Bardstown, KY: Bourbon Capital of the World

There’s no liquor with such a strong American identity as bourbon, and so here we are, doing our patriotic duty. Kentucky produces over 95% of the world’s bourbon, and the tiny town of Bardstown is the self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World, with the highest concentration of distilleries in the state of Kentucky — 11 of ’em within 16 miles of downtown. Jim Beam, Four Roses, Makers Mark, and so many others.

See the little bird’s nest on the top of the bottle?

You know you’re here when your nose tells you so … the entire area smells like, well, bourbon! But not really. Kinda more like wet socks, mixed with baking waffle cones, mixed with sourdough starter, mixed with a musty backyard cooler that hasn’t been opened in a while. A contact high seems likely, just by walking the charming streets of Bardstown.

Most local restaurants have 200 or more bourbons “at the ready” and one has over 700 on the menu. Even your everyday curbside liquor store has a bourbon tasting bar right there inside of it, fancy gold light fixtures and all.

We stopped into Old Talbott Tavern, the world’s oldest bourbon bar, serving this sultry spirit since 1779. Old Talbott is also a fully operational inn, closed only once for a short while due to a fire, during all those 245 years.

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a lightweight. Most of my liquors are mixed with 97% Sprite. But when in Rome, right? A tasting flight let me experience the “Kentucky hug,” that first strong burn of bourbon (burn-bon?) making its way slowwww-ly down your interior.

Our knowledge of bourbon grew exponentially after taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the 1,000-acre campus of Makers Mark, south of Bardstown in Loretto, KY.

All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Bourbon has to be made in the good ole US of A, cannot have added colorings, flavorings, or additives, and must be at least 51% corn; here at Makers Mark, it is 80% corn and 14% wheat (both grown right down the road) and 6% barley (grown in North or South Dakota). Samples of every single batch of grain arriving here (7-10 semi-trucks per day) are tested and kept for quality control purposes.

Its beautiful property called Star Hill Farm is filled with art, including an extensive display of famous Chilhully glasswork and stained glass.

Our “Behind the Bourbon” tour was fascinating, accessing far reaches of the distillery, warehouse, cellar, cistern and bottling. Philip asked so many questions I swear he was thinking of starting his own quarter-acre distillery at our house, but he denies this.

Today’s modern distillery has many of the functions controlled or monitored by computers.
And, of course, we can’t truly get behind the bourbon without getting into some. Testing the “White Dog” liquor that initially comes straight from the grain. For some reason, Philip required multiple “tests” to make sure it was correctly produced.
Overseeing the enormous vats where the yeast is introduced into the product. There are two employees whose sole job description is “Yeast Manager.”
Hundreds of stainless steel vats are also used in another part of the property, but they keep these original13-feet tall vats in operation for historic purposes.
The barrels are offloaded from semi-trucks and filled, before being stored in racks called “ricks” for six or seven years. A barrel-making operation is called a ‘cooperage’ and there is one down the road from Maker’s Mark.
All the thousands of barrels are hand-rotated by a team of 70 super-strong dudes on a very specific schedule. Bourbon barrels can ONLY be made of white oak, and have varying levels of “char” (the insides are literally set on fire) to achieve specific flavor profiles.
Maker’s Mark has only two recipes: the “original” one, and “46.” Why is it called 46? Ten wooden sticks called “staves” are inserted into each barrel with different flavors embedded in each. The current descendant in charge of Maker’s Mark wanted to introduce his own special product. Of the 140 staves he tested, Stave #46 was the winner.
“46” barrels get their own very-special warehouse,complete with natural seeping hillside rock wall and mood lighting. Not featured, soothing music and poetry readings.
Every Maker’s Mark label is still hand-torn. This very-old machine punches perforations into the paper to make it easier to tear. Four labels per sheet, four sheets per punch, alllllll day, everrrrrry day. Over and over and over.

Like with the labels, our favorite thing was how Maker’s Mark preserves and celebrates the historic ways it has always done things, including hand-dipping the top of every (!)… single (!) …. bottle in wax, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you buy a bottle in the gift shop, you can even hand-dip your own bottle.

The dipping job is so dang tedious that employees only do this for 30 minutes at a time, before swapping out to other tasks. If you work here, you dip. Everyone does. You can’t watch without thinking of Lucille Ball and the chocolate factory line. If they fall behind, do they have to chug a few bottles just to catch up?

Needing a little fresh air and exercise to work off a strong bourbon buzz, we headed to Bernheim Arboretum, a lovely, 16,000-acre preserve. The German immigrant Isaac Bernheim made a fortune in …. you guessed it … BOURBON …. and purchased this land and gave it to Kentucky. They focus on environmental education, and even the rain shelters are lovely.

Our real purpose, however, was to see the whimsical, fantastical Forest Giants in person. Danish artist, Thomas Dambo, built three giant sculptures along a two-mile walking trail here, using recycled wood from the region, including — wait for it — bourbon barrels. The scale was awesome, but the detail was incredible!

Mama Loumari (pregnant, or bourbon-belly? you be the judge)

Little Nis – who is fascinated by his own reflection. Sound like anyone you know?

Little Elina – playing with a rock, like all good children. Visitors can add flowers to her hair.

Additonal works of art are scattered throughout the property. It very much reminded us of a simpler version of another incredible arboretum, Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

Also in this area, the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Memorial, our 73rd National Park Service-managed site. NPS sites are always extremely well-done, and well-run.

This monument is stately and impressive. What’s crazy is what’s inside. They have actually built this monument right around ole Abe Lincoln’s original birth cabin on the hill, to preserve it.

Besides the cabin, the monument also seemed to be filled with every schoolchild under age 10 in the state of Kentucky. But it was really fun to see, and the grounds were dog-friendly with lots of hikeable trails.


On our way to Bardstown, in the middle of Franklin, Kentucky farm fields, was a fork in the road. A literal fork in the road. Built by the senior welding class of Franklin-Simpson High School, it is stainless steel, 21 feet tall, 680 pounds, and is anchored with a ton of concrete. The welding teacher knew of the rural intersection and thought it would be funny to put a giant fork there, so that’s what happened.

Our Facebook followers did not disappoint with their responses to our fork in the road. Most notably the Yogi Berra quote, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” But also, “Stick a fork in it, you’re done” and “It’s ‘tine’ to rest” and “That’s forked up.” There’s also a similarly-sized enormous knife down the road, but there are no good puns for that.

Also here, the perfect vehicle to tow behind our RV. Our Jeep’s getting a little up there in mileage, maybe we should trade her in on this instead? What do you think?


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