Kentucky is home to some of the U.S.’s most treasured whiskey history, with several distilleries tracing their origins back as far as the 1700s. Many of Kentucky’s most esteemed brands are framed around their long family histories in the business, and the state’s rich tradition of distilling high-quality spirits established it as a renowned destination for bourbon lovers.
However, in the past few decades, a new wave of whiskey distilleries have made their mark on Kentucky and subsequently created an entirely new landscape to explore. The number of distilleries in the state rose astronomically, from 19 in 2009, to 95 in 2021.
These producers pay homage to the region’s history while adding their own contemporary twists, whether that be through innovative aging processes or modern, state-of-the-art tasting rooms. Many of the new distilleries are conveniently located in major cities compared to many traditional, longstanding estates, creating a lively scene for locals and visitors alike.
The recent boom in Kentucky bourbon is expanding so fast it can be hard to follow, so we created a timeline that can help you keep track of the latest major distilleries forming today’s Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Town Branch Distillery
In 1999, Dr. Pearse Lyons, founder of animal nutrition company Alltech, acquired the 200-year-old Lexington Brewing Company with the goal of restoring the tradition of craft beer in Kentucky’s bourbon country. The new Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co. aimed to celebrate the state’s iconic bourbon history as well and began distilling whiskey under the name Town Branch alongside its popular brews. The modern distillery opened its doors in the heart of Lexington in 2012, featuring both beer and bourbon, making it the only brewery-distillery combo on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
One of the most iconic new distilleries to open in the past few decades, Wilderness Trail launched its distillery in 2013 in Danville, Ky. Founders Dr. Pat Heist and Shane Baker come from plant pathology and microbiology backgrounds and approach the production process with their scientific expertise in mind. Known for using locally sourced grains, a sweet mash process, and non-chill filtration, the high-quality bourbon has garnered a loyal following.
New Riff Distilling
New Riff Distilling opened in Newport, Ky., in 2014 with the concept of offering a new riff on Kentucky’s traditional sour mash fermentation. New Riff implements thoughtful production techniques to craft distinct, full-bodied bourbons and notable single-barrel bottlings, aging each of its whiskeys for at least four years and bottling them under the high standards implemented by the 1897 Bottled in Bond Act, without chill filtration.
Bardstown Bourbon Company
A modern distillery located on 100 acres of active farmland in the bourbon capital of the world, the Bardstown Bourbon Company distillery landed on the scene in 2016. The company opened with the goal of offering the first Napa Valley-style destination in Kentucky, providing visitors with high-end tasting and dining experiences onsite.
A young brand that launched in 2011, Angel’s Envy has a reputation for being a bit rebellious, breaking away from Kentucky bourbon traditions. It is one of the first-ever American whiskey brands to implement a double-maturation process, which is more commonly used in Scotch production. Its goal is to elevate classic expressions with signature secondary barrel finishes, with whiskeys that are finished in everything from port barrels to rum casks. In 2016, the Angel’s Envy distillery opened to the public, becoming the first full-production whiskey distillery in downtown Louisville. While Angel’s Envy does distill a portion of its whiskey onsite, which you can see in its distillery tour, it sources some from other distilleries, including Louisville Distilling Company.
Castle & Key
When founder Will Arvin stumbled upon photographs of an abandoned castle-like distillery from 1887, he immediately felt drawn to the property and purchased it in 2014. After years of restoring the site, he opened the new Castle & Key distillery in 2018 and invited visitors to experience the enchanted grounds as well as delicious small-batch bourbons.
Unlike many companies that cling to Kentucky’s history and heritage, Rabbit Hole embraces its youth and prides itself on its modern creation and innovation. Rabbit Hole opened its monumental new facility in Louisville in 2018 and the stunning, contemporary structure immediately made its mark on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
After more than 60 years in the spirits industry, the Lux family — owners of premium alcohol supplier company Luxco — wanted to expand its range and begin distilling its own products. The result was Lux Row Distillery, which opened in Bardstown, Ky., in 2018. The sprawling 70-acre site now produces several award-winning Kentucky straight bourbon brands including Ezra Brooks, David Nicholson, Blood Oath, and Daviess County.
While these Kentucky brands aren’t necessarily new blood, their recent innovations deserve a shout-out.
The Old Forester Distillery opened in 2018 on Whiskey Row in Louisville, occupying the same building that the historic brand called home from 1882–1919. The newly renovated space is now the only downtown distillery with an active cooperage, charring the barrels in the same facility where the spirits are aged. While this new location is a functional distillery, Old Forester also sources bourbon from its parent company, Brown-Forman.
*Image sources from Сергей Голуб – stock.adobe.com