Bardstown, the second oldest city in Kentucky, was named the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” in 2012 by USA Today and Rand McNally. Downtown is distinguished by Courthouse Square and the gorgeous building that sits prominently in the middle of the round about. Buildings from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s have been lovingly restored and now are offices, restaurants, museums and shops.
There are no tacky t-shirts or year-round Christmas shops downtown, instead you find interesting shops with clothing, specialty foods, home décor, art galleries, cafes, and one of the most popular shops - the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace. Here you will find a shop with all things bourbon from bourbon scented candles to barbeque sauce to napkins. And yes, an extensive array of bottles of bourbon. We had a great time chatting with an Australian transplant who ended up in Bardstown by way of Chicago.
If it’s bourbon you want then you have come to the right place. Within a short drive are six distilleries ranging from the bourbon giant Jim Beam to the small family owned and operated craft distillery Willett. Distillery tours on average cost $10 and last about 45 minutes during which you will learn the history of that particular distillery and about the bourbon making process from cooking the “mash bill” (a distillers word for the combination of grains used), distillation, fermentation, and aging. At the end of the tour is time to taste and let your mouth come alive with the flavors of this uniquely American spirit.
One of our favorite craft distilleries was Willett Distillery. This family owned business operates with little automation that you find at mega-distillers. Barrels are marked with stencils and hand painted, barrels are hand rolled when moving, weighed on an old-fashioned barrel scale, and hoisted to their place in the rickhouse with a metal chain. Our tour guide, Mitch, was great and was proud of the way the small scale distillery operates and what they produce.
“Noah” one of the distillery’s cats was happy to accompany us on our tour.
Jim Beam Distillery is quite the contrast to Willett and other small-scale distilleries. With over 300 employees and around 200,000 annual visitors this is definitely a popular stop on the Bourbon Trail and is the flagship distillery. History at this distillery goes back to 1795 when Jacob Beam started producing bourbon that would eventually lead to the business having the number one selling bourbon in the world. The tour takes you from mash bill to bottling and ends with a taste test of two samples of your picking. The tasting room and its many choices illustrates just how many different products Jim Beam produces. But this distillery offers much more than just tour and tasting. There is an extensive gift shop, restaurant, and self-guided tour to entertain visitors for hours.
If it is history you want then head over to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. Yes, there really is a museum of whiskey history! And it is the proud winner of Whiskey Magazines “2014 Whiskey Visitor Attraction of the Year.” The museum chronicles the whiskey history from Colonial Days to the 1960’s spread over various rooms in the historic Spalding Hall. Getz, who is the former owner of Barton Distillery, has quite the collection including rare bottles, stills, advertisements, and documents. The museum is free (donations accepted) so why not take a look.
Heaven Hill Distillery Bourbon Heritage Center is another place to brush up on your bourbon history. You can tour the distillery or just meander around the heritage center where there are artifacts, bourbon history exhibits and a short film on the history of bourbon. The interactive exhibits quiz your bourbon history and let you smell bourbon at different stages of aging.
We camped at White Acres Campground (with full hook-ups) but another popular spot is the My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Across from the state park is an off-leash dog park (Bourbon City Bark Park) that has three runs, water fountains, and plenty of room for dogs to run. To sample the local fare, we sat down at Susie Q’s based on the recommendation to try the “slaw burger.” Mammy’s Kitchen is known for their country cooking and slices of homemade pie. The locals recommend the Rickhouse for their steaks. Lunch in the historic Old Talbott Tavern is a must and don’t leave without indulging in the sweet “yum, yum” donuts at Hadorn’s Bakery.
Bardstown certainly lives up to its accolades. We were only going to stay for four days but with so much to do and see we kept extending. Eventually, after a week it was time to pack up and keep moving along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.