As the whiskey boom continues, just about everything about the industry is changing. Rapidly. One of the sectors where that’s most evident is in the distillery experience. Not long ago, visiting a big or small distillery was mostly about touring a factory and/or barrel house, and then tasting some whiskey at the end. Over time, bars were added so that whiskey tourists could enjoy a few more pours and a cocktail or two.
Then in 2018, Bardstown Bourbon Company opened and everything shifted (more on that, below). Today, there are still plenty of Kentucky distilleries that simply offer whiskey tour experiences and tastings, but there are few that have caught onto the “full-experience” aspect of visiting a distillery and added stellar food programs.
Today, I’m calling out five dining stops along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in case you’re in the Bluegrass State for Bourbon Heritage Month. While this list isn’t a comprehensive listing of every food option at every distillery, it is a list of the absolute best dishes out there. Let’s dive in!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
- We Blind Tasted A Whole Bunch Of $30-60 Bourbons To See If Any Could Beat Weller
- We Put A Whole Bunch Of Bourbons To A Giant Blind Test And Discovered Some Absolute Gems
- We Blind Tasted Classic Bourbons And Were Shocked By The Winner
- The Best-Known Basic Bottles Of Bourbon, Blind Tasted And Ranked
- All The Double Gold-Winning Straight Bourbons From This Year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition
Barrel House Distillery, The Elkhorn Tavern
This is the most easy-going stop. It’s also one of the easier to get to, as it’s located just outside of downtown Lexington at the old James E. Pepper Distillery campus. The Tavern is attached to a small craft distillery, Barrel House Distillery, which makes crafty vodka, rum, moonshine, and bourbon that’s still a little young and more suited to cocktails.
The Tavern is a laid-back walk-in friendly place. There’s nice outdoor seating with the red-brick dead warehouses of the Pepper distillery behind it. The interior is full of woody vibes and old-school Kentucky charm (deer heads, leather chairs, big old whiskey bar). The crowd tends to lean younger and there’s live music most weekends.
What To Eat:
The menu is pretty light and very Kentucky-focused. I dig the Soup Beans. It’s a hammy pinto bean affair with some pickle and a cornbread muffin on the side. You also cannot go wrong with their Pimento Cheese Sandwich. The pimento is made in-house (like any self-respecting Kentucky tavern) with jalapeños and topped with crispy bacon crumbles, tomato, and bright lettuce. The best part, for $4 you can get a cup of the Soup Beans on the side.
The menu also rotates seasonal treats — like the hot dogs pictured above. Their chicken salad sando is pretty spot on, too.
What To Drink:
You can grab a flight of Barrel House’s offerings but I’d recommend the Elkhorn Smash. It’s a mix of Barrel House Bourbon, pinot noir, simple syrup, lemon, and cherry. It’s a deeply satisfying drink that hits a sweet/sour spot with a good spicy bourbon base.
Stitzel-Weller Distillery, The Garden & Gun Club
The Garden & Gun Club feels like one of those hidden-away Kentucky clubs you’d need a membership for. While that’s the vibe, you can totally walk in, though I’d recommend reserving a table.
The joint — in West Louisville (Shively) at the famed yet non-operational Stitzel-Weller Distillery (where Pappy and Old Fitzgerlad were born) — is an old-school place with dark green walls, plenty of deer heads, leather, and laid-back vibes.
What To Eat:
While the menu is far smaller than its sibling outlet in Atlanta, there are some good treats to go with your whiskey pours.
The Seasonal Meat and Cheese Board is the best way to go. It includes local country ham (usually boiled and/or hanged) with local cheeses, jams, pickles, and mustard. It’s the perfect plate for one if you’re really hungry or easily splittable. It’s also a great way to get into Southern country ham if you haven’t. It’s basically America’s prosciutto.
The Pimento Sandwich is also on point. It’s house-made and served on toasted sourdough with spicy pickles and house-made kettle chips on the side.
If you’re looking more for a snack while sipping whiskey, the Boiled Peanuts are the way to go. They’re very soft, nice, and warm, and dusted with a sharp spicy seasoning that makes for a great whiskey pairing.
What To Drink:
The distillery is now owned by Diageo, so the bar is stocked with a lot of their brands. You can get decent tequila, scotch, and gin pours alongside Guinness and all their bourbon brands (Bulliet, Blade & Bow, I.W. Harper, George Dickel, and Orphan Barrel). That means a flight might be the way to go.
If you’re going for a cocktail, I dig the Bourbon Bloody Mary. There’s a good amount of peppery heat, pickle brine, and tomato-y goodness. I also really like the Stranger in Paradise with Blade & Bow bourbon, pineapple habanero shrub, almond liqueur, lime juice, and topped with nutmeg. It’s like a spicy tropical surprise in a glass.
Willett Distillery, The Bar At Willett
This restaurant opened back in 2019 and continued to change the way people look at food in both the distillery experience and rural Kentucky. The Bar At Willett leans heavily into fine dining with a menu of small plates crafted to accentuate the world-renowned whiskeys made just feet away by the Kulsveen family, who have kept the brand alive since the 1980s.
The restaurant has a great outdoor porch vibe with the distillery and warehouses providing a dramatic backdrop to your meal and drinks. The interior is understated, dark, and modern. It’s still cozy with plenty of bourbon-bar charm. It’s also immaculate to the point of being Michelin star-level.
That all means that you do need to make a reservation.
