restaurant on site, a tasting room, and since it’s located in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood there’s no shortage of sights and fellow restaurants and watering holes to keep the evening rolling after an afternoon of tasting.
Location: Lawrenceburg, KY
Acquiring its name from a group of friends on a wild turkey hunting trip in 1940, the ubiquitous bourbon has grown substantially over the following 75 years. Part of that reality must be true thanks to Master Distiller Jimmy Russel, who’s been with Wild Turkey for over 60 years and is currently the longest tenured master distiller in the world. Just last year he passed to torch to his son, Eddie Russell who oversaw a rebranding of the famed bourbon, including the introduction of Matthew McConaughey as their Creative Director. Such a production is a must-see for anyone touring the Bourbon Trail and, who knows, maybe you’ll even cross paths with the new creative director on site. Alright, alright, alright.
Location: Lawrenceburg, KY
Most likely one of the only buildings in the state of Kentucky boasting Spanish Mission-Style architecture, the Four Roses Distillery we see today was built in 1910, though Four Roses whiskey was trademarked in 1888. After prohibition ended in the early 1930’s the unique blended whiskey soon became a top contender in the US through the mid-century. Today, their standout aesthetic and smooth whiskey have given them the Whisky Magazine award for Distiller of the Year in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. Not a bad track record considering they’re located in the most competitive states for bourbon production.