By Charlene & Richard Mixa
The Bourbon Capital Has Spirit, Pride and History
Rick houses, the barrel aging warehouses of distilleries, loom over the landscape of Bardstown, Kentucky. Scattered along the hills like fortresses in the “Bourbon Capital of the World” the scent of aging bourbon fills the air. Since 1776,Heaven Hill Distilleryhas been making bourbon and their Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center is the place for a hands-on tour and sampling of this Kentucky Spirit. In their state-of-the art visitor center we begin our history lesson of bourbon, visit working rick houses, and enjoy tutored tasting in the barrel-shaped a “Taste of Heaven” room.
Bourbon, true to its Southern roots, is a sipping whiskey to be enjoyed leisurely. The art of tasting bourbon is to first look at the color – a rich and brilliant amber color. Next smell the bouquet. Hold the glass in both hands to warm the bourbon, place your nose above the rim of the glass to savor the aromas. No swirling, please. Slightly open your mouth and breathe gently through your mouth and nose. Experience the aroma! Catch the distinctive vanilla and caramel scent of the charred oak barrel. Sip enough bourbon to cover your tongue. Part your lips slightly and draw in some air over the liquid. Hold it in your mouth for a few seconds and let it wash over your tongue. The bourbon should be full-bodied, yet soft and well-rounded with no burn. Finally, take a swallow. Did the taste live up to aroma? Did you feel it all the way down? Taste it again.
Add a couple of drops of water to see how the taste changes. Richard prefers the younger bourbon, while I like older aged bourbon. Each person has their own palette for this umber-liquid. Everyone loves the samples of Chocolate Bourbon Balls. In the expansive Gift Shop, are also tasty bourbon liqueurs of Evan Williams Egg Nog and the Evan Williams Apple Orchard. Great for those seeking a gentler drink.
Our accommodation is the charming ante-bellum Millstone Cottage on East Broadway in one of Bardstown’s oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods. Built around 1880, the two-bedroom Cottage has been meticulously restored and furnished with Kentucky antiques, reminiscent of its graceful and genteel Southern past. Each morning we delight in the complimentary tasty breakfast pastries and fresh juices in the homey kitchen.
In downtown Bardstown, Kentucky’s second oldest city, we find an array of eclectic shops and a variety of eateries. Bardstown is more than distilled spirits, it has religious spirit! It is home to the first diocese west of the Allegheny Mountains, the Basilica of Saint Joseph Proto-Cathedral built in 1816-1819 and the Abbey of Gethsemani founded in 1848 by the Order of Trappist Cistercians. Today we visit the stately church with it fine paintings, gifts of Francis (King of the two Sicilies) and Pope Leo XII. Behind the Basilica, Spalding Hall houses the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, an amazing collection of whiskey memorabilia that is a repository of whiskey, Prohibition, and moonshine history.
Taking the outside steps at Spalding Hall, we enter the basement digs of the Rickhouse Restaurant and Lounge. With a décor resembling a bourbon rick house, the dining room has a rich warmth. It’s all about flavor! My Salmon with Bourbon Sauce is exceptional and Richard’s crab cakes are luscious. What’s for dessert? A scrumptious Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce or is it Bourbon Sauce with Bread Pudding. After dinner, we stop for a drink in Talbot Tavern on Court Square, where figures straight from the history books have sought food and shelter. Abraham Lincoln, as a young boy, Gen. George Rogers Clark and Daniel Boone each walked these creaking floorboards. Sitting at the world’s oldest Bourbon Bar there is an air about the Tavern that speaks of people who have come and gone over the years. Today it’s a place for tourists and locals to gather.
Despite overcast skies, it’s an early morning tee time at the Kenny Rapier Golf Course at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. In the gently rolling terrain of Kentucky this par 71 golf course wends its way along picturesque woodlands adjacent to Heaven Hills Distilleries. Hurrah, after a few holes the sun comes out brightening our day and improving our scores. The course has plenty of challenge and definitely keeps us on our toes as it cuts through a forest with bunkers being a prominent feature and water occasionally in play.
Ah, wafting from the rick houses we smell the smooth, mellow and distinctively caramel aromas of the only distilled spirit native to America: Kentucky Bourbon. Besides having an excellent and aromatically scented golf course, the park is home to Federal Hill – a.k.a. “My Old Kentucky Home” the Southern-style plantation mansion given prominence in the Stephen Foster song of the same name. Foster was the original “American Idol” in the mid-19th century producing the country’s first pop song, “Oh! Susanna,” in addition to giving Kentucky its official state song. Touring Federal Hill the antebellum South comes to life in fascinating detail of the John Rowan family.
