BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Over the years, I noticed that ghost tours seem to have become very popular with the travel crowd. You can take an evening walking tour on a search for ghosts, stay in inns and bed and breakfasts reputed to be haunted and listen to ghost stories in eerie places like the cellar of Farnsworth House Tavern in Gettysburg.
Bardstown, Ky., has a different kind of spirits tour. Billed as the "Bourbon Capital of the World," the picturesque hamlet where Stephen Foster purportedly wrote his most famous anthem "My Old Kentucky Home," is also the headquarters for three bourbon distillers, all of which offer guided tours of their facility that end with a chance to wet one’s whistle in the "spirits" tasting room.
My first stop, the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center at the edge of town, starts with a wonderful 12 minute-long bourbon primer film in the attractive new building’s theater.
From there, our group, led by a guide with a flair for tongue-in-cheek comedy named Kathleen, headed outdoors, past 49 massive barrel storage buildings, each of which can hold 20,000 barrels stacked seven stories high.
"Heaven Hill is the largest family-owned and operated distilled spirits firm in America," she said as we made our way into one of the bourbon warehouses. "We’re now in our third generation of family management."
To be labeled bourbon, a whiskey must be made from at least 51 percent corn and be aged in new charred oak barrels at least two years. Heaven Hill makes a whopping 83 different bourbons, including the single barrel Evan William label, the Elijah Craig 18 year aged single barrel, the oldest single barrel bourbon in the world, and small batch bourbons made from a blend of barrels specially selected by Parker Beam, a master distiller.
Beam and his son Craig, relatives of bourbon patriarch, Jim Beam, supervise the distillation, aging and selection of Heaven Hill’s bourbon products, and with the help of 550 employees, turn out a total of 9,136,000 cases of bourbon each year.
The tour ends back at the Heritage Center, which holds a handsome and large gift shop with a surprising array of bourbon-themed products as well as a gorgeous tasting room where we were treated to samples of both the Evan Williams Single Barrel and the Elijah Craig Single Barrel bourbons plus a tasty bourbon infused chocolate.
Also in Bardstown, Barton’s 1792 Distillery tours give visitors an up close look at the entire bourbon making process starting with mash in holding tanks through the distillation process and finally aging in charred oak barrels.
Barton’s operates on the site of the historic 1879 Tom Moore Distillery and draws its iron-free limestone water from the same spring as the original distillery. Each day, Barton’s goes through a half ton of coal to fire its distillation process, a half million gallons of water, 300,000 pounds of corn, 70,000 pounds of rye and 30,000 pounds of barley malt.
What makes a Barton’s tour so special are the many historic buildings on the site, which include the still house and 28 aging warehouses. All tours end with a complimentary tasting of 1792 Bourbon, a 2012 Chairman’s Trophy Finalist in the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, and a delicious bourbon-flavored chocolate as a chaser.
About 18 miles south of Bardstown in Loretto, the famous Maker’s Mark Distillery is one of Kentucky’s most picturesque. With beautifully landscaped grounds, old buildings and limestone walls that line the site’s meandering creek, Maker’s Mark turns out one of my favorite tasting bourbons sealed with its iconic red wax coating on the stopper.
The hour long tours give you the basics of bourbon making and even let visitors stick their finger in a massive old fermenting vat to taste the bubbling mash destined for distillation a few days later. (The high temperatures of the distillation process eliminates any unwanted or unsanitary material except high proof alcohol).
If you’re there at the right time, you might get to see owner, Bill Samuels, Jr. in the bottling area personally signing bottles of Maker’s 46. At the end of the tour, you can purchase a souvenir 375 ml bottle and dip it yourself in the distillery’s signature red molten wax, then sample both "white dog," the clear distilled liquid that hasn’t yet been aged in barrels, as well as aged Marker’s Mark bourbon.
If You’re Going
For more information on Bardstown and area distilleries, phone 800-638-4877 or www.visitbardstown.com.
For a place to dine, the Rickhouse Restaurant, 112 Xavier Drive, takes its name from the racks on which barrels of bourbon are stored in distillery warehouses. Housed in the ground floor of an historic old building that began as a boys prep school in a park-like setting, the kitchen specializes in steaks, but I opted for a wonderful preparation of blueberry-glazed salmon. For hearty eaters, there’s also a 24-ounce pork chop that’s gotten plenty of praise. You can extend your bourbon experience with dinner by selecting one of the house’s different 100 brands. Phone 502-348-2832.
Dave Zuchowski is a travel writer for CNHI News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.