Nicknamed the Bourbon Capital of the World, Bardstown, Kentucky is a small southern town that shouldn't be missed. Home to over seven popular bourbon distilleries, My Old Kentucky Home State Park, an outdoor theatrical adaptation of the Stephen Foster Story, and the famous My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, Bardstown, KY is one of the most beautiful small towns in America.
I first heard about the town in Nelson County when researching food-based train rides and stumbled upon the My Old Kentucky Dinner Train. Intrigued, I knew I had to visit for myself one day, and when the Bardstown Tourism Board asked if I wanted to experience their town with my boyfriend Wes (who also happens to be one of Wide Open Eat's talented videographers) our bags were already packed.
Before our trip, it was pretty clear Wes knew a lot more about bourbon than me. On our first camping trip almost a year ago, he poured us some Bulleit Bourbon to enjoy by the crackling fire. Romantic, right? Uncultured, I took the entire thing like a shot, making my first real encounter with bourbon (other than what you get in a well drink) a pretty unpleasant one.
My goal for the trip was to expand my bourbon knowledge and learn how to actually taste the liquor correctly. And boy, did Bardstown deliver.
How To Get to Bardstown, KY
Located about an hour outside of Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, Bardstown is easily reached. The Bluegrass Parkway, which runs from Elizabethtown to Woodford County and connects with Interstate 65 and U.S. Route 60. If flying, the easiest way to get to Bardstown would be to fly into Louisville and rent a car.
Where To Stay in Bardstown, KY
The historic downtown district is home to many beautiful inns that boast a ton of charm and character. If you're looking for something totally authentic, book a room at the Old Talbott Tavern, built all the way back in 1779. George Rogers Clark used it as a base during the Revolutionary War, Daniel Boone once rented a room, and even the exiled Louis-Philippe of France stayed at the inn. Future presidents Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Abraham Lincoln visited the inn. And there are still bullet holes in the inn's mural courtesy of Jesse James, who was drunk on bourbon.
They say that Jesse James still frequents the inn as a ghost. At one time the Talbott was considered the 13th most haunted inn in the United States.
Guests have a choice between six bed and breakfast rooms, all of which are named after someone famous, and 15 more modern rooms housed in the Talbott Inn next door. Every morning guests can visit the restaurant for a full breakfast, included in the stay in the stay.
In the evening, settle in for a nightcap and a show of live music at the Inn's bourbon bar. They even offer bourbon flights, which is a great option if you want to taste a variety of some of the local spirits.
We stayed in one of the more modern rooms and loved all of the amenities the inn offered as well as how attentive the staff was.
What to See in Bardstown
If you visit Bardstown, bourbon tasting is a must. Home of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival and the starting point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you'll never go thirsty in this small town. Distilleries such as Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Willett Distillery, Four Roses, and Preservation Distillery are found in the area as well as Maker's Mark, Barton 1792, and newcomer, Bardstown Bourbon Company. We were given the chance to check out three of these distilleries and while they all distilled the same kind of alcohol, that's where their similarities stop. The historic distilleries offer a look into Kentucky's past, which is a reason in itself to visit.
Barton 1792 Distillery
Established in 1879, Barton 1792 is known as the oldest fully-operating distillery in Bardstown. Named in honor of the year Kentucky joined the United States, Barton's back-in-time charm can be felt throughout the entire distillery. Free tours are given on the hour and on the half-hour on Saturdays and on the tour, guests can expect a look into one of the original barrel aging houses and get a taste of Barton's famous bourbon.
Our tour guide was very knowledgeable (she was once a teacher at one of the local schools) and answered all of the questions our tour had. Tasting-wise, my absolute favorite spirit was the chocolate bourbon ball cream liqueur, which is only available in their gift shop. Grab a bottle (or two) if chocolate drinks are your thing. I really enjoyed it because it was sweet and reminded me of chocolate milk.
Bardstown Bourbon Company
Modern and stylish, the Bardstown Bourbon Company is one of the newest distilleries in the area, but that hasn't stopped them from growing into a unique destination on the Bourbon Trail. Described at the first Napa Valley-style destination on the trail, the Bardstown Bourbon Company is located on 100 acres of farmland and features Bottle & Bond, a modern full-service restaurant and bourbon bar.
Currently, the distillery is renovating their visitor's center (set to open this year) which will run tours for the public. Luckily, we were able to get a sneak peek of the state-of-the-art facility and were very impressed with the entire operation.
Along with taking a tour of the entire distillery, we participated in a liquor-tasting that dove into the science behind the spirit. What I loved the most was tasting the liquor before it had time to age (they call this clear spirit high wine) and tasting the same liquor after it'd aged in the oak barrels. It's fascinating how much flavor wood can give.
After the tour, we got the chance to try out some of the fares over at Bottle & Bond, like fried brussels sprouts with blue cheese, and bourbon bacon and shrimp & grits. If you are looking to try out some vintage bourbons and whiskeys, Bottle & Bond has you covered. Curated by famous whiskey author, Fred Minnick, the whiskey library features over 400 vintage American spirits, including one which was bottled all the way back 1892.
If there's one way to describe the Maker's Mark Distillery, it's a hidden gem along a winding road-literally. While Maker's Mark is hidden away in the small town of Loretto (pop. 634) the distillery itself is located on a sprawling campus complete with a restaurant and bar.
Maker's Mark, which was introduced in 1958, by Bill Samuels Sr. and his wife, Marjorie "Margie" Samuels. It was Margie who thought of the name, the logo, and the signature red wax dip. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of son Bill Samuels Jr. walking the property, greeting guests.
On the tour, guests get the chance to tour the facility, taste the mash, learn about the history of the company, and even dip their own bottles of whisky in red wax. And if you find yourself a little famished, the Star Hill Provisions cafe serves up farm-to-table fares such as meatloaf sandwiches, and the famed Kentucky Hot Brown. To wet your whistle, grab a Makers and Ale-8-One Slushie.
My Old Kentucky Dinner Train
No trip to Bardstown is complete without a ride on the My Old Kentucky Dinner Train. The train, which runs on the old Louisville and Nashville line, has refurbished train cars, originally built in the 1940s, with a charm you feel the minute you step into the historic train depot, built in 1860.
Grab yourself a drink at the bar (I highly recommend the Kentucky Tea, a play on the Long Island Iced Tea but with bourbon) and sit at one of the tables as you wait for the conductor to call out your train number.
Once aboard the train, you will be brought to your seat, and depending on the size of your party, you may be put at a table with other guests. This was the case for my partner and I, where we were sat with a newly-married couple from Louisville. Along the journey, we chatted and by the end of the trip, we had exchanged numbers to keep in touch.
On this particular train, we participated in the Bourbon Excursion, which included tastings hosted by a trained Bourbon expert, along with everything you can expect from the original dinner train experience, including a four-course dinner. I highly recommend the Prime Rib for your entree finished off with the Lemon Blueberry cake. Just make sure to readjust your belt buckle before coming back into the station.
One step down Bardstown's main street and you'll see why this town is considered the most beautiful small town in America. Grab your travel guides and head to Bardstown for the bourbon, history, and a trip that'll you'll be sharing with friends for years to come.
Watch: Ride The My Old Kentucky Dinner Train Through Kentucky Bourbon Country