Yummy, homemade butterscotch pie -a treat after lunch of downhome cooking at Mammy’s Kitchen. Now to experience the historical spirit and pride at Old Bardstown Village and Museum Row. A wealth of information is found at the Civil War Museum of the Western Front, the fourth-largest Civil War Museum in the United States. Here, we follow the story of the western theater in geographical and chronological segments of the Union and the Confederacy. Did you know that both Civil War Presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, were from within 16 miles of Bardstown? Thank you women of the Civil War! Whether as nurses, spies, soldiers in disguise, plantation and factory workers, women had a major impact in the war and are recognized for their roles in the Women’s Civil War Museum. Outstanding graphics and artifacts proudly honor Mid-Americans from the Revolutionary War to Desert Storm in the War Memorial of Mid America. We also stroll Pioneer Village, a reproduction of a colonial village, with several original cabins.
Ready for more spirits, we pop into the family owned Willet Distillery where three generations have been distilling premium bourbon. Drew Kulsveen, the Master Distiller and 3rd generation of the Willet family gives us a tour of this smaller, yet upscale distillery. Raised in the business, Drew is passionate about his craft and explains the distillation process. Three key factors attribute to Kentucky’s success in bourbon distillation. First is corn, abundant in Kentucky and surrounding states and bourbon must have at least 51% corn. Next is the limestone on which Kentucky is built; water rising through limestone is iron free. Iron is bad for whiskey, discoloring it. Finally, the climate: Kentucky’s hot summers and cold winters are ideal for aging of bourbon. In Willet’s new tasting venue while chatting with Drew’s wife and father, we let our palette explore the profiles of their Willet Pot Still Reserve in the famous bottle shaped like a “still.”
It’s been a hectic day of golf, touring museums and tasting bourbon so we are definitely ready for a relaxing evening. An easy walk from the Millstone Cottage, we arrive at The Circa Restaurant located in the town’s oldest stone house. Seated in one of the small intimate dining rooms, we admire the modern décor with contemporary art and furnishings. The Seafood Board is succulent with a variety of seafood and with a touch of bourbon. The Chocolate Torte is decadent! Owners Bill and Donna Ellis have created a true fine dining experience at Circa. Plus Circa’s fabulous artwork was all painted by Donna.
In the morning more spirits awaits. At Barton 1792 Distillery we tour this large bourbon distillery. We’ve learned each bourbon tour has unique features and gives us more insight into this amazing “Big Drink.” Named for the year of Kentucky’s statehood, the 192-acre distillery is home to wildlife, historic buildings, the still, and 28 aging warehouses. Barton 1792 Distillery is now owned by Louisiana’s Sazerac Company, the largest distilling company in the United States. Having visited Buffalo Trace Distillery (a sister company of Barton 1792 Distillery) in Frankfort last year, we loved their delicious Bourbon Cream. Not to be outdone, we taste the Barton 1792 Chocolate Bourbon Ball Cream Liqueur. Superb! We add a couple of bottles to our growing collection of Kentucky spirits.
Having read “The Seven Story Mountain,” the fascinating autobiography of Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk from The Abbey of Gesthesmani, a stop at the Abbey is a must. Nestled on beautiful rolling countryside the Abbey welcomes visitors to a serene spiritual experience. Since monastic life is lived as a separation from the world, much of the property and monastery are not open to the public. We find the displays and a video on the life of a Trappist monk very insightful. The pristine chapel, the cemetery, and grounds present a peacefulness, spirituality, and closeness to God. The Gift Shop offers an excellent collection of religious items and products made at the Gethesmani Farm. A wonderful finish to our visit to the city of “Spirits!”
If you go:
Bardstown Civil War Museum, 204 E Broadway St, Bardstown, KY 40004; 502.349.0291; www.civil-war-museum.org/
Barton 1792 Distillery, 501 Cathedral Manor, Bardstown, KY40004; 502.331.4879; www.1792bourbon.com/
Circa Restaurant, 103 E Stephen Foster Ave, Bardstown, KY 40004; 502.348.5409; www.restaurant-circa.com
Colonel’s Cottage Inns; 502-507-8338; www.colonelscottageinns.com
The Abbey of Gesthesmani, 3642 Monks Rd, New Haven, KY 40051; 502.549.3117; www.monks.org
Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center, 1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown, KY 40004; 502.337.1000
My Old Kentucky Home State Park, 501 E Stephen Foster Ave, Bardstown, KY 40004; 502.348.3502; parks.ky.gov/parks/recreationparks/old-ky-home
Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral,310 W Stephen Foster Ave, Bardstown, KY 40004; 502.348.3126; http://www.bardstown.com/~stjoe/
Talbot Tavern, 107 W Stephen Foster Ave, Bardstown, KY 40004; 502.348.3494; www.talbotts.com
The Rickhouse Restaurant & Lounge, 112 Xavier Dr, Bardstown, KY 40004; 502.348.2832; www.therickhouse-bardstown.com
Willet Distillery, 1869 Loretto Rd, Bardstown, KY; 502.348.0081; www.kentuckybourbonwhiskey.com