Drinks Atlas: Bardstown, Kentucky - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Drinks Atlas: Bardstown, Kentucky

To be labeled as bourbon, a spirit must be made with at least 51 percent corn in the mash bill, aged in new charred-oak barrels, and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof, among other regulations. It doesn’t legally have to be made in Kentucky, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that bourbon’s birthplace is anywhere but the Bluegrass State, with Bardstown as its bourbon capital. “Some states have the geographical necessities: limestone filtered water, temperate seasons, etc. However, they don’t have hundreds of years of history, and generations of distilling coursing through their veins,” says Seth Thompson, co-founder and publisher of The Bourbon Review and co-founder of the annual Bourbon Classic. “Kentucky is the pinnacle for bourbon standards.”

Bardstown was settled in the late 18th century by large farming families growing corn and other grains—“lots of Catholic families who weren’t scared of a drink and knew how to distill,” says Thompson. By the end of the 19th century, the Bardstown area boasted nearly 30 distilleries. While Prohibition altered the industry landscape, some familiar family names endured to establish some of the country’s most well-known bourbon distilleries—names like Beam, Willett, Samuels of Maker’s Mark, and the Shapira family who founded Heaven Hill. “Generations upon generations of families have depended on bourbon for their livelihood,” says Thompson.

Today, with a population of less than 15,000, Bardstown proper is home to six bourbon facilities including Heaven Hill, Barton 1792, and Willett, with four more (Four Roses, Jim Beam, Limestone Branch, and Maker’s Mark) located in nearby towns but still belonging to Bardstown in spirit. “There’s a profound depth of authenticity that nowhere else in the country even comes close to touching,” says Thompson.

Fast Facts The annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which next year enters its third decade, attracts upwards of 50,000 visitors from across the globe, more than tripling Bardstown’s population for the third week of September each year.

The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in downtown Bardstown includes items spanning from pre-Colonial times to post-Prohibition, including Abraham Lincoln’s liquor license from his time as a shopkeeper, and what’s believed to be George Washington’s whiskey still.

Built in 1779, the still-operating Old Talbott Tavern has stood in the center of historic Bardstown for more than two centuries, hosting patrons like Andrew Jackson and Daniel Boone; bullet holes in the plaster of a wall are rumored to have been left by Jesse James.

5 Bottles to Try Bardstown Bourbon Co. Fusion Series A newbie by Kentucky standards, Bardstown Bourbon Company was founded in 2014 and takes a modern approach to the spirit. Their Fusion Series is a blend of their own wheated and high-rye bourbons, each aged 2 years, and a sourced 11-year straight Kentucky bourbon. $58, blackwellswines.com

Barton 1792 Full Proof Recently named World Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s 2020 Whisky Bible, the Barton 1792 Full Proof is worth snagging if you can. At 120 proof, this one packs a wallop but deftly balances its sweet and smoky flavors. Barton’s Bottled-in-Bond or Sweet Wheat are also solid choices. $59.99, totalwine.com

Willett 4-Year Straight Rye Whiskey With a family history dating back to the founding of Bardstown, Willett remains among the Old Guard. Their 4-Year Straight Rye Whiskey, made from a blend of their high-rye and low-rye mash bills, is a pillar of their collection.
$54.99, totalwine.com

Heaven Hill 6-Year Old Style Bourbon Some of the most recognizable whiskey brands on the market come from the Heaven Hill Distillery, but their simple 6-Year green label remains a classic for everyday drinking or cocktailing, with more bang for your buck than just about any bottle out there. $12.99, totalwine.com

Maker’s Mark Private Select A more recent project for Maker’s Mark, the Private Select expressions are made with their cask-strength bourbon aged for nine additional weeks in barrels fitted with specially selected wood-finishing staves. With more than 1,000 possible combinations, expect some deliciously unique bottles at a variety of retailers. See makersmark.com for details.

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