A Bourbon Evolution

Bardstown Bourbon Company’s Spirit Experience Is Like No Other

Story and photos by Rick Redding

If you were going to create the Disney World of bourbon and build an all-encompassing bourbon-based experience, you’d start, of course, in Bardstown.

That’s what the founders of the Bardstown Bourbon Company did – buying 100 acres of land smack-dab in the middle of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, investing $25 million in a state-of-the-art, technologically unmatched brand-new distillery and hiring craftspeople with years of experience in distilling brown liquor.

When it opened two years ago, the community around it may not have known what to make of the upstart company.  In a business rich with tradition and established players, the new guys in town announced plans to do business differently as a contract distiller partnering with established brands to produce large quantities of product.

It turns out, there was an unmet demand, and the company quickly signed up more than 20 clients – all established brands who were required to commit to 600 barrels of product.  Just as quickly, it began to expand its capabilities, investing another $12 million in equipment so that it is now producing 6.8 million proof gallons (about 3.6 million cases).

“That part of our business was the engine that allowed us to do everything else,” said David Mandell, president and CEO, sitting in the newly-opened, on-site restaurant Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar. “One, it gave us the expertise, it allowed us to create the distillery and expand it. It has given us the revenue to do all these other things. We don’t have any constraints.”

Those other things start with a restaurant unlike anything else in Bardstown or on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. On the site, work gets underway this fall to build a fifth warehouse to store and age all the bourbon being produced. Looking south, past fields of crops that are used in the distilling process, is the site of what will be a boutique hotel that Mandell says is just a year or two down the road.

“It’s fun, evolving and there’s a lot more to come,” he said. “We have the Visitor’s Experience that we’re going to be building on top of this. You’ll see the warehouses out there, and we’re building a whole bar, which will be all glass looking into the warehouse.”

For now though, there’s the new restaurant. Bright and spacious, it’s obvious no expense was spared in its creation. Mandell said that on a recent Saturday night, just seven weeks after opening, the restaurant had 700 covers. The menu features a wide variety of appetizers, sandwiches and main courses, all made from scratch and created by an all-star culinary team.

That team is led by John Donnelly, who opened 15 restaurants during his tenure at Matchbox Food Group. Chef Felix Masso, previously at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, is the executive chef. And the restaurant’s director of beverage operations and bourbon education is Dan Callaway, who left his job as general manager of Decca Restaurant in NuLu in April to commute to Bardstown.

“We wanted the food to be about quality ingredients, using the relationships we have with local vendors,” said Donnelly. “We use a term called ‘refined simplicity,’ which is really about food being fun if you have great ingredients and you just prepare them well.”

Guests will see a variety of nationalities represented in the restaurant staff, thanks to a program BBC has with the U.S. State Department. It brings hospitality and culinary students from around the world to work at Bottle & Bond. The company provides housing and transportation and offers the students a year-long curriculum designed to teach them about local culinary arts, bourbon culture and Kentucky.

The first students are from the Phillipines, South Africa and India.

In the gift shop, just off the restaurant floor, there’s a collection of all the brands being created here, and they’re all available for purchase.  But there’s something more for the real bourbon aficionado: the company teamed with bourbon historian Fred Minnick and is purchasing rare and antique bottles from individuals and selling them here.

In fact, the upper limit is an 1892 bottle that goes for $2,500 an ounce. The antique collection is an idea made possible by the passage of a new Kentucky law that allows distilleries to buy and sell vintage bottles, either by the drink or by the bottle.

In September, Mandell said the company is planning a press event to announce its inclusion on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. And Bottle & Bond has already become a regular stop for Bardstown’s bourbon elite.

“We’re viewed as neutral territory because of the concept,” he said. “We’ve got folks from Heaven Hill coming in, or Jim Beam or Maker’s people will come in. They can come here and bring customers and people to entertain. They can have their own mini-experience focused on their brand. That’s something you can’t do anywhere else.”

Bottle & Bond is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays for lunch and until 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday for dinner. Call for reservations at 502.252.6331. VT

Rick Redding is the host of two weekly podcasts, the Rusty Satellite Show and EatDrinkTalk. His written work has been featured in Business First, LEO Weekly, Insider Louisville, Louisville Magazine and The Voice-Tribune. In 2006, he became the city’s first independent news blogger. Today he also owns and operates LouisvilleKY.com, an independent news site.