Bardstown Sets the Stage for Spirited Memories

The self-ascribed “Bourbon Capital of the World” offers fine spirits and a welcome change of pace

Rand McNally and USA Today called it the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America.” But Bardstown, Kentucky, is much more than just a pretty face.

This “Bourbon Capital of the World” is home to six notable distilleries. Kentucky’s “Official Outdoor Drama,” one of the country’s most highly regarded Civil War museums, and one of the most recognized structures in the world is here at Federal Hill, better known as My Old Kentucky Home.

The Old Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whiskey connoisseurs and history buffs probably already know Bardstown, a small town about 45 minutes south of Louisville. Europeans crossed the Appalachians and settled in the area in the 1770s. The town’s charming and walkable downtown area incorporates significant historic features of the time. Bardstown is also home to or within a short drive of a ton of distilleries including some of the biggest names in bourbon. The self-ascribed moniker, “The Bourbon Capital of the World” is pretty accurate. Like a lot of small towns, Bardstown is a rewarding destination. If you’re looking to get away and take it easy for a couple of days or longer or for a home base for your pilgrimage along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, this is the ideal location.

The Old Talbott Tavern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your options for lodgings in Bardstown run the gamut from chain hotels to centuries-old establishments and nearby RV parks and campgrounds. Some portions of the original 1779 structure housing The Talbott Inn on Court Square in the heart of downtown are still in use; a larger section dates to 1913. Among other historic figures, the inn and its tavern (now a restaurant and bar called Old Talbott Tavern) hosted Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesse James.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, you’re bound to get hungry on any road trip. The best road trips are the ones that involve delicious food, am I right? America is full of so many amazing bakeries that it’s impossible to try all of them in a lifetime. Always on the lookout for fresh doughnuts, delicious regional specialties, and amazing cookies and cakes, brings us to Hadorn’s Bakery, a Bardstown institution that comes highly recommended.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hadorn’s is a third-generation family bakery founded in Louisville in 1935 and has been Bardstown’s family bakery since 1977. From yum yums, one of the local favorites, to fresh doughnuts, seasonal cookies and cakes, and a whole host of others, everything at Hadorn’s is mouthwateringly delicious. If you’re going to have just one, make it a Yum Yum—a sort of cinnamon bun that’s braided instead of rolled, then glazed and topped with streaks of gooey icing.

As you might expect, most bars around town have walls lined with shelf upon shelf of bourbon and most barkeeps are adept at showcasing the local spirit.

Makers Mark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bourbon, as you might know, has developed a cult following that can be kind of intimidating for the uninitiated. Distillery tours are a good way to get up close and personal with the beloved oak-aged liquor. By staying in Bardstown you’re roughly a half-hour drive from Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Four Roses. You’re practically spoiled for choice right in Bardstown, as well: The Barton 1792 distillery is a stone’s throw from downtown, while Lux Row (which produces Rebel Yell, Ezra Brooks, and more), Willett, and the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center aren’t much farther.

Four Roses Bourbon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of these firms have been distilling for decades or longer. The massive operation at Bardstown Bourbon Company, 10 minutes from downtown, was launched in 2016. They offer a one-hour From Distillate to Barrel Tour in which a knowledgeable guide leads you through a tasting that included fresh distillate (aka moonshine) as well as aged whiskeys.

Willett Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tour also takes you through the distilling plant and then out to one of the company’s rickhouses where your guide may thieve (that’s a technical term for dipping with a giant copper straw-like device) some samples from a barrel of BBC’s own bourbon. It’s been aging since 2016 and won’t go to market until next year. (Bardstown Bourbon Company has sold very little whiskey under its own label so far but through its custom distilling program you may have tasted some of their handiwork in what Belle Meade Bourbon and other newer distillers offer while their own whiskey ages.)

Distillery tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to being fun and delivering the mildest hint of a buzz, a distillery tour will leave you with some more tools in your kit for deciding what you truly enjoy in a bourbon rather than going on name reputation.

You can easily fill a week with distillery tours in and around Bardstown. But you could also pay a visit to the Old Bardstown Colonial Village featuring a collection of frontier cabins spread over a verdant park. It’s very close to Museum Row which includes the Women’s Museum of the Civil War.

My Old Kentucky Home © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located less than a mile from the Old Historic Courthouse, My Old Kentucky Home State Park embodies the antebellum South and was the inspiration for Stephen Foster’s world-famous composition, “My Old Kentucky Home,” Kentucky’s official state song. Guides in period costume tell the story of the esteemed Rowan family who called the plantation home from the late 18th to 19th centuries. During the summer visitors can enjoy America’s favorite outdoor drama, “The Stephen Foster Story,” which features Stephen Foster’s best-known works brought to life by performers in period costumes among beautiful sets.

Bernheim Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s no trip to Bardstown that’s complete without a visit to the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, and there’s no better time to visit than the morning! Comprised of more than 15,600 acres of protected wildlife, forest, and natural landscapes, the Bernheim property is a virtual must-see. Since its founding in 1929, this sustainable woodland ecosystem has existed as a proven habitat for diversified flora and fauna providing refuge for so many local species. It’s also one of the area’s premier recreational venues, ideal for those individuals who enjoy strolling through nature while taking life at a pace conducive to easy enjoyment.

