By Hope S. Philbrick
Bardstown, the state of Kentucky’s second-oldest city (after Harrodsburg), has been named “The Most Beautiful Small Town in America” by Rand McNally and USA Today, and is an official trailhead of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Sure, families live here and raise kids, but Bardstown is a vibrant hub of bourbon production, celebration and history and so it has a thoroughly-grownup vibe. It’s arguably the (un)official capital of bourbon-geekdom, which makes us feel totally at home. (Seriously.) My husband and I find its sophisticated yet casual atmosphere seductive: We’ve visited Bardstown three times and plan to go back soon.
If your goal is to fill up a Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport and/or the new Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour passport—or both—with stamps, then Bardstown is an essential stop, whether it’s where you start or just a stop along the journey.
But there’s also plenty to fill an itinerary if you choose to hang close to Bardstown—even if you, gasp!, aren’t a bourbon fan. Here are some recent discoveries:
Pizza and pasta creations dominate the menu at this casual restaurant. This chef is no slacker; she takes her cooking very seriously. Tell locals you’re headed here and they’re likely to start salivating in eager anticipation. You may have to grab a table with extra seats because they just may join you.
Odds of Encountering Children: Depends on when you go; we saw none while dining after 7:30 p.m. on a weeknight.
Tucked into a historic home, dining here feels like visiting a friend. The eclectic menu finds inspiration in Thai, Mediterranean, Italian, French, Cajun, Creole and American cuisines. Some dishes get a regional twist, like the hot brown mac-n-cheese. Satisfy cravings and discover new flavor favorites at this classy joint.
Odds of Encountering Children: Possible, but slim. It’s a fancier dining option compared to others in town.
Roll up your sleeves and dig in at this casual eatery where the motto is “Country Cookin’ Makes Ya Good Lookin’.” The family restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with a range of familiar options like eggs, pancakes, chicken salad, burgers, hot dogs, chicken, steak and more plus regional favorites like the hot brown. Bourbon fans should not miss the bourbon burger, featuring the scrumptious combo of bourbon sauce and caramelized onions.
Odds of Encountering Children: Depends on when you go. Lowest for lunch during school/business hours.
The Rickhouse Restaurant & Lounge
This restaurant takes its name from local productions: a rickhouse is a warehouse where bourbon barrels are aged. Serving dinner only, the menu offers upscale preparations of classic American appetizers, salads and entrées including chicken, seafood and pasta—but is best known for its steaks. Whatever you choose as an entrée, if you’re not also tempted by the eleven cheese macaroni, bourbon-glazed mushrooms, and bourbon brownie a la mode, you’re a stronger person than me. The bar offers more than 130 bourbons and serves to order as well as in flights to facilitate tasting a diverse selection.
Odds of Encountering Children: Possible, but slim. It’s a swankier dining option compared to others in town.
Tour any distillery and you’ll likely leave knowing more about bourbon than you did when you arrived. Each tour is different, yet they all follow a similar approach: You’ll hear about the family behind the distillery and general Kentucky bourbon history (some fact, some legend), see the production facility in operation (typically starting with the dusty grain and then following the bourbon-making process to its gleaming bottle finish*), and then you’ll end up in the gift shop where you’re invited to sip samples if you’re age 21 or older. Samples are small since you’ll be getting back in your car (probably to head to another distillery), but sufficient to glean your opinion of whatever is poured.
*At some facilities you may not see a specific aspect of production for some reason on any given tour. Maybe the fermentation tanks are getting scrubbed clean or perhaps the rickhouses are at another location. The tour guide will talk you through any omissions.
Barton’s 1792 Distillery
You won’t get a bourbon trail passport stamp here, but this distillery is worth a stop. Originally called the Tom Moore Distillery, the name was changed to Barton in 1943. Eight different bourbons are made on site including Very Old Barton, 1792, Kentucky Tavern, Kentucky Gentleman, Col. Lee, Tom Moore, Ten High and Zachariah Harris. Like many distilleries, this one sources its corn from Kentucky and Indiana, rye from Wisconsin and barley from the Dakotas. Its column still is four and a half stories tall; its 28 rickhouses have a 19,600-barrel capacity. The distillery doesn’t operate in the hot summer months but bottling takes place year-round—in fact, 150 different products are bottled here, as the bottling line does subcontract work.
