There are few trails more idyllic than the one nestled in the lush countryside of Kentucky. Dotted with nine historic distilleries, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® has long been part and parcel to the Bluegrass experience, drawing visitors from all corners of the world with one goal in mind—to immerse themselves in Kentucky’s native spirit. The purest form of Kentucky charm can be found among the distilleries in the blissful community of Bardstown, coined “The Most Beautiful Small Town in America” by USA Today. I found myself in Bardstown during a recent journey along the Bourbon Trail and quickly discovered that the bourbon experience only just begins in the distillery; the various bars and restaurants lining Bardstown’s quaint streets are where it truly shines.
Lunch with libations
We headed toward Bardstown after a full morning of distillery tours, hungry and not yet ready for our bourbon adventure to end. Once within the town limits, one needn’t look far to understand that Bardstown is a city rich in Kentucky history. We made our way to a place that has been in continuous operation since 1779, the Old Talbott Tavern. Entering the tavern is akin to taking a step back in time, and its storied history includes tales involving such characters as Andrew Jackson, King Louis Philippe and Jesse James.
We settled into a table in the original bar, the massive stone walls and wide wooden beams spoke to the history of the space—a watering hole where bourbon flowed freely, as it continues to today. Among an array of signature cocktails, we selected Talbott Tavern’s clever take on a Bloody Mary, the Bloody Jesse. This drink appropriately trades vodka for bourbon and adds it to their spicy tomato juice, resulting in a pleasing, Kentucky-centric concoction. Plenty of Southern favorites are offered as well, and we were happy to treat ourselves to a generous helping of fried dill pickle chips, banana peppers and fried green tomatoes. We couldn’t pass up the Tavern’s signature sandwich stuffed with pulled pork, slathered in bourbon barbecue sauce and topped with cheddar cheese and coleslaw. Their BLT sandwich rounded out our lunch and left us fortified and excited to continue our own version of a Bardstown bourbon crawl.
Quality over quantity at Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace
A short walk down Main Street brought us to West Flaget Street. Taking a left, we walked one block before landing at Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace, a three-year-old bourbon bar and retail center located in the historic Mary May House, dating back to 1814. Run by husband and wife team Howard and Dee Dee Keene, the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace is part bourbon-themed gift shop and part bourbon tasting center. Howard served as bartender much of the time, happy to share his vast knowledge of the native spirit with every patron that bellied up to the bar. Howard strictly curated the bourbon selection at Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace with the focus on quality over quantity. A list of cocktails is available as well, the most popular being Howard’s award-winning bourbon drink, the Bardstown Blubber. Stirred with Campari, lemon juice and peach bitters and topped with sparkling wine, it was hard to beat a flight of bourbons from Howard’s collection. We sipped our selection of Old Weller Antique, Michter’s Barrel Toasted and Rhetoric bourbon while Howard shared one fascinating story after another with us about Bardstown and its longtime love affair with bourbon.
Tapas in The Bunghole
We set out from Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace and strolled up Third Street, taking in the historic scenery of Bardstown’s main thoroughfare while making our way to the bar at the Bourbon Manor Bed & Breakfast. Coined “The Bunghole,” the Bourbon Manor’s bar is located in their historic tobacco barn. Here we sampled more bourbon while enjoying the various tapas the Manor is known for, many of which feature locally sourced meats and cheeses. We made a pact to return for an overnight stay, as the setting and hospitality of the place could not have been more enticing.
Beer and bourbon
Wanting a brief reprieve from bourbon but not yet ready to conclude our day, we retraced our steps along Third Street, landing at the aptly named 3rd Street Tap House. While the variety of bourbon on hand at 3rd Street Tap House is more than impressive, their selection of beer from near and far is admirable, and we welcomed the chance to pick a pint and hang out among the locals, the televisions tuned to basketball, as is so often the case in our Bluegrass state. Beer steins belonging to the most regular of visitors line the wall behind the bar, confirming that this is indeed a home-away-from-home for many folks.
Hiding out at The Rickhouse
It was nearing dinner hour and we had one final destination on our Bardstown wish list, The Rickhouse Restaurant & Lounge. Nearly hidden beneath the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, Rickhouse is a jewel of an establishment, the ambiance distinctly Kentucky. Exposed brick and stone walls carve out cozy dining nooks, the space highlighted by reclaimed bourbon barrels, each repurposed in a different, decorative manner. The bar and lounge at Rickhouse was dimly lit, and the low lights reflected warmly off of the countless bottles of bourbon filling the bar. We decided to cap off our day of drinking and dining in Bardstown with one last flight of bourbon and a sampling of Rickhouse’s most popular appetizer, the king crab cakes. Two sizeable cakes bursting with nuggets of king crab were soon set before us, accompanied by a lightly spiced horseradish aioli and set atop a bed of fresh greens.
We lingered at the bar and recounted our day of good food and great bourbon, drawing out our stay to the very last minute. Lamenting that we had to leave the happy environment of Bardstown, we were already anxious to return and further experience the food, fun and libations that seemed to be endless in this tiny slice of Kentucky paradise.