If I had to sum up my bourbon trip in just a few words, they would be “Past, Present and Future of Bourbon.”
The day started promptly at 9:30 a.m. when we all loaded up on the Kentucky Bourbon Bus tour. Pro advice, make sure you eat something filling for breakfast. It is guaranteed that you will be jostled during the excursion, and on an empty stomach, you may experience motion sickness. Of course, a morning mixture of bottomless mimosas and bourbon punch did not help the situation. Our tour bus made good time down the Bluegrass Parkway to Bardstown, Ky. In fact, we would be early for our first tour.
So, what would any self-respecting bourbon enthusiast do in Bardstown at 11 a.m.? We stopped by The Old Talbott Tavern, the oldest bourbon bar in the world. The tavern was originally built in 1779 by Benjamin Talbott, a frontiersman, and his brother Samuel. Throughout its history, The Old Talbott Tavern hosted several prominent historical figures, making it a witness to many significant events. Notably, it is said that Gen. George Rogers Clark, a Revolutionary War hero, and his troops lodged at the tavern during their campaigns.
Another significant figure associated with The Old Talbott Tavern is Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a frequent guest at the inn as a young lawyer traveling the circuit in Kentucky. It is rumored that he stayed there during his courting days with Mary Todd, who was from a prominent local family. According to folklore, certain guests never left the property, and they still haunt the tavern today. I cannot attest to the haunting, but I can speak to their bourbon selection, and it is impressive. The bar had bottles ranging in price from $200 a pour (Willett 14-Year-Old Family Estate Single Barrel) to a $6 pour of T.W. Samuels Bottled in Bond. Drink orders ranged from neat pours to a classic Old Fashioned, but one thing is sure, the tavern’s history is unmistakable.
It was getting close to our tour reservation time at Bardstown Bourbon Co. (BBC), so we all piled back into the bus for the short drive across the interstate to the distillery. The distillery was founded in 2014 by entrepreneur Peter Loftin and is one of the newer players in the bourbon industry. Despite its relatively young age, the company has quickly gained recognition for its innovative approach to bourbon production.
Upon entering the property, you cannot help looking at all the newly built rickhouses that look at least 10 stories high. What is impressive about BBC is its growth. A few short years ago, the company only had a few rickhouses on-site. To date, they are in the process of building three more rickhouses for the ever-expanding 100-acre campus. The company announced in 2022 that it was expanding 50% by 2024, which raises its annual capacity to 55,000 barrels.
We entered the building and were escorted upstairs to the tasting room. Our certified bourbon steward was knowledgeable about the products and the distillery’s history. He informed us that the company is unique in that it operates on a collaborative model. Instead of just producing its own branded bourbon, the company also partners with other distilleries and brands to create custom whiskey products. This collaboration allows the Bardstown Bourbon Co. to utilize its state-of-the-art distillery, blending and aging facilities to develop various bourbons and whiskies with different flavor profiles and characteristics.
One of the critical elements of the BBC’s approach is its modern distillery, designed to optimize efficiency and precision in the production process. The distillery utilizes various advanced technologies and equipment to ensure the quality and consistency of its products.
Once all the information was distributed, it was on to the tasting. The group was presented with three tasting glasses. The first glass was filled with what is commonly known as “White Lighting.” The high-rye bourbon distillate is the base for all the company’s spirits. The second glass was filled with a high-rye bourbon maturate, and the last had the company’s signature Fusion Series # 9, a blend of three bourbons ranging in age from four to 12 years. Each of the tastings differed, giving the group more insight into the whole process from start to finish.
The tour took the group around the distillery, showing us the entire bourbon-making process. What is different about BBC is that everything is state-of-the-art, unlike some older distilleries on the trail.
The tour finished in one of the massive rickhouses. It was approaching 1 p.m. and we were all famished, so what better way to cap off the tour than to eat at The Kitchen & Bar restaurant on the property? The food ranged from Kentucky poutine to filet mignon and everything in between. I highly recommend sticking around to eat at the restaurant. It was reasonably priced and the food was terrific. After our fill, we embarked on the second leg of our tour to Whiskey Thief in Frankfort, formerly known as Three Boys Farm Distilling.
Whiskey Thief is the total opposite of Bardstown Bourbon Co. The first difference is that WT is set on a farm in the middle of nowhere, Frankfort. Gone are the fancy rickhouses, multi-story stills and anything electronic. This distillery is a barebones operation, but one of the significant differences is that WT is a grain-to-glass operation, meaning everything used in the spirit is provided on the farm.
The large metal building with open ends on both sides housed about 100 oak barrels. What is unique about WT is that they have five barrels on the floor that you can pull a taste from, each barrel strength. The strength ranged from 123 to a rye around 93 proof. The distillery also offers a bottle-your-own-spirit station, refreshing slushes, and plenty of swag.
What makes this distillery a must-visit are the views and the peacefulness of the surroundings. Tables and chairs are placed outside, where you can relax around the fire pit or just enjoy the weather. On weekends, they offer food, cocktails and live music on the small stage in the corner. Each steward was knowledgeable about the product and was eagerly ready to pour a taste for you. WT is the epitome of a small craft distillery. Most of the large fancy distilleries around the country will start or remain like WT. The time was up, and the tour was on to one of the oldest distilleries in Kentucky, Castle & Key Distillery.
The Castle & Key Distillery was originally known as the Old Taylor Distillery, named after its founder, Col. E.H. Taylor Jr., a prominent figure in bourbon during the 19th century. The distillery was established in 1887 and under Taylor’s ownership, the distillery flourished, producing high-quality bourbon and becoming one of the largest and most innovative distilleries of its time.
When arriving at the distillery, you cannot help but notice the beautiful castle-like buildings and picturesque gardens, giving it an appearance distinct from other distilleries.
Our group immediately headed to Taylorton Station to get a drink. Once we quenched our thirst, we started to explore the grounds. Glenn’s Creek’s water level was high, which created a perfect running waterfall over the spillway. I cannot describe how beautiful the grounds are at the distillery. Everything was perfectly manicured, and it did not seem like a tree was out of place. The group did not enter the distillery for a tour, but we all understood that we were seeing history that dated back to the 19th century. Each employee we encountered was experienced and friendly, eager to answer any questions that may arise.
Being our last stop on the tour, we posed for pictures and returned to the bus. The drive back from Frankfort to Lexington was a breeze. The tour driver dropped us back off in front of our house and with a friendly smile, said, “Bye.” I have been on many bourbon tours, but I really enjoyed this tour due to the distinct differences between the distilleries.
I highly recommend only visiting three distilleries at a time. You want to soak in as much as you can, but be sure to pick three different types of distilleries; that way, you can have different experiences with each one.
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