The Heart of Bourbon Country
Drinking in the Bourbon Capital of the World, Bardstown, KY
By Suzanne Wright
I've challenged my Atlanta-based friend Barb to join me at The Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Kentucky, the bourbon capital of the world. I'm mad for small batch brown liquor, but Barb doesn't "do" spirits. It requires some cajoling on my part, but Barb, who originally hails from North Carolina, is more than a little horse crazy, so I upsell that aspect.
Bluegrass, Baptists & Bourbon
We land in Lexington, which is the kind of manageable airport that makes flying fun. The honey-soaked Southern drawls of the locals have an intoxicating effect on me—and we haven't had a sip yet!
It's mid-September and the weather is mild, the grayish fog just lifting off the bluegrass, the leaves just beginning to turn burnished shades of gold and red. It's an easy hour to Bardstown through rolling hills and the white-fenced horse farms that dot the landscape. While she drives, I pepper Barb with bourbon facts and trivia, starting with this: the invention of bourbon is attributed to Baptist minister Elijah Craig in 1789.
Barb snorts, then chortles, finding the irony hilarious. "Continue," she says, in better spirits (pun intended).
By law, bourbon, the nation's only native spirit, must be made from 51% corn meal, which differentiates it from whiskey. While whiskey can be distilled from a variety of grains including wheat, rye, barley and corn, bourbon must be made from corn. Kentucky produces 5 million gallons annually, which is notably more than the state's population of 4.2 million.
The second oldest town in Kentucky, Bardstown was settled in 1780; downtown includes nearly 200 buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places. It's been named "the most beautiful small town in America" by numerous publications.
Barb perked up. She loves old buildings and she loves antiquing. So our first stop will be trolling for treasures in the charming shops. I love being called "sugar" and "hon" by friendly locals as I sift through old enamel cookware, vintage buttons and Civil War collectibles. Barb found a painted metal garden ornament and an equine print. She buys both.
According to the website, it takes three days to tour bourbon country at a leisurely pace. We decide to tour two this afternoon.
We begin our bourbon immersion at Barton 1792 Distillery, located on a 196-acre parcel on the banks of the Morton and Tom Springs. The parent, the Sazerac Company, is a New Orleans-based, family owned business which dates from 1979, making it the oldest fully operating distillery in Bardstown. We decided on the free, two-hour, by-reservation-only motorized tour, which includes a gawk at the World's largest whiskey barrel, along with a step-by-step introduction to the distilling process. Our favorite part is the complimentary sampling of the award-winning products. I purchase a bottle of Ridgemont Reserve 1792 Small Batch Bourbon with its complementary sharp and fruity notes.
Heaven Hill is America's largest independent, family-owned bourbon producer. The experience here begins with a film and is followed by a customized tour with knowledgeable "bourbon hosts" who introduce our small group to the rickhouse and school us on the ins and outs of bourbon distilling prior to tasting several premium bottles. Agreement at last: Barb and I both linger over the Elijah Craig 12-year-old.
By the end of our trip, I've found a few new favorites and Barb has discovered she likes some of the sweeter finishes.
Getting into the spirit of things
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival began in 1992 as a tasting and dinner; in 2014, it attracted more than 50,000 folks from 44 states and 14 countries. It's a family-friendly week jam-packed with train rides, horse-drawn carriage rides, barrel racing, horseshoe pitching, an antique car show, an arts and crafts show, live country and bluegrass music, a scavenger hunt, cooking classes and a hot air balloon show. A pancake breakfast complete with maple syrup and a side of bourbon-spiked coffee is motivation for two night owls like us to get up early.
Our kickoff event, the Boots & Bourbon, gives me a chance to show off my new red Luccheses boots. Barb dons a black velvet duster. We've already been embraced by a few Bardstown locals, who wave hello, calling us "Arizona" and "Atlanta," respectively. I love the camaraderie that bourbon culture seems to foster. I may not have converted beer-loyal Barb completely, but she certainly seems to be enjoying her honey-kissed bourbon cut with a splash of Coke.
Soon it's time to hit the dance floor and shake off some calories with our new southern friends. We toast the spirit—and spirits—of Bardstown warm from the glow of this charming town as much as from their beloved brown liquor.
The following night, we hit up Bourbon, Cigars & Jazz event held at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, the inspiration for Stephen Foster's ballad. Yet another winning event.
For an exceptional experience, plan your Bourbon Country getaway!
Sports, games and activities are a big draw, and we particularly love the corn hole tournament. There's golf, volleyball and there are many other exciting diversions; but it's hard to tee up or spike a ball with a drink in your hand. So we are drawn to this classic backyard, tailgate party game tossing bean bags onto an angled board in which a large hole has been cut. Do not be fooled: this is high stakes, performance driven sport. Well, okay…maybe it's just fun!
Festival evenings are defined by music, which rings out from nightly concerts in Waterfront Park. They feature a mix of patriotic, country, classic rock or soulful covers. If you're lucky, you'll nab an invitation to listen from one of the boats parked out on the bay.
Hit the water! Channel your inner Forest Gump aboard a shrimp boat, cheer on the sailing regatta and witness the charm of the Blessing of the Fleet. Every day features some way to play on Beaufort's alluring water.
Immerse yourself in the good times of the Beaufort Water Festival.