Bardstown, Kentucky

Spending an entire Saturday with my girlfriend in the “Bourbon Capitol of the World” during the winter led me to see clouds of steam rising from the distilleries against a clear blue sky, ancient brick buildings with old gaslights still aflame, and tiny shops filled with grand antiques. Am I odd to say that this is my kind of vacation?

Following a quick stop at the old towering courthouse in Bardstown’s town square, which is now its welcome center, we drove a very short distance to one of the many surrounding distilleries. Jill Sunderland showed us around the Barton plant, and filled us in on its history since its inception in 1879. It is currently under the ownership of the New Orleans-based Sazerac Company, along with Buffalo Trace.

The Barton Barn.

The Barton Barn.

After a look at the corn, rye, and malted barley, we made our way to one of many large black structures on the property. “You can call it a warehouse, rickhouse, barrel house, storage house…” says Sutherland, “We actually have 28 on our property but you’ll notice in Kentucky – probably all over the United States – they’re all built the same.”

There is a standard to the storage of barrels in our state, which produces 95% of the world’s bourbon. The storage areas are seven stories of 500 pound barrels filled with aging product. A minimum amount of electricity is used in the space, as a precaution for its precious flammable contents. With the sun rising over the hills above, the light beamed through the windows illuminating the dry, round barrels. Even if you’ve seen a picture like this, standing there should compel you to take one yourself.

Later in the day, we also visited the family-owned Willet Distillery, which has eight rickhouses, one of which is used to store used barrels bound for microbreweries. We entered the distillery to see a very welcoming interior of heating tanks filled with fermented mash. The fans suspended from the wood ceiling rotated from the movement of a pulley system – just one of many features (including a one-of-a-kind still), which harken back to dependable old methods in this room. Among their bourbons they make an excellent rye, which I was happy to sip at their picturesque tasting station.

bardstown signFor lunch, we stopped at Hurst’s Drug Store (which has an old fountain and diner) for sandwiches and a shared strawberry milkshake. We then went to explore the town while I lugged around my trusty 35mm camera and tripod, making stops at various antique places as well as The Java Joint, for coffee, where I saw delicious looking lunches served. I was immediately drawn to The Olive Spout, a store that sources and bottles olive oil and balsamic vinegar of various infusions.

Venturing outside the shopping area of Main Street, we looked at old homes until the sun began to set. It was time for a beer. At the Old Talbott Tavern (serving since the 1700s) we enjoyed some sweet Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale – on tap, while conversing with the bartender who shared with us a picture he took of the bar on his phone. He zoomed in on a small section of the image muddled with bottles against their reflection in the bar mirror, where an uncanny image of a poltergeist-like face is formed. Legend has it the place is haunted. As a skeptic, I will say, this pic is pretty damn eerie.

From there we made our way past the Basilica of Saint Joseph Proto-Cathedral to Spalding Hall – currently the home of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey – with a cellar restaurant called The Rickhouse, where we enjoyed a terrific bourbon flight followed by tasty bruschetta. Next visit, we’re going there for a full meal. However, I have zero regrets regarding where we went for dinner later.

The Old Talbott Tavern.

The Old Talbott Tavern.

Near the welcome center, in Court Square, is one of the best restaurants I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying in recent memory. It is a very new addition in one of Bardstown’s oldest homes. Rachel and Newman Miller reside in, and run, the Harrison Smith House, with their partner Justin Hughes, (who commutes from Louisville) to provide food and drink that represents local resources in an historic environment. While sipping on cocktails, we enjoyed smoked & fried chicken wings, followed by fresh, piping-hot, buttery yeast rolls and an entrée of a breaded, juicy pork chop with perfectly-cooked, glazed Brussels sprouts and rice grits. We ended the evening with a piece of peanut pie, topped with whipped cream.   

A few doors down, we stayed the night at the Jailer’s Inn on West Stephen Foster Avenue. This building was Bardstown’s jail until 1987. Its conversion to a B&B came naturally, because the front section was built to house the jailer and his family during a time when it was required of the occupation to live in the jail. The Victorian style room was spacious, with old portraits decorating the walls and a gigantic bed. After a day of walking, talking, eating and tasting delicious bourbon, I surrendered myself to this welcoming snug piece of furniture immediately. What a great day.

The steady moderation of steaming comfort food and bourbon sampling in the company of my lady was a combination of undeniable satisfaction. I love cold weather for how it makes any source of warmth seem all the more cozy. Although, on our way back to the city, rolling up and down the hills past the different distilleries and farmland properties, I started imagining how gorgeous this area is during the rest of the year. VT

Bardstown Tourism

  • Bardstown – Kentucky’s second oldest city – is the Bourbon capitol of the world and the Official Trailhead of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It has also been named “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” in the Best of the Road Competition sponsored by Rand McNally and USA Today.
  • “The Stephen Foster Story,” a Broadway-style musical, is regularly performed on stage in My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Experience the sights and sounds of an era when America’s first great composer wrote timeless, if controversial, classics like “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”
  • The Kentucky Railway Museum offers entertainment for all ages, with exhibits featuring the Civil War and even Thomas The Tank Engine.
  • Visit the New Kentucky Holy Land Trail which offers insights into the city’s religious centers.
  • Kentucky’s largest collection of Civil War artifacts can be found inside the Civil War Museum of the Western Theatre. (Open daily beginning March 1, 2015.)
  • The Bardstown Ghost Trek led by certified ghost hunter Patti Starr leads guests on a two-hour haunted tour, Saturdays, June – October.
  • With 16 unique B&B’s, Bardstown has a place for you to sleep and eat.