Frankfort’s “Trace of Kentucky Bourbon Boat” has been catching plenty of national and international tourists in its first full year of operation.

A Kentucky River Tours advertising card says it’s the nation’s “only boat-based bourbon tour.” But the strongest refreshments available on the 50-minute “Kentucky River Bourbon History Tour” are a Rebecca Ruth bourbon ball and an Ale 8.

A sip of bourbon isn’t offered on the Bourbon Boat because in Kentucky it’s illegal to drink in a public place, outside of a licensed business, and Kentucky’s waterways are deemed public places.

“Buffalo Trace Distillery is a great partner of ours,” says Allison Depenbrock, who owns the 27-foot-long boat, along with husband, Nathan Depenbrock, and Clayton Embly. “So tasting can happen at Buffalo Trace where they do it well. We can’t encourage drinking on the boat.”

What surprises the Depenbrocks, however, is that many out-of-state passengers “have no clue what a bourbon ball is until they sample one on our Bourbon History Tour,” Allison says. ”And my goodness, bourbon balls are Christmas in Kentucky.”

Boat passengers hear that the heavenly-tasting bourbon ball — a still-secret process of blending bourbon and mint chocolate candy — was created in Frankfort 81 years ago by the late Ruth Booe.

Allison says, “We encourage people to tour the Rebecca Ruth Candy factory, retail store and museum on Second Street,” which is celebrating its 100th anniversary of making chocolate this year. Today, Rebecca Ruth makes an estimated 5 million pieces of candy a year, of which 3 million are bourbon balls.

“While giving our boat tours, we’re trying to build up local businesses,” Allison says. They talk about Jim’s Seafood by Lock and Dam 4, Bourbon on Main downtown, where people can have dinner on a deck overlooking the Kentucky River, and Goodwood Brewing next door, scheduled to open this summer. They also point out the Riverboat Grill by the Singing Bridge, and talk about the popular Sig Luscher Brewery and local shops, and encourage them to “stay in Frankfort and experience our quaint downtown.”

Bourbon history tours are offered seven days a week, every hour, from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tourists are picked up at the Buffalo Trace gift shop and shuttled by van to River View Park where they will board the Trace of Kentucky boat, which holds up to 15 passengers plus the captain.

The cost per person is $14.

“A dollar of every ticket sale goes to Woods and Waters Land Trust,” Allison says. “We do that because they’re protecting the lower Kentucky River watershed and enhancing our nature. Hopefully as we grow, so will they and it will be much better for the lower Kentucky River.”

From River View Park, Nathan says, “the boat goes a little closer to Lock and Dam 4 to see that, and then we work our way upriver, going under the Singing Bridge and Capital Avenue Bridge. We continue past Melodye Park and the parking garage for the Capitol and Annex buildings, and turn around and go back to River View.” The cruise is about 5½ miles.

Experiencing Kentucky’s world-famous bourbon culture by boat is a unique way to learn about the Kentucky River’s influence on the history of bourbon. Tourists see why early whiskey distillers cherished the river and decided to build their fortunes on its banks.

“We talk about Old Hermitage Distillery, (once on the riverbank in South Frankfort by where Rebecca Ruth Candy is now). And we talk about modern bourbon — Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Castle and Key, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Glenns Creek Distillers,” Nathan says. “We also recommend The Stave restaurant in Millville.”

Kentucky River Tours is an official sponsor of The Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Other tours available

Besides the flagship Bourbon History Tour, Kentucky River Tours offers a Historical Frankfort Tour, partnering with Frankfort Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites. The tour was formerly offered by the city parks department on a smaller “Nancy Wilkinson” pontoon boat.

The discounted one-hour river history cruise is offered Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5:30 p.m. only. The cost is $5 per person and reservations are required. Boarding takes place at the dock at River View Park.

Passengers can enjoy all the great sights and sounds of Frankfort while the boat captain talks about the history and culture of the area. “This is a great tour for any group, and it makes a great date night,” a tourism card says.

Also, a new Kentucky River Lock-Through Tour has been added as the last boat trip of the day on Saturday and Sunday, starting at 5:30 p.m. Passengers are shuttled from Buffalo Trace to River View Park.

“It’s a $25 tour that goes for one-and-a half to two hours,” Nathan says. “We go downstream through Lock 4 that was built in 1840, and continue two or three miles downriver before turning around. You get to see more of a rural environment, plus the old shipwreck that’s down there and the back of Buffalo Trace Distillery.”

In the fall, a Leaf-Peeper Tour is planned to see the autumn colors. “That tour won’t have as much interpretation on it because we’ll be running at a little faster speed, averaging 10 to 12 miles per hour versus 6 to 7 mph on all the other tours,” Nathan says.

Three boat captains

The three owners of Kentucky River Tours and the Trace of Kentucky Bourbon Boat are fully-licensed U.S. Coast Guard captains — the Depenbrocks and Clayton Embly.

Allison grew up in a local outdoor business, Canoe Kentucky, which her father and mother, Ed and Bess Councill, founded in 1981 on the banks of Elkhorn Creek in Peaks Mill. Now Allison and Nathan own Canoe Kentucky.

Allison has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Western Kentucky University and a master’s in business from Xavier University in Cincinnati. She’s passionate about kayaking, standup paddleboarding, getting women and children in the outdoors, and her family, including two sons, Boone, 14, Dane 12, and a daughter, Isla, 7.

Nathan, formerly of Florence and a Covington Catholic High School graduate, has a bachelor’s from WKU, where he majored in outdoor recreation and minored in folk studies.

“I went to college for exactly what I’m doing, working outdoors and telling stories about our local and state history,” Nathan says.

He’s passionate about getting people outside and creating life-changing experiences. He’s an American Canoe Association instructor trainer, an EMT and wilderness first responder, and a swift water rescue technician. He loves anything outdoors, including hunting, hiking and paddling.

Embly worked many years for the U.S. Military Sea Lift Command, and was a harbor master on the Chesapeake Bay in and around Baltimore. His passion is sailing, owning many boats and competing in races around the U.S. He is co-founder of Sail Kentucky, a project to expose central Kentucky to the sport of sailing.

The Kentucky River Tours’ bourbon boat started in the fall of 2018, “but with all the rain we didn’t get a lot of trips in,” Allison said. “The river flooded so much it wasn’t safe. So this is pretty much our inauguration year.”

Nathan adds, “We like to say we’re kind of a Kentucky Proud product. Everything on the bourbon boat — minus the hull — was custom built by Kentucky craftsmen. Even the seat cushions were made in Kentucky.

Many out-of-state tourists

“We’ve had passengers from Jordan, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Kenya, Canada, California, Washington state, Oregon, Texas, Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Arizona, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and New York. In the first few months of business, it’s really neat how we’re reaching out to a pretty diverse group of people.

“Our numbers for April were 200 percent over what we predicted, and we went over our expected numbers in May. They’re not huge numbers. When we started this business, we had aspirations of much bigger numbers. But trying to grow a brand new business isn’t easy.”

Nathan said probably more than half of their tours have been booked through Airbnb Experiences online.

“We’re just trying to get the word out that we’re doing this because The Kentucky Bourbon Trail customer does not show up in town without a plan,” Nathan said in June. “You not only have to get them before they get here, you’ve got to get to them four months before they come. We have lots of tours booked in August and September.

“Down the road, we envision having two boats like this one, and having a larger, double-decker 49 passenger vessel so we can start doing longer trips and dinner cruises.”