Bardstown, Kentucky: Population = 11,700, elevation = 646 feet, Climate = same as Louisville, KY, just 41 miles away
Following the Bourbon Trail through Kentucky, we decided we needed to make the pilgrimage to Bardstown. This is the “Bourbon Capital Of The World”. There are three distilleries in town and many more nearby. Many of the local businesses have “Bourbon” in their name. And it is a pretty nice little town.
We started our tour on Heaven Hill. This is a huge campus where they make several brands of bourbon. It was not exactly a distillery tour. Their distilling plants are huge buildings where the public does not usually visit. We sat with a “Bourbon Professor” who told us about mash bills and oak aging and the history of distilling in Kentucky. There is a legal definition of bourbon that has to be followed exactly, otherwise it is just whiskey. He also demonstrated proper bourbon chewing technique and lead us through a fine array of tasty bourbons.
Next on our trail was the 1792 Barton Distillery. This is a small batch (comparatively) company that only makes a few brands. This time we did do the walking tour. We saw the gigantic distilling towers, tucked tightly into a plumber’s nightmare of piping. We got a peek into a giant rickhouse, where 19,600 barrels of whiskey sleep, waiting for its bottling day. And, of course, we got to taste the results.
Given a lovely spring day, we went for a drive though the rolling Kentucky countryside, on the Bluegrass Parkway. The highway cuts through cliffs, both dark with coal and light with limestone. It is the limestone filtering the groundwater that makes it iron-free and perfect for whiskey making. Our stops include the distilleries for Four Roses and Wild Turkey. Our timing was just right; we missed the walking tours and went right for the tastings. The Wild Turkey site was probably the prettiest distillery we saw. The visitor’s center is fresh and new and perched on a bluff overlooking a scenic river valley.
Our last distillery was Willett, right in Bardstown. This was the most complete tour we had. Our (very!) talkative hostess ran us through every aspect of the distillery and the family that proudly owns and operates it. We saw the corn being loaded into the bins, the mash fermenting in the tanks, a small pot distiller working a batch, and finally, a rickhouse. The rickhouses are cool inside, a steady 60 degrees this time of year. Which makes it a good place to age country ham. We saw dozens of hams hanging in the rafters. This is a family business.
Just off Stephen Foster Avenue (named for the author of “My Old Kentucky Home”) we found the Oscar Getz Museum Of Whiskey History. Apparently Oscar was an avid collector who finally donated the whole works for a museum. Today the displays cover an entire floor of what used to be a boy’s dormitory. The memorabilia and posters are lots of fun, but the collection of bottles is amazing. They have everything from the oldest backwoods moonshine jug, to whimsical figurine bottles, to bottles of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 year old bourbon.
OK, so enough about Bourbon already. What is Bardstown like? The downtown is quaint and historic. The buildings are made of solid old brick that has been well maintained. Placing the city hall in the middle of a traffic circle was, to me, a questionable choice, but the town seems to deal with it. We found beautiful old churches, stately old mansions, cute little cottages, a nice mix of old and new. Drive out of the city center a little ways and you find all the big box stores that it takes to satisfy the American shopper. Overall, a very nice town, I would be happy to visit again sometime.
Next up: Indianapolis, Indiana