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Great Smoky Mountain National Park is America's most visited national park.

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Horses graze in their pastures in Kentucky's horse country.

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Fall colors on display in Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky.

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Music Row on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee

Spirit of America Road Trip: Explore the Kentucky Bourbon & Tennessee Whiskey Trails

For the ultimate American distillery road trip, look no further than the middle Southern states of Tennessee and Kentucky. Both states, respectively famous for their whiskey and bourbon production, are dotted with distilleries that boast strong spirits and natural beauty that lingers. Prepare to take in rolling pastures, remote hollers and scenic mountain ranges that seem to be frozen in a different time and place. This part of the lower Appalachian Mountains is an often misunderstood and underrated part of the American historical, cultural and geographic landscape. In these parts, you’ll find yourself getting lost down winding country roads that slice through some of America’s richest layers.
Prepared By:

Shannon Lowery

Traveler & Content Creator

Road Trip through Kentucky & Tennessee

Start / End

Cincinnati, Ohio/Nashville, Tennessee

States Covered
National Parks

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Daniel Boone National Forest

Cherokee National Forest 

Suggested Days

At least 6

Suggested Seasons

Spring, Summer, Fall

#ThisIsMyRoute

Overview

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Tennessee Whiskey Trail are both worthy of individual, dedicated road trips. But when you’re short on time, this condensed itinerary is an excellent overview of both experiences. From the rolling hills of thoroughbred farms in Kentucky’s horse country to the impressive peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee, this road trip has the perfect blend of outdoor adventures and boozy breaks. Get a taste of true American spirit with this epic distillery road trip through the lower Appalachian region.

Preparation

Begin your journey by arriving at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Alternately, you can follow this itinerary in reverse and begin your journey in Nashville, Tennessee. For this article, we’ll begin in Ohio and make our way South. If you need to rent a car, reserve your vehicle well in advance. Also, schedule your trip between March and October, as the winter weather can make roads impassable in high mountain regions and many distilleries and attractions close for the season. We also recommend making lodging accommodations before arrival. If you choose to camp along this road trip route, plan accordingly for supplies and reserve your campsites ahead of time.

While this itinerary was written as a road trip, there are other transportation options available in most areas to ensure you safely travel to and from distilleries. If you choose to drive yourself, be sure to plan ahead and understand how alcohol affects your BAC.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail

CINCINNATI, OH TO BOURBON CITY

Kentucky's horse country

From Cincinnati, begin your journey south through the picturesque rolling rolls of northern Kentucky. Just 37 miles down the road is the first stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail portion of our itinerary. The Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta, Kentucky, is a true family-owned operation. The Neelys had been (illegally) brewing Kentucky bourbon for eleven generations before opening their (legal) operation in 2015. After a quick tour and tasting, drive another 59 miles to Louisville, also known as Bourbon City. Here you can continue along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail on the city’s Urban Bourbon experience. From dining to history, arts and culture, there’s plenty to explore in Kentucky’s largest city!

CENTRAL KENTUCKY
Rolling hills of Kentucky

Next, we’ll continue on our customized Kentucky Bourbon Trail to central and eastern Kentucky. This section of the itinerary features just as many outdoor activities as bourbon distilleries. Here are our recommendations:

James B. Beam Distilling and the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest (Clermont, KY)

Two Kentucky legends, Jim Beam and the Bernheim Arboretum, teamed up to create the Jim Beam Natural Water Sanctuary Alliance at the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. This preservation effort aims to protect the coveted limestone waters of the region. Conveniently, the partner organizations are also located just across the road from each other. Connect with nature at the arboretum before visiting the distillery of one of the world’s most recognized bourbon whiskeys. 

Maker’s Mark Distillery (Loretto, KY)

Maker’s Mark Distillery wins a sustainability gold star for becoming the first Kentucky bourbon distillery to join B Corp. Member businesses focus on responsible, ethical and environmeentally-friendly business practices. Maker’s Mark is also the biggest distiller on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and in the world. As they say,  “Make your mark, leave no trace.”

Castle & Key Distillery (Frankfort, KY)

If you only make one stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, make it Castle & Key Distillery. Originally built in 1889 as the first bourbon tourism attraction of its kind, the property fell into disrepair during Prohibition. It was was then restored in the 2000s and became Castle & Key Distillery. Here you can wander the grounds which are home to the original castle-like distillery structure and a botanical garden. You can also tour the historic springhouse from which all of the water for the distillery is housed and sourced. 

