Bourbon is king in Kentucky, and in Bardstown, Kentucky, the business of bourbon is big – and booming. Named the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” in 2012 by Rand McNally/USA Today, the charming city center has been well-maintained over the centuries, with preservation efforts so rampant that more than 300 buildings in the county are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among those buildings, visitors will find restaurants featuring bourbon-infused menu items and flavorful flights of bourbon on hand for the ultimate tasting experience; shops filled with designer fashions, art, home décor, and exquisite antiques; and an amazing history stretching back more than 200 years.
Kentucky boasts that it has more barrels of bourbon aging across the state than it has residents. And many of those barrels are aging in Bardstown, home to several distilleries of varying sizes. Touring bourbon distilleries is a must when visiting Bardstown, and each tour is different.
Distilling in the Willett family began just after the Civil War with John David Willett, a Master Distiller and part owner of the Moore, Willett, and Frenke Distillery in Bardstown. Many Willett descendents became Master Distillers over the decades, but Thompson and Johnny Willett decided to build their own distillery on the family farm in 1936, producing the first batch of whiskey the following year. Several of Thompson’s brothers joined him in the venture, and they maintained its operation until the early 1980s. In 1984, Thompson’s son-in-law, Even Kulsveen, purchased the Willett Distillery, and he continues to run it today along with his wife and children, using as little automation as possible. Willett Distillery hopes to evolve into more than just a distillery. The site will soon have a working grist mill and a bed and breakfast. Tours include a look at the mash cookers and fermentation tanks, the still, the filling room, and one of the rickhouses. Tours and tastings are $12 with a souvenir tasting glass or $7 without the glass.
Tours of varying lengths are offered at Barton 1792 Distillery. The Barton Tradition tour lasts about an hour and covers the daily operating process of the distillery, one of the warehouses built in the 1930s, and the tasting room. The 90-minute Bushel to Bottle tour is more extensive, allowing visitors a peek inside the full fermentation, distilling, and bottling processes at Barton. Finally, the 1792 Estate Tour covers everything on the property’s 192 acres. This 2-hour tour is limited to groups of five and reservations are required. On average, Barton Distillery has more than half a million barrels aging at any given time and is the home to the world’s largest bourbon barrel, which makes for a great photo op. Tours and tastings are complimentary.
Finally there’s Heaven Hill, a distillery that is a destination unto itself as it is also home of the Bourbon Heritage Center. Founded in 1935, just two years after prohibition was repealed, Heaven Hill now produces more than 100 bourbon products and owns 65 different labels. In addition, thousands of non-bourbon products come from of Heaven Hill, the most popular of which are flavored vodkas and rums. A self-guided tour through the Bourbon Heritage Center and gift shop is definitely worth the time. Guided tours are also available, the highlight of which is the Whiskey Connoisseur Tour. This 30-minute tour features a short excursion through the Bourbon Heritage Center followed by a tasting of four limited release or premium bourbons. The $20 ticket is well worth the price for novices and connoisseurs alike, as a bourbon host walks visitors through the proper way to taste bourbon, explaining the difference between wheated and rye bourbons, offering unique insights into the bourbon landscape, and making for an all around exceptional experience.
Other distilleries in the Bardstown area include Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Four Roses.
Bourbon lovers might also want to visit the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, which features an incredible collection of all things bourbon. The museum houses 50 years of whiskey artifacts and memorabilia, including anything from old liquor licenses and bottles to signage and unique decanters.
Some interesting facts about Bourbon:
- All bourbon is whiskey. Not all whiskey is bourbon.
- By law, bourbon must be made from 51% corn. A combination of rye, wheat, and malted barley makes up the other 49%. In addition, bourbon must be stored in a brand new, charred white oak barrel.
- In 1964, Congress officially declared Bourbon as the “American Native Spirit.” While bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the United States, 95% of the world’s supply does come from Kentucky. One reason could be the water supply.
- While bourbon can be made using any clean water source, Kentucky distilleries are famous for using limestone filtered water.
- Bourbon gets its color from the charred white oak barrel in which it is stored. The liquid is clear when it originally goes into the barrel.
- Used barrels cannot be reused to store bourbon; however, they are often used for other purposes such as storing Scotch, Brandy, wine, and even tabasco sauce.
- Blame taxes for the cost. According to a distillery tour guide, a 10-year-old barrel of bourbon will be taxed 12 times before even leaving the distillery property.