When people ask me for distillery tour suggestions, I usually reply, “Do you want to see pretty or gritty?”
Sazerac has the gritty market cornered with Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792. Both were built for production, and their patinaed industrial edges confirm those historic landmarks are glamour-free whiskey making plants. I love ‘em both.
I also love Maker’s Mark, arguably Kentucky’s prettiest distillery, but a handful of challengers, most notably Bardstown Bourbon Company (BBC), have entered the distillery beauty contest. In a runoff, the 6-year-old BBC property might lose only because of its campus: a cornfield surrounded by an industrial park and thus no match Maker’s bucolic setting. But BBC’s distillery building on its own is a one-of-a-kind stunner, a monument to elegant and functional collaboration between architects and engineers.
From end to end, exterior glass panels make its whiskey making machinery visible inside and out. Equally huge windows fronting its restaurant and bar allow natural light to flood those rooms. Holding all that glass together is a mixture of stone, steel and wood assembled with exacting precision. Whether day or night, the view is arresting, and though I’ve visited dozens of times, I always take pics.
This is the only Kentucky distillery I’m aware of where wine dinners are common. And on a recent April evening, I enjoyed one co-hosted by The Prisoner Wine Co. The winery’s reps came to the Bourbon Capital of the World to pitch and pimp California grapes, terroir and the influential roles each played in the Prisoner Collaboration Straight Bourbon Whiskey, the evening’s final drink-and-food pairing.
This, BBC’s second wine cask collaboration with The Prisoner, is a 10-year-old Tennessee bourbon (George Dickel) rested for 18 months in French Oak casks that previously held red wine blends. A news release quoted BBC master distiller Steve Nally describing it as “a very complex spirit, with a welcoming bouquet of dark fruit aromatics, honey, vanilla, and baking spices. … Hints of the original premium grape blend take the lead on the palate with a touch of sweetness, turning to a ringing, balanced finish.”
Having known this talented, straight-shooting, Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame distiller for many years, I found the attribution dubious. But the spirit itself checks a lot of those boxes, and I liked it. Especially when paired with Chef Stu Plush’s chocolate cake with cherry bourbon sauce, salted caramel and duck fat shortbread. It was a fitting finish to a meal that saw the other three courses paired with a Prisoner a rosé, a chardonnay-viognier blend, and a cabernet-petit-syrah blend. The tasty trio of vino reminded me that I’m too easily caught up in brown spirits and forget about wine too often.
If anyone is still thinking, “This happened at a Kentucky whiskey distillery?” I understand your doubts. But it’s true. Star Hill Provisions (at Maker’s Mark) and BBC’s Kitchen & Bar are—for now—the only distilleries with serious restaurants that have large dining spaces, service staffs and resources to pull off such dinners with aplomb. (The Bar at Willett is a great spot for small bites, cocktails and rare pours, but it isn’t as ambitious as the others.) These new and food-forward facilities form the new face of bourbon tourism, which includes reasons to visit other than brown liquor, tours and souvenirs. And just you wait, there’s more such experiences on the immediate and distant horizon.
This summer will see Heaven Hill welcome guests to its expanded visitor experience in Bardstown: a $17 million investment that will include a rooftop restaurant and an upscale bar. Twenty minutes away in Clermont, Ky., where the Fred B. Noe Craft Distillery is under construction at Jim Beam Distillery, plans for the $60 million project, begun in 2019, have been modified to include a full-service restaurant expected to open in 2021. Also this year, in the rural location of Gethsemane, Ky. (20 minutes south of Bardstown), the brand-new Log Still Distilling Co. will open its $30-plus-million-dollar distillery and visitors experience. The site will feature a full-service restaurant, a bar and tasting room … and … a five-room bed-and-breakfast inn (already open), guest houses for brides, grooms and their respective attendants, a 20,000-square-foot events space, an amphitheater and a train depot all built on the original site of the J.W. Dant Distillery. From what I saw on a tour in February, the finished product will be J.W. Deluxe.
If you do the math, that adds up to nearly $110 million being invested into Nelson County bourbon tourism experiences. It’s those brands’ bullish statement on bourbon, the fun that this industry creates and peoples’ desire to dive deep into it.
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It’s also proof of distilleries’ take-charge attitude toward adjusting to what New York Times reporter, Clay Risen, termed “the Napa-fication of Bardstown.” In my research for the book I wrote on that subject, “The Rebirth of Bourbon: Building a Tourism Economy In Small Town USA,” distilleries made clear that task of maximizing the bourbon boom’s momentum is up to them. To distilleries, it’s no longer about just making more and more whiskey, building brand connections with fans has become inextricably tied to a distillery experience. And in a small community like Bardstown (pop. 13,000), whose restaurant and bar numbers are small, distillers had to take the lead in bourbon tourism food and drink experiences.
As demonstrated by Bardstown Bourbon Co., that experience also needed to bring a little Napa, California, to Nelson County with wine-paired dinners, great food and upscale service. Though some of the original partners in BBC are no longer operating the company, their vision of a modern, tourist-centric distillery experience far exceeded anyone’s in Kentucky. And though some locals called the out of towners carpetbaggers and opportunists, more Nelson Countians than not are thankful that they delivered on their promise of a high-level experience.
This is happening in a community and industry that too often views itself and its whiskeys through the gauzy lens of history. From its stylish building to its multi-client collaborative distilling program to its food-forward experiences, BBC has said, essentially, “We’re going to be modern in everything we do.”
That position has led to some bourbon fans to carp about its wine-cask-finished whiskeys; they prefer their bourbons au naturelle. BBC’s current leadership has heard the squawking, yet it remains undeterred, saying it will move its creative levers however it sees fit until its own whiskey is fully matured for release. Not everyone will agree with that strategy, but when you visit that gorgeous distillery, tour it and drink and dine there, it’s impossible deny their plans have been successful.