Big Things are Happening in ‘little’ Bardstown

Jun 09, 2016

Several years ago, when Bardstown was named the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” by Rand McNally and USA Today, lots of Kentuckians thought, “Well, yeah, it is, isn’t it!” Outsiders said, “Well, I guess it’s time to have a look.”

Tourism in the historic town of 13,000 has grown steadily, an increase owed largely to the multiple bourbon distilleries operating there. When it hosts the Kentucky Bourbon Festival each September, 50,000 people attend its four-dozen events spread over six days. It truly lives up to its name as The Bourbon Capital of the World!

The rest of the year Bardstown is a largely quiet and quaint community where you can park your car near the city’s center (the intersection of N. 3rd St. and Stephen Foster Ave.) and walk to some of its best shops and restaurants. It’s also there where you’ll find the Harrison-Smith House, a highly talked about restaurant that many Kentucky chefs say is on its way to becoming a legend.

Owned and operated by Newman and Rachel Miller, “HSH,” as it’s called by locals, is in a 150-year-old home whose historic appointments deliver guests to a bygone era. In back, however, is a modern kitchen staffed by Newman Miller and chef de cuisine, Josh Smouse.
“We make everything from scratch here except the pretzels, and I mean that,” says Newman Miller. Much of its modern Southern food gets its accent from a smoker out back and an array of pickled vegetables in jars inside.

When Miller jokes he and Smouse are “city chefs,” he means they’re well-traveled veterans of large market culinary scenes. That Miller is in Bardstown now reflects his desire to raise his family of four near his home of Springfield, Ky.

“We wanted to have an incredible restaurant in Bardstown, and the town deserves it,” he says. “We’re also here because of the bourbon industry, and because of the food resources in the area. We have access to some of the best proteins and vegetables you can get in this country. What chef doesn’t want to cook that?”

And who doesn’t want to eat Miller’s riffs on Kentucky catfish: the delicious, spreadable smoked brandade, served warm, and a cornmeal-coated and fried filet served over black-eyed pea Hoppin’ John. Put the grilled Caesar salad at the beginning or middle of your meal because you don’t want to miss it, and then share the braised Roni’s pork with house-made spatzle, country greens and beans.

You’ll want a cocktail, of course, and Miller makes them in the kitchen. Yes, in the kitchen, “and stirred 100 times, every one of them,” he says. The bourbon list also contains some “old dusties” acquired personally by Miller. Ask him personally for his suggestions.

You’ll soon be able to eat and drink at Willett Distillery, just on the edge of town. Distiller Drew Kulsveen showed me a six-room B&B under construction alongside a new water-driven grist mill for its grain. The new visitors center under construction will feature a restaurant and bar. “We’re hoping all this will be finished by the fall,” said Kulsveen, whose father is owner Evan Kulsveen. “We love the (California) wine country, and we’ve wanted an experience like that for Willett for a long time.” Its current visitors center and tasting room will remain open throughout. Looking for hard-to-find Kentucky whiskeys? Definitely shop here.

Barton’s 1972 Distillery visitors center is a good stop, too, and it’s about 5 minutes from Willett. Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center shares the same road with Willett. Go there as well, shop and make time for a group tasting.

If your visit is only a short one, say just a walking tour through the town’s beautiful neighborhoods, consider these fuel stops. I love Boone’s Butcher Shop for its deli. Get a country ham sandwich with mayo on white bread and see if you’re not thankful for all that is porcine.
Is it a sweet tooth that’s driving your desires? Then stop in at Kurtz Restaurant for a slice of pie. Any pie. They’re all good and old school.

Just a drink, you say? Grab a stoop at the bar at the Rickhouse Restaurant & Lounge. Dark and cozy inside. You’ll like it.

Stephen Coomes, 2016