Kentucky Round 2 - Bardstown Booming
With a successful barrel pick at Cox’s Creek behind us, Andrew and I headed south. The small town once the center of the bourbon universe, is on the precipice of rebirth. Before prohibition, this was the seat of the throne of bourbon. Why Bardstown? It’s held long held a position in the cultural psyche of Kentucky.
It’s the site of Judge John Rowan’s Federal Hill estate, which inspired Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home, good night.” The song, an anti-slavery ballad, would have been cemented Bardstown early presence in the national identity. Abraham Lincoln passed through, Daniel Boone and Jesse James too. Someone had to make whiskey for all the kind folks.
But more likely, a local tradition of farming and illicit distillation coupled with economic position the town held were more to blame. The mostly Catholic population that settled around Bardstown didn’t have the same social stigma around the production and consumption of alcohol as some other communities. Also, that water. That sweet sweet water.
After prohibition only a handful of the original 30+ licensed facilities reopened. By the time we started coming here years ago, there was only one working distillery in Bardstown. The largest production facility in the area, Heaven Hill, burnt down in 1996 and the company decided to purchase a working facility near Louisville rather than rebuild in the unsafe gully where the first distillery had been.
Only the Tom Moore Distillery (Barton/1792) continued to produce and back then they had way more bourbon than they knew what to do with. They even floated the idea of selling us aged barreled stock directly, the result of my constant nagging about how some national chains were afforded exclusive brands we couldn’t access. They backed off when it became clear we were serious about meeting their minimum spend of $1 million.
Despite the set backs and lack of production, the city’s identity is itimately woven into the fabric of the bourbon story and they’re not going to let that go. It’s clear that Bardstown wants its crown back. Not only has there been an explosion of production in the area, but the new distillers are adapting a new paradigm. It’s no longer a place that once was, but firmly on the path to becoming the place to be. The new blood on the ground Is savvy, realizing that the location of Bardstown is both central to the rest of the bourbon trail, yet sperate enough to merit the amenities of a true cultural destination.
The Bardstown of the future will not be the Bardstown of the past. Instead of representing the beating heart of the industry, Bardstown will likely come to represent its soul. While the big guys build massive distilleries to meet demand, the Bardstown producers seem to be focused on a more holistic experience. They want the Bourbon Trail to start and end here and by all measures they’re succeeding at making this little city the most exciting place for the modern bourbon lover to visit, relax and spend.
The first sign of flux here was the construction at the Heaven Hill Visitor’s Center. This sprawling facility doesn’t include a distillery, but nearly everything else that happens at Heaven Hill happens here. It’s a very popular destination and they’ve just broken ground on a $17 million renovation of the guest experience. They’ll build a miniaturized distillery, full scale bar, restaurant and a number of activities for tourists. This is part of a $65 million expansion effort which will include additional capacity, enhanced production facilities and warehouses.
We’re not here to watch them build! We met Heaven Hill’s Private Barrel Coordinator, Andy Thomas, and head straight into the warehouse. For the first time in years, 6 barrels are lined up in warehouse Y waiting for us. It’s not easy to taste bourbon out of the barrel on a cold Kentucky morning. You really have to take your time with it. Slowly warming the whisky in the tiny glasses they provide. Teasing the aromas out of the glass.
The first three barrels were all Elijah Craig, right around 11 years old and aged at the Deatsville warehouses (CC & GG). This was Parker Beams favorite aging site. Two obvious winners and a lucky break. Andy had some extra so both barrels were locked up immediately.
We moved to the next three. This was the first retail barrel pick of Heaven Hill’s Larceny Wheated Bourbon. This extremely underrated whisky got a lot of flack from the geek class of drinkers (myself included) when it replaced the delicious and cheap Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond some time ago. But over the years Larceny has proved itself to be an excellent stalwart in the wheated category. While the world is going apeshit for Weller, little old Larceny is selling briskly yet quietly for less than $25.
The barrels they rolled out for this first pick we’re the prime example of what can make a Wheater so great. 7 Years old and aged on the 2nd floor of Warehouse E at the Heaven Hill main campus. This stuff is the real deal. The only complaint (and literally my only complaint about Heaven Hill – don’t worry they’ve heard it before) is that they won’t bottle these excellent whiskies at cask strength.
I’m not going to get into why that is so very frustration, but what it does mean is that these excellent whiskies will be on the shelf for an incredibly reasonable price. Like almost everything coming from HH, they provide unparalleled value for your dollar. It’s thanks to the shrewd and generous leadership of the Shapiras and they’re commitment to the tradition of quality that is ubiquitous across the modern bourbon industry.
After the excellent tasting requisite joke about how not even the Visitor Center employees can get Mckenna anymore, we headed up the hill to see our good friend Drew Kulsveen at Willett Distillery. Drew and his family have been important partners of ours for decades. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the incredible success they’ve achieved.
The family has owned the site since 1983, but their legacy dates back more than a century in the bourbon industry. They started in Bardtown as a bottler, but always with the intent to rebuild the distillery. They’ve achieved that and so much more. They’re building cottages and a world class bar. Drew has amassed an impressive collections of old and rare spirits and his new beautiful bar is a show piece, not only for old bourbon, but spirits of every kind.
We almost bought ourselves a $200 shot of Chartreuse from the 1940s, but we still hadn’t had lunch. Drew and his single barrel program Guru Josh Devitt were waiting for us at the bar. They had already pulled barrel samples that morning from random warehouses and brought them inside to warm up.
We sat eagerly with 12 samples of insanely good single barrel bourbon and rye in front of us. Finally, some difficult decisions to make. Willett is an incredible position, not only to be a cult favorite, but also to have the nimbleness and culture to understand their unique customer base. Of course, it took years to get to this point, but they’ve really turned a corner.
They’re entire production, including the older marks like Noah’s Mill and Johnny Drum are 100% made in house. They’ve built enough stocks to offer single barrels to their closest customers. And they’re putting together what will certainly be one of the most exciting destinations on the bourbon trail. It’s been 30 years in the making and while they don’t move at the speed of some of their new competitors I can guarantee about what the Kulsveens, they’ll always do it right.
There’s no doubt that the future is bright for the Willett Distillery, but no distillery has exploded onto the Bardstown scene like the modern new Bardstown Bourbon Co. What was originally envisioned as a relatively modest independent distillery is developing into one of the most ambitious Whiskey projects in all of Kentucky. The Bardstown Bourbon Co brought the indominable Steve Nally on board early and they’ve just been kicking ass ever since.
At first, they planned to buy and refurbish another site, but eventually decided that ground up was the way to go. They’d already doubled capacity before even selling a single bottle. This new medium sized distillery is filling the holes left for those brands who used to rely on the excess capacity of the big guys.
It’s contract distilling without the stigma or obfuscation. They offer a home to brands who have previously had to say to their customer, “we’re contractually obligated to not tell you where this is made.” Of course some brands prefer to keep their sources secret anyway. Bardstown Bourbon Co pays the bills distilling for everyone else and pay themselves to distill their own stocks.
Half way through planning, Kentucky decided it was ok for them to sell alcohol by the drink. This single legislative move has changed the face of bourbon tourism forever. The cafe became a kitchen, the gift shop a bar. The result is something that has not really ever existed before, the serious plausibility of a modern bourbon resort. Not only for tourists, but for the multifaceted industry built around them.
A world class restaurant is already operating. A boutique hotel situated directly across from the distillery is the goal. The facility will be designed specifically for the public and the numerous brands that already call the BBC home. Oh and they make damn good whiskey as well. This is what the future of Bourbon looks like – Bardstown.