By Frank Hutchins
Approach Bardstown from any direction and you enter a landscape of spirits. Pioneer Catholics carved out the first spaces west of the Alleghenies to celebrate Mass. There soon followed settlers equally intent on celebrating mash. Saints and sinners and in-betweeners all built what today is recognized as “The Most Beautiful Small Town in America.”
And anyone interested in a history of vice and virtue will find a visit here well worth the time.
The pungent odor of fermenting grains, the sweet and musty smell of a whiskey-filled warehouse and the smooth sting of a Bluegrass bullet fired from a shot glass create a wonderfully sensory experience. This is Bourbon Country, make no mistake, and distilleries have responded by adding upscale visitor centers and extensive tours to enrich the bourbon scene for locals and visitors alike. Six long-standing distilleries in the Bardstown area offer a variety of experiences for bourbon fans or those simply interested in how it gets from grain to bottle. Three new distilleries are under construction.
The Bible & The Barrel
The Bible and the bourbon barrel were juggled most creatively by Baptist preacher and whiskey alchemist Elijah Craig, identified by many as the father of bourbon. Head to family-owned Heaven Hill to learn about this history (and sample his namesake, of course) at the Bourbon Heritage Center.
The $10 Mashbill Tour gets you into a rickhouse to see where whiskey is barrel-aged, and into the main tasting room to test the end results. The $20 Connoisseur Tour is for those already familiar with bourbon basics; it features a visit to the private tasting room, where you can sample the $149-per-bottle Heaven Hill Select Stock – and take home the glass!
Just down the road on Highway 49 is the smaller, family-owned Willett Distillery, which is in the midst of a dramatic makeover. Willett currently offers tours of the distilling area, mash room and warehouse space, but the experience is about to be kicked up a notch in a soon-to-open visitor center with two tasting rooms, a brick patio and wraparound porch, plus a bar and food area.
Three Civil War-era log cabins are being reassembled on the property, one reborn as a grist mill and two others as cabins available to overnight guests. A five-bedroom B&B is also under construction and will include a bar and spacious porch overlooking a lake.
All Things Bourbon
If you want to get intimately close to the bubbling mash, rolling barrels and bottling line, check out the Barton 1792 Distillery near downtown. This free tour also concludes with a tasting, but it all takes place in a visitor center smack in the middle of distillery operations. Nearby Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto and Four Roses Distillery in Cox’s Creek all offer tours and tastings as well.
For a bit of memorabilia to take back home, stop by Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace downtown. The combination gift shop and bar has a range of whiskies (to take home in a bag or your tummy), food products made with bourbon, souvenir clothing and household items all connected to a drink/eat/drink theme.
Upstairs from the Marketplace is the Historic Mary May House bed and breakfast, one of a number of B&B options around Bardstown. Others include Jailer’s Inn (in the former county jail), Bourbon Manor Bed & Breakfast Inn (a restored antebellum mansion), the Old Talbott Tavern (above the restaurant/bar) and many more.
When the spirits send you in search of atonement, seek out Bardstown’s holy spaces. The majestic Basilica of St. Joseph – listed on the National Historic Register – is right downtown. Nearby are other sites rich with Catholic history, such as St. Thomas Church and the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani. Secular history abounds in a variety of museums dedicated to the Civil War, frontier settlement, and – of course – whiskey.
Whether you are called by the sanctity of the shrine or the taste of the shine, Bardstown is hallowed ground. Check out VisitBardstown.com to start planning your trip today!