Jim Beam © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve got the time on the way back to the downtown district, stop by the Jim Beam Distillery, unique in its own right as a location that can effectively rival any distillery in the area.

Worth Pondering…

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,

Weep no more, my lady,

Oh! Weep no more today!

We will sing one song for the old Kentucky Home,

For the old Kentucky Home far away.

—Words and music by Stephen Collins Foster, 1853

Road Tripping in Bourbon Country

Everything you need to know about the ultimate U.S. liquor and where to learn more

America’s Native Spirit can be made anywhere in the U.S. and still be called bourbon but some 90 percent is Kentuckian. In the Bluegrass State, there are, as every tour guide says, more bourbon barrels aging (nearly 5 million) than residents (4.5 million).

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2012, the Kentucky Distillers Association launched the Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. It’s essentially a map of seven micro-distilleries to complement a similarly self-guided tour of seven larger ones. Each has its own passport. Fill with stamps for a free T-shirt. That achievement briefly intrigued. Assessing geography and open hours, however, led us to five, plus one not on the sanctioned trail.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Per federal law, bourbon is whiskey consisting of at least 51 percent corn produced at each stage within a range of proofs (too high or low and you’re back to whiskey) aged in new (one-time use only) white oak barrels. Throughout the trail, you’ll hear about Kentucky’s mineral-rich limestone water but there’s no bourbon without a barrel.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A barrel is really an ingredient. Without it, you’d be drinking White Dog, the clear grain distillate (aka moonshine) that enters a barrel. What exits is brown (darkest when aged longest) and hopefully multidimensional. Whiskey is pretty simple. It’s a function of recipe, barrel, warehouse, and time.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve bourbons are made in limited quantity at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, along with other lauded labels—Blanton’s, Eagle Rare, E.H. Taylor, George T. Stagg. They’re not pouring or selling anything Van Winkle there, but following a walk through the park-like property’s architectural timeline of two centuries of distilling, you can sip up to three ½-oz tastes of other products including the distillery’s namesake.

Tasting laws are strict. Fortunately, these counties are now wet; Woodbridge was dry on our first visit over a decade ago. They’re also flowing with another type of spirit.

Jim Beam American Stillhouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prior to our first trip to Bourbon Country I had heard of Jim Beam, and little else. Fittingly, Jim Beam’s Fred Noe, the company’s seventh-generation Master Distiller is the great-grandson of Jim who protected their yeast (think sourdough bread starter) by driving it back and forth to work in a jug. They’ve used that same strain since 1935. You can see the jug on the tour at the company’s American Stillhouse in Clermont, under padlock.

Maker’s Mark Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ve also been to Maker’s Mark (actually, twice), the first distillery to reach out to visitors. At the time, people said ‘what the heck are you doing’ when they put a lot of money out just for show. That’s what people did for horses, not bourbon. But every year they sold everything they made and the rest of the industry took notice.

Willett Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We moved on to Willett Distillery, where Johnny Drum, Willett, Noah’s Mill, and other small-batch bourbons are made. Production here is 20 barrels a day, compared to Beam’s 5,000 or so. Entering the fermenting room, we noted seven uncovered 10,400-gallon tanks of bubbling brew—beer before liquor, literally.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Wild Turkey, we meet Jimmy, legendary Master Distiller, more than 60 years in. Similar to our other tours, we enter a massive, unfriendly-looking warehouse (think prison or horror film), holding some 20,000 barrels. These “rack houses” can have a 50-degree temperature variance between top and bottom floors. That’s part of the mystique of bourbon: Most warehouses are heated and cooled by nature’s whims, resulting in barrels of differing nature. The challenge is to blend and create a consistent taste.

Barrels at Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reaching for a visible wet spot on a barrel our guide says, “Leaks prove bourbon is getting into the most porous parts of the wood. That’s how you get the syrupy goodness.” As the weather changes and the wood expands and contracts, the bourbon flows in and out. Mostly it stays in. The greatest amount of loss is attributed to evaporation and referred to as Angel’s Share.

Bourbon needs to be in the barrel for two years to be bourbon, but most are aged for six or more. At a loss rate of about 5 percent a year. No wonder ghosts linger about. You get your share too when you enter. It’s delicious.

Woodford Reserve Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Woodford Reserve, where you’re most reminded you’re in thoroughbred territory—gigantic, fenced, hilly, and grassy farms surround the picturesque national landmark—the warehouses are temperature-controlled, a somewhat controversial modernization. Buffalo Trace has some of these, too.

Woodford Reserve Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some 20 years ago, Brown-Forman renovated the vacant buildings and started mixing up what’s now the world’s only triple-distilled bourbon. Everyone else does two. Woodford emphasizes the harmony of five areas of flavor: sweet aromatics, fruit and floral, spice, wood, and grain.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best Kentucky bourbon country trip includes both large and small distilleries. Visit four and you’ll return home with an understanding of the product, the process, and the history. And you’ll have taste, but not a full glass. There are no bars on any property.

