Expanded Kentucky Bourbon Trail to feature both age-old distilleries and relative newcomers

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is maturing, like the fine whiskeys it showcases.

A new-look Bourbon Trail unveiled Thursday will lead visitors to large and small distilleries alike, linking relative newcomers and age-old brands in a collective strategy to build on bourbon tourism’s popularity.

It began with seven participating distilleries welcoming visitors 25 years ago. Now the excursion will showcase 46 distilleries, giving visitors more options to plan trips to soak in the sights and smells of bourbon-making in the Bluegrass State.

Since its creation in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the spirits tour has attracted more than 18 million visitors from all 50 states and dozens of countries, the KDA said.

“The Kentucky Bourbon Trail now is a global, bucket-list tourism destination,” Eric Gregory, president of the distillers’ association, said as industry leaders gathered for the announcement.

As the original trail grew, it traversed the heart of Kentucky bourbon country, spotlighting such powerhouse brands as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Old Forester, Michter’s and Bulleit.

In 2012, a separate Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour was launched to showcase the growing number of smaller distilleries seeking their share of the ultra-competitive spirits market.

Now those tours are consolidating. The new tourism and marketing strategy was unveiled in Louisville — the gateway to bourbon tourism. They also announced a new logo and a new digital marketing campaign to help tourists plan bourbon trips to the state.

Spirit companies have invested huge sums into new or expanded visitor centers to capitalize on the growing appeal of getting behind-the-scenes peeks into how bourbon is crafted.

For small distilleries, joining the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was likened to making the big leagues.

Kim Bard, co-founder of The Bard Distillery in western Kentucky, said it will immediately change perceptions about smaller producers that were part of the craft tour.

“People would come in, a lot of times they see us as less-than because we’re on the craft trail and not on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” she said in an interview. “They see that as a very distinctive line.

“Now that the KDA has put us all on the same trail, I think that sort of thinking will stop and we’ll be looked at as just another distillery, which is great for us,” she added.

Brent Goodin, owner of Boundary Oak Distillery in central Kentucky, predicted that shifting to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail will boost tourism at his and other smaller distilleries. Producers see tourism as an essential part of brand promotion.

“Anything we can do to make the tourist realize that everything is Kentucky bourbon and we’re all producing the same thing –- maybe not as much as the next guy but we’re all kind of in it together,” he said in an interview.

Any big bourbon announcement in Kentucky typically draws a bevy of the state’s political leaders. On Thursday, industry leaders were joined by Democratic Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman and Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, who co-chairs the Congressional Bourbon Caucus.

Bourbon tourism’s global appeal is creating more business opportunities for producers, Barr said.

“There’s so much opportunity in the export market for Kentucky bourbon,” Barr said.

Coleman led the crowd in toasting the bourbon sector’s past and future while recognizing Kentucky’s status as the “undisputed home of bourbon.”

Bourbon tourism has shaken off any pandemic-era hangover as venerable bourbon producers and industry newcomers alike are benefiting from a new surge in visitors. Attendance surpassed 2.5 million visitors last year along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour.

Overall, Kentucky’s bourbon industry injects $9 billion into the state’s economy each year, creating more jobs and attracting more tourists than ever before, according to a recent study. More rounds of growth are expected as Kentucky producers make billions of dollars in capital investments. Kentucky distillers produced a record 2.7 million barrels of bourbon in 2022, according to the report, which was commissioned by the distillers’ association.

Producers had a record inventory of 12.6 million bourbon barrels aging in warehouses at the start of 2023, according to the association. Those massive inventories are a bet on the future because most bourbons typically age four to eight years before reaching their market. Bourbon gets its flavor and golden brown color during aging.

Kentucky distillers produce 95% of the global bourbon supply, the KDA says.

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