Bourbon Capital of the World
When Bardstown was voted “America’s Most Beautiful Small Town” by Rand McNally/USA Today “Best of the Road” competition, the charm and beauty that residents and visitors to Bardstown have known for the last 243 years was discovered by the rest of the country. The Bourbon Capital of the World has it all – beauty, Southern charm, authentic attractions, and abundant history.
Visitors to the area are spoiled for choice with a smorgasbord of bourbon distilleries, renowned restaurants, quirky museums, historic attractions, and unique shopping opportunities. For first time visitors, here are six recommendations:
My Old Kentucky Home
Sitting on the lush grounds of My Old Kentucky Home State Park, you’ll find Federal Hill, a three-story red brick mansion constructed from 1795-1818. Once the residence of prominent Kentuckian Judge John Rowan, he entertained some of the most influential men of his day.
His soirees were attended by Henry Clay and Aaron Burr, while the house became a regular rest stop for President Andrew Jackson during trips between Washington and his Nashville plantation.
But it was a relative from Pittsburgh, Stephen Collins Foster, who paid a visit in 1852 and ensured the house’s place in Kentucky’s history.
Foster was so moved by the grace and charm of Federal Hill that he penned what has arguably become his most famous song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” the commonwealth’s official song, now played at events ranging from the Kentucky Derby to University of Kentucky sporting events.
Today, guests can enjoy the outdoor musical-drama “The Stephen Foster Story,” or a Mint Julep Masterclass from the mansion’s director Richard Blanton. His tip for making the perfect mint julep: “Spank,” don’t muddle, the mint.
My Old Kentucky Dinner Train
Have you ever imagined what it would have been like to travel like the Rockefellers, Carnegies or Vanderbilts? With elegant plush furnishings, white linen tablecloths and white jacketed servers you’ll find out when you book a lunch or dinner trip on My Old Kentucky Dinner Train. You’ll pass through quintessential Bluegrass countryside, see Bernheim Forest, Jim Beam and Four Roses Distilleries and the only remaining wooden trestle bridge not destroyed during the Civil War. Insider tip: ask your server about the bridge’s connection to bourbon.
The seasonally changing menu includes dishes such as roasted corn chowder, prime rib, pan seared pork sirloin and salted caramel cheesecake.
The train also offers curated excursions such as murder mystery dinners and the Bourbon Excursion, a four-course meal and bourbon tasting hosted by a master distiller.
The Birthplace of Bourbon
With 10 distillery experiences within 16 miles of downtown Bardstown—from boutique distilleries to the giants of the industry—you can see why Bardstown is the Bourbon Capital of the World. Forge your own path on the bourbon trail with these must-see stops:
Just six miles from downtown Bardstown, the distinctive red and black buildings nestled along Hardin’s Creek signal that you have arrived at Maker’s Mark Distillery.
Operating since 1805, Maker’s Mark is the nation’s oldest working bourbon distillery on its original site. Visitors can take a guided tour to discover why Maker’s crafts its bourbon in small batches and why they have departed from the traditional bourbon mash bill.
They still use 51 percent corn, but the legendary maverick distiller Bill Samuels, Sr. spent weeks baking loaves of bread before realizing it was wheat rather than rye that he wanted to flavor his bourbon.
Visitors can tour the distillery buildings like the Dale Chihuly glass ceiling, pop in for lunch and a bourbon cocktail at the Star Hill Provisions Restaurant or have a drink at Homeplace. They can even dip their own bottle with the signature red wax.
America’s largest independent family-owned producer of distilled spirits, Heaven Hill is the second largest repository of aging bourbon in the U.S., with an inventory exceeding 1.5 million barrels.
In 1996, a fire destroyed the original distillery, but like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Heaven Hill came back better than ever with an impressive new facility and further plans for expansion. For a truly memorable experience, try the “You Do Bourbon” experience, where visitors can fill, cork, and label their own bottle of Angel’s Envy Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Another Heaven Hill fan favorite is the 270-degree projection theater located in what is believed to be the world’s largest bourbon barrel.
Bardstown Bourbon Company
With a commitment to innovation and sustainability, Bardstown Bourbon Company, opened in 2016, offers what is frequently referred to as a “Napa-style experience in the heart of bourbon country.” Beautifully situated on 100 acres of working farmland, the campus features a state-of-the-art distillery and a vintage whiskey library.
In the architecturally stunning main building, you can belly up to a full-service bar for a classic bourbon cocktail or book a table at Bottle & Bond Kitchen. Through its floor-to-ceiling glass wall, you’ll view the working distillery while savoring Kentucky specialties.
Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History
If you need a break from sipping bourbon, head to Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History to discover more about the commonwealth’s signature beverage.
This building from 1826 has been reincarnated as a seminary, Civil War hospital, orphanage, and boys prep school.
The founder, Oscar Getz, has assembled a collection of quirky items – from a flask damaged in a saloon raid by the hatchet-wielding temperance leader Carrie Nation, to George Washington’s copper still from his side hustle distilling whiskey.
The standout exhibit, however, is the whimsical display, “What’s Your Pleasure, Mr. President?” showing 42 presidents, favorite libation in hand. From George Washington’s claret to Harry Truman’s bourbon and branch water, America’s Commanders-in-Chief have been a cocktail-loving bunch.
The Old Talbott Tavern
Since 1779, The Old Talbott Tavern, the commonwealth’s most famous resting place and home to the world’s oldest bourbon bar, has hosted a bevy of famous guests, including ghosts!
If the walls could talk, what tales they would tell. They would speak of five-year-old Abraham Lincoln overnighting here with his parents who were in town trying to settle a land dispute (they lost, resulting in their move to Indiana).
They would tell of exiled French king Louis Phillippe, who amused himself by painting the wall murals uncovered a century-and-a-half after his visit.
They would tell of the dozen bullet holes fired by outlaw Jesse James into those murals. As the story goes, Jesse, a man who loved his bourbon, stumbled to his room after a night of indulgence. Mistaking the mural’s painted birds for real ones, he got off 12 rounds before realizing his error.
Other guests include Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, John James Audubon and General George Patton. George Rogers Clark operated his military headquarters here during the Revolutionary War, and Queen Marie of Romania enjoyed a fashionable lunch in the tavern. Look for mysterious shadows and orbs and the ghostly presences of the lady in white and Jesse James.
Ghostly presences aren’t surprising when you think of it. Bardstown has been haunting visitors for the past 243 years with memories they won’t soon forget.