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Thursday
Aug242017

The Bardstown Bourbon Company

As you make your way out from the city center towards the newly-established Bardstown Bourbon Company, there’s little but grass and agriculture along Parkway Drive until finally you see the modern glass facility rising out of the corn fields, much like a winery surrounded by vineyards. While not yet open to the public, the Bardstown Bourbon Company has already been producing whiskey for some time now, most of it contract work for some of the industry’s top brands and non-distiller producers. Under the guidance of Bourbon hall of famer Steve Nally—formerly the master distiller at Maker’s Mark and one of the guys who got Wyoming Whiskey off the ground—they’ve already increased capacity once and they’re currently at work adding new fermenters to increase output once again. However, while contract work makes up a large part of its business, it’s clear from one look at the facility with its beautiful architecture and sweeping landscape that the Bardstown Bourbon Company wants to become more than just Kentucky’s version of MGP. The guys at BBC are planning heavily for Kentucky’s whiskey tourism future and banking on that unique personal experience to become the industry’s next big movement. I was excited to get a sneak preview of what that might entail. 

I was welcomed into the future visitor’s center by company CEO and president David Mandell who wasted no time laying out his vision for what he hopes the distillery can become; namely, a beacon of transparency, openness, and whiskey education where consumers can come to eat, drink, learn, distill, and perhaps even stay should the plans for the onsite hotel continue to move forward. There are windows everywhere, the tall steel frames holding large glass panes into place that allow an intimate look into the many facets of the facility. Joining us for the tour was master distiller Steve Nally, who exclaimed that he was enticed to come out of retirement for a second time due to the unique and forward-thinking nature of the project. “Kentucky’s Jim McEwan!” I said with a laugh. David mentioned that BBC would be building a whiskey library onsite with a full electronic catalog and information database where customers could sample an array of Bourbon, both past and present. This was news to me, but apparently Kentucky’s state law recently changed to allow the sale of distilled spirits from private consumers. I about fell over (can you imagine if we could buy back spirits from customers and re-sell them?!). Since then, David and company have been hard at work, buying aggressively from collectors to put together one of the most dynamic selections in the country. The library will be a large part of the visitor center, as will the classroom on the second floor that will eventually host seminars and lectures from industry professionals. 

Whatever you do, don’t lump the Bardstown Bourbon Company in with the region’s craft whiskey distillers. This is a full scale operation and the production center is nothing to sneeze at. The proof? Not just the size of the operation, but the distillates themselves. I got to taste through a number of different mashbills both aged and unaged (including a 95/5 rye recipe for MGP customers who need extra juice). They were all incredibly flavorful, clean, and charming on all fronts. I was very, very impressed. In fact, I was so blown away by the quality that I was ready to lay down a contract for whiskey right then and there! Unfortunately for those looking to break into the business, BBC is not accepting new clients at this point and their criteria for any customer requires an already existing brand. Essentially, if you’re an established company you can contract BBC to make you more whiskey, but not necessarily to make you an entirely new one. The cooking tanks are all fitted with glass lids so that you watch the process as it happens and the towering column still was specially designed by Vendome to have larger than normal glass windows so that visitors could see the refraction as it happened inside the still. Clients who do contract with BBC have the option to work side-by-side with Steve and do the process hands-on, or simply tell Steve what they want and have him do the job for them. Everything is customizable, including the grain recipes. 

Beyond the distillery and visitor’s center is a huge state-of-the-art rickhouse and acres of estate-grown corn that will be harvested and used for production. Much like I mentioned in my previous post about Willett, BBC has hired a chef and food director to run a fully-operating restaurant onsite, and again there are discussions about adding a hotel. The plan is to make Bardstown Bourbon Company the premier destination for Kentucky whiskey tourism and to provide the most inclusive and hands-on experience possible from the production of the whiskey itself, to the curation of its eventual enjoyment. We ate lunch in the main office upstairs and I got to meet the company’s other head, CFO and COO Daniel Linde who moved out from LA to help spearhead the project. I was able to taste through some of their other upcoming projects during that time and offer feedback about market potential and pricing. I enjoyed both the candor and the opportunity for insight into where new market players see the category headed. It’s clear that BBC has an eye on Napa as its inspiration. 

Looking out from the roof at the vast land surrounding the estate, I couldn’t help but think about Field of Dreams and the idea of building a tourist attraction in the middle of a cornfield. “People will come,” Ray’s daughter says to him in the film when he begins to second guess his decision about selling the farm. It was all an act of faith; a belief in the baseball gods and the field that would become their church. The Bardstown Bourbon Company is taking a similar leap of faith, building a shrine to the beauty of whiskey intricately tailored for the public to enjoy. Will people come to see it? Will they stay for dinner and a drink? Based on the amount of tour buses I saw pulling into the distillery parking lots all week, I have to believe they will. People will come, and Kentucky is getting ready for them.

-David Driscoll