Boundary Oak Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s essential to remember that open hours are limited—and that Covid-19 is impacting travel and tourism—3 p.m. is the last tour most everywhere. Sundays don’t start until 1 p.m. Some distilleries are neighbors; many are a good hour apart. Choose your favorite label, and work around it.

Maker’s Mark Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our trail was more or less a 200-mile oval between Shepherdsville (20 miles south of Louisville) and Lexington. We used two RV parks for our home base: Grandma’s RV Camping in Shepherdsville and Whispering Hills RV Park north of Georgetown (20 miles north of Lexington).

Worth Pondering…

Let dreamers whine

Of the pleasures of wine

For lovers of soft delight

But this is the song

Of a tipple that’s strong

For men who must toil and fight.

Now the drink of luck

For the man full of pluck

Is easy to nominate

It’s the good old whiskey of old Kentuck

And you always drink it straight… 

The Ballad of Whiskey Straight, a 19th-century Kentucky poem

Discovering the Joys of Kentucky Bourbon

Each distillery along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has a unique story to tell

Bourbon is big.

Along with Willie Nelson and his country music classic, “On the road again. Just can’t wait to get on the road again…” we headed southeast to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stretching from Louisville to Lexington, then southwest along the Bluegrass Parkway, the trail is a trademarked destination made up of nine member distilleries. Over several days, we toured four of the chosen nine and then veered off to a new craft distillery. Like the four that are featured here, each had a unique story to tell, interlaced with a rich history and distinctive style.

Maker’s Mark Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bourbon “distinctive,” you say? Heck yes. While once considered the drink of the common man, bourbon’s status has swelled in recent years, as sales have surged. Production has exceeded 1 million barrels annually for the past five years, driven by the demand of younger customers and an appreciation of small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, the premium equivalents of a single-malt scotch.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the uninitiated, a primer: All bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon. There are stringent regulations, set by Congress in 1964, that make bourbon exclusive within the spirits world. To be labeled a bourbon, it must be made in the United States using a grain mixture that’s at least 51 percent corn; it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof (62.5 percent alcohol); and it must be bottled at 80 proof or more.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rolling through verdant hills, Kentucky is a blend of genteel traditions—Churchill Downs, mint juleps, the stately white fences that frame the horse farms—and pure Americana: Louisville Slugger, Muhammad Ali Center, and Bill Monroe.

Barton 1792, Bardstown

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a sleepy valley in Bardstown lies the sprawling Barton 1792, an old school distillery with an old school charm. The tour is informal, the buildings unadorned.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The distillery’s flagship brand pays tribute to the year Kentucky gained statehood. Rye recipe bourbon, 1792 is handcrafted in small batches, aged 8 years, and bottled at 93.7 proof. It is very high in rye, so it’s going to give you a lot of spicy flavor upfront. Buttery on your tongue and so smooth as it goes down the back of your throat. It has a long finish. Our glasses seemed to empty themselves.

Maker’s Mark Distillery, Loretto

Maker’s Mark Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Bardstown, we headed down the winding roads to the home of Maker’s Mark Distillery a National Historic Landmark nestled in the rolling hills of Marion County. Any bourbon tour would be incomplete without a stop at Maker’s Mark who has been producing its bourbon whiskey (they spell it “whisky” in honor of the company’s Scottish roots) since 1840.

Maker’s Mark Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are plenty of signs along the way to get you there in time to dip your own souvenir bottle in their signature red wax.

Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buildings from 1881 still stand, used in the production of brands such as Blanton, Stagg Jr. and Van Winkle, whose rare 23-year-old bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle, fetches more than $1,000 a bottle.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Founded in the late 1700s, Buffalo Trace claims to be the oldest U.S. distillery that has continuously produced bourbon. The reason being, during Prohibition (1920 to 1933), it was one of six distilleries licensed by the federal government to sell whiskey for “medicinal purposes.”

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“A person could get a prescription from his doctor and receive 2 quarts per month,” says our tour guide.” And when Prohibition was canceled, Kentucky was the healthiest state in the Union.

Wild Turkey Distillery, Lawrenceburg

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Wild Turkey Distillery tour reveals an intriguing combination of tradition and modern mass production. In the fermentation room, for example, 70-year-old cypress tanks stand next to modern stainless steel ones.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our visit began and ended in the new visitor center with a gift shop and tasting room. Inspired by the silhouette of Kentucky tobacco barns , the two-year-old visitor center has an unbeatable view of the Kentucky River and its bridge and unique railroad trestle (the turnaround point for the Bluegrass Scenic Railroad).

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ll be back. Our well-practiced taste buds will demand it.

Worth Pondering…

I take with me Kentucky

embedded in my brain and heart,

in my flesh and bone and blood

Since I am Kentucky

and Kentucky is part of me.

—Jesse Stuart