What To Eat:
The menu shifts a bit from season to season. If you’re around when they have the cheeseburger on the menu, then that’s the play — it’s one of the best in the country. They also bake some amazing oysters from time to time. The point is, the menu is always in flux and you want to just go with the flow because it’ll be stellar no matter what’s on.
The real star of the show, though, is the Egg Salad Sandwich. The sandwich is so good/popular that it has its own IG account. The bread is thick white slices toasted off in plenty of butter sandwiching a beautifully creamy and spiced egg salad with grated yolk all over it. It 100 percent lives up to the hype.
What To Drink:
Willett! Seriously, Willett bourbon and rye are hard enough to find so get yourself a killer flight. That said, their bar program is also phenomenal. Their Sazerac, Manhattan, and Vieux Carre are all stellar Willett Rye cocktails. You cannot go wrong with any of them.
Bardstown Bourbon Company, Kitchen & Bar
Sticking to the Bardstown area, Bardstown Bourbon Company started it all when they opened in 2018 and completely up-ended the idea of high cuisine in rural Kentucky. The Kitchen & Bar at BBC is a great place to drop in or relax after a tour and tasting.
The Kitchen is right in the middle of the welcome center. There are massive, ceiling-high windows that let the light pour in. Hell, there’s even a selfie wall on the back wall of the place. There’s also a great bottle/gift shop right next to the dining room as well. If you’re not feeling the light-filled dining room, you can hit the bar outside for a little alfresco drinking and dining with rows of barrel houses filling your view.
What To Eat:
This menu also shifts slightly from season to season. I tend to be a Club Sandwich snob and BBC knocks their Bardstown Club out of the park. The bread is perfectly toasted, the turkey is actually house-made and perfectly seasoned, the bacon is just the right amount of crispy and fatty, the mayo is spot on, and the lettuce/tomato element feels fresh and has the right crunch. Plus, the fries are great (hand-cut, dark fried, and good seasoning).
There’s so much other good stuff on this menu. Nashville Hot Chicken and Waffles, Southern Eggs Benny, a dope local Charcuterie board, Kentucky Poutine (with country gravy!), Brisket Pasta, Shrimp and Grits, and a Pan-Seared Salmon that has no business being as good as it is this far from a coastline (trust me, I grew up on the Washington Coast). It’s served on a butternut squash puree and it’s really damn good.
Their Cheesecake is one point too with a great creaminess and that perfect buttery/crumbly crust that makes it shine.
What To Drink:
This is another spot that has some whiskeys that are harder to find outside of Kentucky. So a slight of BBC Fusion Series or Discovery Series is a solid move (or both). Their single-barrel Old Fashioned or Manhattan is also a great choice. Both have serious depth and really hit the spot.
I also really dig their One Of Those … Please, Berry Cream Soda. It’s a mix of five-year Plantation Rum, house-made white cacao liqueur, and house-made blackberry syrup topped with sparkling white wine and lemon. It’s light yet bursting with flavor. You’ll want one more for sure.
James B. Beam Distilling Co., The Kitchen Table Restaurant
James B. Beam Distilling Co. just finished a massive revamp of, well, everything on their Clermont, Kentucky campus. The biggest change is their restaurant and bar right next to the old Beam family home and the visitor’s center.
The Kitchen Table Restaurant sits on a hill in the middle of the distillery, so you get a great look at both the black warehouses and distillery grounds but also over the rolling green hills of central Kentucky. The restaurant is modernist with big, open spaces (and an open kitchen). There’s indoor seating around the central bar with more seating on a covered porch. You can also sit outside at picnic tables and enjoy the fresh air.
What To Eat:
This is another great menu. The Brisket is perfectly smoked and served on some of the best, creamiest grits money can buy. The sous vide Fried Chicken is a moist masterpiece. Hell, even the iceberg Wedge Salad is excellent with legitimately solid mini iceberg wedges, fresh cherry tomatoes, crispy bacon lardons, fresh and sharp radish, and a wonderfully fresh ranch dressing made with fresh herbs instead of dried ones.
The real star of the show is the pizza though. The crust is fermented with the same proprietary yeast that’s used to make Beam’s whiskeys. The cold fermented dough spends days in the fridge before it’s proofed, hand-stretched, topped, and baked in a blazing wood-fired oven. This is one of the best pizzas you can get outside of Naples, Rome, Sao Paulo, New York, or Chicago. Fucking legit.
The dough has that perfect fermented chewiness on the edges while the middle crust is thin and moves from soft to cracker-y. The tomato is perfectly balanced between sweet, spicy, and umami. The cheese is a good mix of low moisture mozzarella and some high-end parm. The toppings are also spot on. The Pepperoni pie has the perfect spicy bite with Calabrian chilis and is drizzled with spicy honey, providing a wonderful counterpoint to the mildly spicy pepperoni slices. The Hot Brown pie loses the tomato base but adds a cheesy mornay sauce, smoked turkey, bacon lardons, cherry tomato, and Swiss cheese. It’s just great on that crust.
What To Drink:
The cocktail bar scene is on point. I really dig the Blossom, which is an old fashioned take that feels like a Manhattan in a lowball glass with Legent Bourbon, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and bitters. The Old Grand-dad Brown Derby is also a citrus delight with a hint of honey and thyme.
Naturally, the whiskey pours are great too. You can try the new Hardin’s Creek expressions, the new Booker’s and Little Book releases, as well as a long list of all of Beam’s other whiskey brands.