Bourbon is firmly embedded in the culture and economy of Kentucky, and as the popularity of the spirit has exploded over the past decade, enthusiasts increasingly want to experience it themselves. The Kentucky Distiller’s Association recently announced that the annual attendance record for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail was broken in 2022 with over two million visitors — all of them in pursuit of the state’s local spirit.
But the small town of Bardstown is on a different level.
Bardstown, Kentucky, promotes itself as the bourbon capital of the world. And it’s hard to argue with that claim – there are 11 whiskey distilleries within 16 miles of the center of the town, including some of the oldest and most recognized distilleries in the United States. There are significantly more barrels of bourbon aging in Nelson County than the number of people living in the area.
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Bardstown’s proximity to so many legacy and craft distilleries makes it a natural nexus for a bourbon enthusiast looking to explore the state. It’s becoming something similar to the Napa Valley of Kentucky — a place one goes not just to taste bourbon, but to become fully immersed in the culture, history and natural beauty of the area. The town looks like it could have been the inspiration for a Norman Rockwell painting, and it has quite a bit to offer bourbon enthusiasts beyond the distillery visits. Open since the late 1700s, the Old Talbott Tavern is a great spot to have some classic Kentucky comfort food. It also claims to have the world’s oldest bourbon bar. The Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum has thousands of bottles of antique whiskey and is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of Kentucky bourbon. For whisky shopping, the Blind Pig has an excellent selection of whiskeys from Kentucky and the rest of the world. All of these attractions are a short walk from the center of the main stretch of town.
To commemorate Bardstown’s status as the heart of bourbon country, the Bardstown tourism board, in conjunction with six local distilleries, has created the Bardstown Collection. It’s an unprecedented effort where Jim Beam, Lux Row, Preservation, Log Still, Heaven Hill and Bardstown Bourbon Company have each crafted a unique super-limited whiskey only available at each distillery for a very short period of time.
“The Bardstown community itself is a big part of why bourbon has been able to remain relevant,” says Freddie Noe, 8th generation master distiller at James B. Beam Distilling Co. “When the opportunity to highlight Bardstown came around, it was a no-brainer for us. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do.”
There’s a reason this collection is the first of its kind. “Any time you put six distillers at a table to get them to make important decisions together, it’s never easy,” says Samantha Brady, executive director of Bardstown and Nelson County Tourism. “For them to all truly put Bardstown first is inspiring. It’s rare to find in today’s world.”
The Bardstown Collection is a testament to the camaraderie within the industry. “It’s about showing our community and everyone that we’re not competitors,” says Shelby Nash guest experience director at Preservation Distillery. “We collaborate and come together — we’re neighbors.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some competition between distilleries. “When it comes to something like this, we want to outdo each other. There’s competitiveness, but it’s friendly,” says John Rempke, Master Distiller at Lux Row. The Bardstown Collection has become a bourbon arms race, with each distillery trying to craft something that surprises and impresses.
Each bottle in the 2023 Bardstown Collection is only available directly from each distillery starting this month — the launch was April 12, but additional dates to taste and purchase the collection run through July. The bottles retail for $200 each in limited amounts, and all proceeds from the sales go back to the town of Bardstown to be reinvested in the community.
Below, an overview of each participating Bardstown bourbon distillery and what they prepared for the 2023 Bardstown Collection. They’re well worth the visit.
Founded in 1935, the Heaven Hill distillery is responsible for producing some of the region’s most well-known whiskeys — most notably the Evan Williams, Larceny and Elijah Craig lines. The centerpiece of their campus is a visitor’s center that offers an immersive experience for bourbon aficionados including a museum detailing the history of the distillery, an opportunity for visitors to sample and bottle their own bourbon, and a tour that includes a walkthrough of one of the oldest rickhouses on the property.
For the Bardstown collection, Heaven Hill went with a wheat whiskey over bourbon. In the case of this bottle, the mashbill is 51% wheat, 27% corn and 12% malted barley. Bottled at 100 proof and aged six years, this whiskey has a full aroma of grape, clover honey and fresh grain. Notes of salted caramel, and pie crust fill the palate with just a hint of bubblegum to round things out. The finish is smooth with a hint of both baking spice and cardamom. Consider this a more elevated version of Heaven Hill’s Bernheim wheat whiskey.
Bardstown Bourbon Co.
One of the newer distilleries in the area, Bardstown Bourbon Co. was founded in 2014 as a non-distilling producer (which is common for newer distilleries). Now, they have their own state-of-the-art distillery. And almost as a monument to their transparency ethos, the front of the distillery is all glass. Visitors can look directly into the still house and see the two towering column stills as they operate. Once inside, guests will find a restaurant and full bar, along with a menu of vintage whiskeys, some as old as 1892.