Jim Beam & Sally Brown Nature Preserves (Lancaster & Nicholasville, KY)

By now, you’ve probably figured out that American spirit comes in many forms. For more of the intangible, undrinkable kind, visit the Jim Beam Nature Preserve and Sally Brown Nature Preserve. These two outdoor oases are just a stone’s throw from each other south of Lexington, Kentucky. The surrounding area is known as Kentucky’s Palisades region, where steep limestone cliffs overlook the rolling Kentucky River and its babbling offshoot streams. For the complete fronteirsman experience, be sure to explore the various caves in the area. 

Wilderness Trail Distillery (Danville, KY)

Our last stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail portion of our itinerary is the Wilderness Trail Distillery. Located on a 167-acre farm near Danville, Kentucky, the folks at Wilderness Trail are always looking for new ways to utilize their incredible space and share their love of bourbon. These outdoor and bourbon enthusiasts have even launched their own trail running, hiking and general good vibes community. Find them by searching #WhatTrailAreYouOn on Instagram!

 

DANIEL BOONE NATIONAL FOREST
A waterfall in Daniel Boone National Forest

Photo Courtesy of @Waterfall_Hillbilly via Instagram.

In Daniel Boone National Forest, you’ll explore some of the most rugged terrain of western Appalachia. Stretching over 700,000 acres and featuring two national wilderness areas, there’s plenty of space to romp, tromp and explore. Originally named Cumberland National Forest, the history and controversy behind the renaming of the forest is reason to visit alone. Hiking, camping, climbing and paddling are just a few of the various ways to explore this gorgeous Appalachian jewel.

Tennessee Whiskey Trail

CHEROKEE NATIONAL FOREST

The Appalachian Trail

The Tennessee portion of our itinerary begins at The Cherokee National Forest. This forrested frontier is the largest stretch of public land in Tennessee. Here, you can access the Appalachian Trail or paddle your way down class I-IV rapids. When you’re ready for a break from outdoor activities, head to Bootleggers Distillery. It’s located just a few miles outside of the national forest perimeter in Hartford, Tennessee. Bootleggers’ distillers have nearly 16 generations of distilling experience. This is also one of the smallest distilleries on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail.

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK

A family of Black Bears in the Great Smoky Mountains

A trip to east Tennessee wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies are America’s most visited national park for good reasons. Wildlife, wildflowers, and wild adventures all await in this idyllic mountain range. Lodging options include camping, glamping and cabins. You can also book a room in the gateway town of Gatlinburg, where you can find several stops on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. Sugarlands Distilling Company is one noteworthy distillery that has everything from tastings to cocktail courses. Thirsty?  Wet your whistle with their house-made moonshine! 

KNOXVILLE, TN

Knoxville, Tennessee

As you make your way farther west along the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, be sure to set aside time to spend in Knoxville, Tennessee. This charming mid-sized town is full of east Tennessee spirit(s) and plenty of outdoor activities. Take a paddleboard down the river or explore the urban bike trail. The city is renowned for their innovation in urban wilderness greenways. There are several Tennessee Whiskey Trail distilleries in town, too, including PostModern Distilling and Knox Whiskey Works.

Then continue on to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. The once fully-operational state prison is now home to Brushy Mountain Distilling. Today, you’ll still find plenty of characters behind bars of a different kind. Sip on the world’s only prison-made hooch, appropriately named “End of the Line Moonshine.”

WATERFALL COUNTRY

Burgess Falls in Tennessee

Further west along the Tennessee whiskey trail, be sure to make a stop at the Tennessee Legend Distillery in Cookeville, Tennessee. Not only are they hand-crafting incredible whiskey, the surrounding area is also home to gorgeous wilderness. Some of Tennessee’s most impressive waterfalls are nearby as well as plenty of hiking.

MUSIC CITY

Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee

The last stop on our itinerary is none other than Nashville, Tennessee, also known as Music City. Venture beyond the neon lights of Broadway to the North Gulch district where you can walk from Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery to Corsair Distillery. We recommend spending at least a few days exploring the booming city of Nashville before making your way home via the Nashville International Airport

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