Heaven Hill Distilleries
One of the big bourbon producers—this distillery cranks out 45,000 cases a day!—Heaven Hill offers four different tours: a mini distillery tour that takes about 45 minutes, a 90-minute deluxe distillery tour, a three-hour behind-the-scenes distillery tour, and a half-hour trolley tour of Bardstown. You can also just stroll through its Bourbon Heritage Center on your own, which offers some read-at-your-own-pace museum-quality displays, several interactive stations including a sniff instruction tool, and an elaborate gift shop. Post-tour tastings are strictly for adults age 21 and older and may include some limited edition bourbons: 21 Plus Salute!
Jim Beam American Stillhouse
Jim Beam is the world’s largest bourbon producer. To put it in perspective: Kentucky produces 95 percent of the nation’s bourbon; Jim Beam produces 50 percent of that. About two million barrels are currently aging in the company’s 72 warehouses. Tours begin and end in the gift shop, which is big enough you won’t necessarily wind up looking at the same stuff twice. From there you’ll hop on a bus, be regaled with family lore, then get an up-close look at bourbon production from grain to bottle to marketing. Unique aspects of the tour include the chance to help dump a barrel of Knob Creek single barrel bourbon and then sterilize a bottle to fill yourself. Tours include a tasting; choose a few sips among a wide range of products including Knob Creek, Jim Beam Honey, Jim Beam Ghost, Jim Beam, Red Stag, Devil’s Cut, Baker’s, Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s and more.
A stop on the new Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour, touring Willett offers an inside look at a smaller distiller. “We fill 15 to 20 barrels a day here,” says one tour guide. “We don’t really want to get any bigger.” Eight rickhouses hold less than 5,000 barrels. The distillery is both historic (circa 1937) and new (the family started extensive renovations in 2004). Plans are to add an on-site grist mill in 2015. Tours here are more intimate, you can get close to the production equipment and even stick your finger into the sour mash as it bubbles in the fermentation tank for a taste.
Odds of Encountering Children: Higher than zero. Most distilleries allow children on tours, which makes it convenient for adults who just so happen to be driving through Bourbon Country and spontaneously decide to stop. At Buffalo Trace, children are able to sip root beer at the tasting bar; other distilleries may follow suit. Of course, we’d prefer to see anyone under legal drinking age banned.
Beyond the distilleries…
Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace
This three-in-one business—retail store, meeting space and tasting bar—opened late 2013 and already feels like the town’s social hub. The tasting bar transforms into a full-service bar after 8 p.m. The concept is to make it easy to taste and then buy. The owners, a married couple, explain that “It all began with bourbon,” since they met at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival and share a love of the stuff. They claim that the first bourbon cocktail poured in Nelson County was bourbon with ginger ale. Try it, you’ll like it.
More than 300 buildings in Nelson County are on the National Register of Historic Places, and nearly 200 of them are in Historic Downtown Bardstown. Walk or drive around to appreciate the fact that this town was first founded in 1780. Don’t forget your camera.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park
Stephen Foster was the first American born published composer. He was born on July 4, 1826, the same day that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. He is the only composer who wrote two state songs: Kentucky’s “My Old Kentucky Home” and Florida’s “Suwanee River.” He wrote over 200 songs, including “Oh! Susanna,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”
The centerpiece of the state park is Federal Hill Mansion, believed to be the old Kentucky home that inspired his ballad; it belonged to his cousin, Senator John Rowan. Tours of the former plantation house, which will be 200 years old in 2018, help bring the antebellum South to life, as it’s packed with antiques (including a couch slept upon by President Andrew Jackson) plus guides are dressed in historic attire and talk about yesteryear as if it were yesterday.
The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History
If you like(d) poking around in your grandma’s attic and you like whiskey, then this place is going to be a special thrill. Packed full of more bourbon- and boozy treasures than you ever imagined existed, this is where to learn fun facts like how the word “booze” originated, who is really to blame for Prohibition, how some distilleries were able to operate during Prohibition, who actually launched the bourbon industry, how distilling equipment has evolved, what sort of bottles were used in the past, and much more. Spend a few overwhelming minutes taking it all in or spend hours peering deep into the past: the choice is yours.
Where To Stay…
When To Go…
Any time is a fun time to visit Bardstown. But we especially adore the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
— Graphics courtesy Visit Bardstown; photos © HSP Media LLC
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