To make their Bardstown Collection bottle, the distillery took its Fusion Series #7, which is a blend of 70% of their own 5-year aged bourbon and 30% sourced Kentucky bourbon, and re-barreled it in new American oak barrels for another year. The finished, dessert-like product is a 97.3-proof bourbon that has an aroma of apple pie and dark candied cherry. On the palate, the bourbon tastes like apricot and peach cobbler, with a bit of nutmeg and some notes from the grain. It finishes with a lingering note of caramel and baking spice.
Just to the west of Bardstown on idyllic farmland sits Preservation Distillery. Preservation is best known for its Very Olde Saint Nick line of bourbons.
Palatella sourced heavily aged bourbon from the Stizel-Weller distillery, which then operated under the supervision of Julian Van Winkle of Pappy Van Winkle fame. Preservation still sources bourbon from other distilleries in Kentucky, but now the distillery produces its own whiskey on one of the few copper pot stills operating in Kentucky.
Preservation’s entry in the Bardstown Collection is a 112.4 proof blend of their oldest 6-year pot-distilled bourbon blended with 15-year-old bourbon sourced from an undisclosed distillery. The aroma is well-rounded with notes of butterscotch, apricot blossom and apple. On the palate, the familiar presence of vanilla and caramel is bolstered by notes of stone fruit and white pepper. The finish is smooth with a nice raw, cane sugar sweetness and a bit of spice.
Since 2018 Lux Row has been hosting bourbon tourists at their distillery and visitors center on the site of an old farm just outside of Bardstown. The distillery is best known for producing the Ezra Brooks, Rebel and Lux Row brands of whiskey.
For 2023, Lux Row offers up the Collection’s only single-barrel bourbon — the distillery selected three of their best barrels of 6-year-old bourbon and instead of blending them, decided to bottle each at cask strength. That means each Bardstown Collection bottle from Lux Row will contain whiskey from one of those three individual barrels completely unblended. Each bottle is unmarked so it’s not apparent which barrel any individual bottle came from.
There are similar aromas and flavors that unite all three barrels, but each 131.5-proof bourbon is still very distinct. The first has an aroma of butterscotch and chocolate-covered cherry with a creamy mouthfeel and a spicy finish. The second barrel has a similar butterscotch aroma with a bit more grain on the palate and a smoother, less spicy finish. Finally, the last barrel has a buttery aroma and flavor to go along with orange peel and baking spice.
Thirteen miles from downtown Bardstown, just past the Abbey of Gethsemani, lies Dant Crossing, home of Log Still distillers. Dant Crossing is a sprawling, 300-acre, rural estate that is not only home to Log Still but also has multiple bed-and-breakfast accommodations, an amphitheater for hosting concerts and a massive events space — all set around a peaceful lake with a backdrop of corn fields and rolling hills. It’s a beautiful and convenient location from which to set up a base for a bourbon-based excursion.
Log Still is the newest of all of the distilleries that participated in the Collection, but the Dant family, who owns the property has deep roots in both the region and in distilling. The distillery is best known for the Monk’s Road line of bourbons named as an homage to the Trappist monks who live up the road at the Abbey.
For the Bardstown Collection, Log Still took a sourced 8-year-old, high rye bourbon and finished in more toasted oak barrels. The result is a balanced and round 117.7 poof bourbon that sports a creamy, vanilla-forward nose with a hint of coffee. The palate provides a balanced burst of spice up front with some notes of green apple. The secondary barreling works wonders to round this bourbon into shape, adding complexity and color.
James B. Beam Distilling Co. doesn’t need much of an introduction — they’re the largest bourbon producer in the world and their eponymous bottle can be found just about everywhere. They’re currently run by the father and son team of Fred and Freddie Noe — seventh and eighth-generation master distillers, respectively. The distillery’s history and pedigree are virtually unmatched in Kentucky. Approaching the distillery feels almost like entering Jurassic Park, but instead of dinosaurs, guests are greeted by towering rickhouses full of maturing whiskey.
Over the years, the distillery had set aside the ten-, eleventh- millionth and twelve-millionth barrels of bourbon that they filled. For the 2023 Bardstown Collection, Noe blended all three of these barrels to create a 118-proof, extra-aged bourbon that showcases the distillery at its best. The youngest whiskey in this blend is the twelve-millionth barrel which was put down over 10 years ago and the oldest has been matured for nearly 18. The nose on this bourbon is rich and oaky, with slight notes of vanilla and allspice. Most prominent on the palate is a note of dark cherry, bolstered by dried fruit and caramel. The finish is long and smooth with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg.
Those with the desire and the means to collect each of these special releases will not be disappointed with what they find. Each bottle in the collection is a perfect representation of each producer’s unique approach to distillation. And collectively, they represent the diversity and forward-thinking nature of Bardstown’s distillation community.
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