A memorable tasting tour in Kentucky's king bourbon town

The only thing I wanted for my birthday this year was to go to Bardstown, Kentucky, with my wife, Jenny. I’m a bourbon guy, and there’s no better place in the United States for bourbon than here.

The distilleries in the area—which include Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, Willett, Four Roses, and Barton—form a tasting trail, and the town itself has been named the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America.” Bourbon and beauty? Seems like the perfect combination to embark upon another year of life.

We pulled up Google Maps and plugged in the five distilleries I wanted to visit so we could find a centrally located hotel. Bourbon Manor Bed & Breakfast Inn fit the bill perfectly—it’s an amazing red brick mansion located on the north end of downtown Bardstown, and each room has a different cocktail theme. The property actually has three buildings: a federal home from 1810, an antebellum mansion from 1830, and the smokehouse-turned-cottage original to the property. Perfect for the spirit of this weekend’s birthday getaway.

First sips

We started with the distilleries just outside of town: Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark. Jim Beam was first. We opted for the self-guided tour through the luxuriant grassy property instead of the group tour, so we could mosey at our own pace. We followed a numbered pathway through the grounds, visiting the stillhouse, tasting room, distiller’s home, and rack house. At each stop, we found displays of distilling equipment, both antique and new, plus detailed signs showing what each section of the distillery does. We learned that the master distiller’s home on the property used to be a boarding house for distillery workers. Jenny enjoyed getting water out of the working pump while I studied a diagram showing the anatomy of a bourbon barrel.

When we finished the tour, we sampled two bourbons: the original and the honey. Jenny preferred the honey version for its sweetness while staying true to the original. While exploring the gift shop, I noticed Jim Beam also sells a rye whiskey—I bought myself a bottle as a birthday gift.

Before heading back into Bardstown, we stopped at Maker’s Mark in Loretto and toured the distillery. It was in an absolutely idyllic historic property filled with buildings constructed of dark wood with fire engine-red shutters (a homage to the classic wax-sealed Maker’s Mark bottle), set on peaceful countryside dotted with trees. The hourlong tour involved a lot of walking, but it was worth it to see the grounds and smell their signature mash blend as it fermented. My favorite part (aside from the three samples, of course) was watching the workers dip each bottle into the distinctive Maker’s Mark red wax. You can even dip one yourself if you buy a bottle in their gift shop!

This was a great way to end the first day of my birthday celebration. I couldn’t wait to try out the distilleries in town the next day.

Takeaways

The next day, we stayed in Bardstown, visiting the rest of the distilleries on our list: Barton, Heaven Hill, and Willett.

We drove about five miles from our hotel to Willett Distillery, a family-run craft bourbon distillery. We could choose from a $7 tour of the distillery and grounds with a tasting of the Willett Pot Still Reserve, or a $12 tour that also included a souvenir glass. We chose the tour with the souvenir glass; we both wanted lasting mementos of the trip. The tour took us through the grounds to see the big guns: eight 10,000-gallon fermenters and eight rack houses that can each hold around 6,000 barrels. The property was rustic and beautiful, with buildings made out of Kentucky split-face limestone and belt and pulley systems from the early 1900s. The distillery reopened on its own abandoned site in 2012—it had closed in the 1980s—and some of the buildings showed character with a weathered look, which made the atmosphere even more interesting.

After Willett, we headed to Heaven Hill and the Bourbon Heritage Center. This tour doesn’t go to the distillery itself, but instead through the interactive heritage center exhibits and working rickhouse before a tasting in the barrel-shaped tasting room.

Our last stop before going back to our B&B was Barton 1792 Bourbon—the oldest fully-operating distillery in Bardstown, which, despite its name, began operations in 1879. Three complimentary tours were offered around the 196-acre property. We chose the “1792 Estate” tour, a vehicle tour with behind-the-scenes stops to see each step of the distilling process, and a free tasting at the end. All the bourbon at Barton 1792 is small-batch, mixed from a handpicked selection of barrels. Our samples tasted like vanilla and caramel. The tour stopped at the world’s largest whiskey barrel, a definite must-see for connoisseurs of roadside kitsch.

Back at Bourbon Manor, we settled into our room again and poured the rye whiskey I bought at Jim Beam into our souvenir glasses from Willett. We enthusiastically toasted to the fantastic time we had celebrating my birthday in Bardstown. The history of bourbon here is classic. It’s what keeps people like me wanting to celebrate special occasions here, and the bourbon scene is far from stagnant. We heard that three more distilleries—including the largest new distillery in the U.S.—are opening soon, and I don’t have any plans for next year’s birthday.

Discover the romantic side of Bardstown, Kentucky.

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