Bluegrass, Baptists, and bourbon
I’ve challenged my Atlanta-based friend Barb to join me at The Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Kentucky, the bourbon capital of the world. I’m mad for small-batch brown liquor, but Barb doesn’t “do” spirits. It requires some cajoling on my part, but Barb, who originally hails from North Carolina, is more than a little horse crazy, so I emphasize that aspect.
We land in Lexington, which is the kind of manageable airport that makes flying fun. The honey-soaked Southern drawls of the locals have an intoxicating effect on me—and we haven’t had a sip yet!
It’s mid-September, and the weather is mild, the grayish fog just lifting off the bluegrass, the leaves just beginning to turn burnished shades of gold and red. It’s an easy hour to Bardstown through rolling hills and the white-fenced horse farms that dot the landscape. While she drives, I pepper Barb with bourbon facts and trivia, starting with this: the invention of bourbon is attributed to Baptist minister Elijah Craig in 1789.
Barb snorts, then chortles, finding the irony hilarious. “Continue,” she says, in better spirits (pun intended).
By law, bourbon, the nation’s only native spirit, must be made from 51% cornmeal, which differentiates it from whiskey. While whiskey can be distilled from a variety of grains, including wheat, rye, barley, and corn, bourbon must be made from corn. Kentucky produces 5 million gallons annually, which is notably more than the state’s population of 4.2 million.
The second oldest town in Kentucky, Bardstown, was settled in 1780; downtown includes nearly 200 buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s been named “the most beautiful small town in America” by numerous publications.
Barb perked up. She loves old buildings and antiquing. So our first stop will be trolling for treasures in the charming shops. I love being called “sugar” and “hon” by friendly locals as I sift through old enamel cookware, vintage buttons, and Civil War collectibles. Barb found a painted metal garden ornament and an equine print. She bought both.
According to the website, it takes three days to tour bourbon country at a leisurely pace. We decide to visit two this afternoon.
We begin our bourbon immersion at Barton 1792 Distillery, located on a 196-acre parcel on the banks of the Morton Spring and the Tom Moore Spring. The parent, the Sazerac Company, is a New Orleans-based, family-owned business. The distillery was established in 1879, making it the oldest fully-operating distillery in Bardstown. We decided on the free, two-hour, by-reservation-only motorized tour, which includes a chance to gawk at the World’s largest whiskey barrel, along with a step-by-step introduction to the distilling process. Since space is limited, most visitors opt for the complimentary hour-long tour. Our favorite part is the complimentary sampling of award-winning products. I purchase a bottle of Ridgemont Reserve 1792 Small Batch Bourbon with its complementary sharp and fruity notes.
Heaven Hill is America’s largest independent, family-owned bourbon producer. The experience here begins with a film and is followed by a customized tour with knowledgeable “bourbon hosts” who introduce our small group to the rickhouse and school us on the ins and outs of bourbon distilling before tasting several premium bottles. Agreement at last: Barb and I both linger over the Elijah Craig 12-year-old.
By the end of our trip, I’ve found a few new favorites, and Barb has discovered she likes some of the sweeter finishes.
Getting into the spirit of things
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival began in 1992 as a tasting and dinner; in 2014, it attracted more than 50,000 folks from 44 states and 14 countries. It’s a family-friendly week jam-packed with train rides, horse-drawn carriage rides, barrel racing, horseshoe pitching, an antique car show, an arts and crafts show, live country and bluegrass music, a scavenger hunt, cooking classes, and a hot air balloon show. A pancake breakfast complete with maple syrup and a side of bourbon-spiked coffee is motivation for two night owls like us to get up early.
Our kickoff event, the Boots & Bourbon, gives me a chance to show off my new red boots. Barb dons a black velvet duster. We’ve already been embraced by a few Bardstown locals, who wave hello. I love the camaraderie that bourbon culture seems to foster. I may not have converted beer-loyal Barb completely, but she certainly seems to be enjoying her honey-kissed bourbon cut with a splash of Coke.
Soon it’s time to hit the dance floor and shake off some calories with our new southern friends. We toast the spirit—and spirits—of Bardstown warm from the glow of this charming town as much as from their beloved brown liquor.
The following night, we hit up Bourbon, Cigars & Jazz event held at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, the inspiration for Stephen Foster’s ballad. Yet another winning event.