Interview: Adam Johnson of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

For more than 20 years, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association has helped American whiskey fans visit their favorite producers via the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It’s a relatively young program, considering Kentucky has distilled grains into whiskey since the 1700s. With the pandemic (hopefully) subsiding and tourism returning sooner than later, we recently caught up with Adam Johnson, senior director of Kentucky Bourbon Trail Experiences, to learn more about the program. 

Beverage Dynamics: When and how did the Kentucky Bourbon Trail program come about?

Adam Johnson: The Kentucky Distillers’ Association created the Kentucky Bourbon Trail program after years of informal tours kept growing in popularity. Our members really wanted to promote and streamline the planning process for bourbon lovers across the world, so they banded together to create the marketing program in 1999.  

BD: How many Bourbon distilleries are currently participating, and how many visitors generally hit the Trail each year (pre-Covid)?

AJ: Eighteen Kentucky Bourbon Trail distilleries make up the current tour, with 19 on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour experience. Generally speaking, we record well over 1 million total visits each year, with most folks visiting multiple stops.

BD: What did the Trail organization and distilleries do when Covid-19 took hold in the U.S. this past spring?

AJ: Our distilleries really pivoted toward hand sanitizer sales to help with the growing need — and to help with the loss of tourism sales at their gift shops. They also did a tremendous job of working within the new Covid protocols to make sure guests and staff were kept safe and healthy.

BD: When and how do you plan to continue growing once full operations resume?

Adam Johnson, senior director of Kentucky Bourbon Trail Experiences

AJ: We can’t wait to welcome our guests back for our normal tours. They are typically very hands-on and immersive, and the health procedures have made that aspect difficult. So our hope is that things will improve soon and we can get back to bourbon basics.

BD: How would you describe the current state of the Kentucky bourbon/beverage alcohol industry?

AJ: Off-premise sales have remained strong, but we really want to help our culinary and bar industry get back to full strength. They are our best ambassadors, and we want on-premise to get back to where it once was. We also have some new experiences coming online along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail tours we can’t wait to show off.

BD: What do visitors like most or are most surprised by when they tour the Kentucky Bourbon distilleries?

AJ: That all these competitors get along and recommend each other. The real sense of pride and family that is infused in all the tours.

BD: Can you share some food pairing suggestions for Kentucky bourbon?

AJ: Obviously, it works better in a Bloody Mary than vodka, so start there. And look to more than just desserts for adding bourbon. Deglazing pans with bourbon can add some real depth to some dishes like burgoo (a Kentucky meat and vegetable stew) or beef dishes. And you can never go wrong with a good Boulevardier with some pasta dishes.

Melissa Dowling is editor of Cheers magazine, our on-premise sister publication. Contact her at mdowling@epgmediallc.com, and read her recent piece, Mezcal and Tequila Trends in 2021.

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