Up till we were in Muscle Shoals I had never heard of a town called Bardstown. In fact we weren’t told of this place by name, but by the area. Its part of the Bourbon Trail on the Bluegrass Parkway in Kentucky. TOH is a whiskey drinker and after tasting a number of the Tennessee Whiskeys we decided to head up here to see what this Bourbon Trail is all about.
We based ourselves in the little town of Bardstown and on arrival found to our surprise that it is called the Bourbon Capital of the World. Although there are only 8 Distilleries on the Bourbon Trail there are, at a rough estimate about 30 Bourbon distilleries within a half hour drive from Bardstown. It is no wonder they call it the Bourbon Capital of the World.
We thought we would start our Bourbon tour with the Jim Beam Distillery. Holly our guide was a live wire and passionate about the product. As we toured the distillery, we learnt how the product is made and also the history covering the seven generations of the Beam family from 1740 through to the current day. As we wandered through the distillery I wished someone had invented scratch and sniff photography, or a way to bottle a smell.
We also did the tour of the Barton 1792 distillery as well. The methods are very much the same as the other Distilleries, but this tour was far more informative and the stories of its history were just as fascinating as the Jim Beam stories were. On this tour we went into one of the “Ric” Houses (warehouse). This particular building was built in the 1936 and like the other Ric Houses is 7 stories high and stores approx. 20,000 barrels. There is no power to the buildings, therefore no heating or cooling. They rely on the weather for that. The temperature ranges from approx. 30 degrees Celsius on the lower floors to 42 degrees Celsius on the top floors. It was really like walking into last century, with smell of wood, stacks of barrels and timber walls. Each corner had a Plumb line that they rely on to check if the building starts to lean under all the weight of the barrels. Seems so old fashioned, but it works as they have only had one building every collapse on them.
Each barrel initially holds approx. 53 gallons of liquid. They age the bourbon for up to 8 years in the barrels, there is a certain amount lost to evaporation over the years which is called the Angels Share and some will be absorbed into the barrel itself and that is called the Devils Cut. At the end they hope to have only lost 30% to the Angels and the Devil.
The Bar itself really wasn’t much to talk about, apart from the line up of Bourbon behind the bar. TOH worked out that there was over 200 bottles of Bourbon behind the bar and no other spirit on display. As we were leaving, we got talking to a couple of locals who asked us if we had seen the Jesse James room. Well that began a fun afternoon.
For lunch we headed to the Old Talbott Tavern in town as I had read it was one of the oldest western stagecoach stops and the oldest Bourbon Bar in America.
They took us upstairs to a room that has been restored to show us the bullet holes that it is believed Jesse James shot into the walls. The story goes that in 1797 the French King Louis Phillippe’s and his entourage stayed here while they were in exile in the “New World” and one of them painted murals on in the walls (these were uncovered in 1927). This was a common stop for the James Gang and apparently one night after having one too many, Jesse James went upstairs to sleep it off. But when he woke he saw birds moving in the murals so he shot them. These are the bullet holes we were looking at. My questions was… what had he been drinking….. Moonshine or Bourbon?
We were told that the Tavern has tunnels built under it that lead across the street, escape routes I imagine for the gang. Unfortunately we couldn’t see these as they have been boarded up.
We ended the evening at the “Blind Pig Bourbon Speakeasy”. This is a bar that you can only enter through the back door. To obtain entry you have to know the code to open the door. Its the year that prohibition began.
When you enter its like stepping back in time with crush velvet couches and leather chairs surrounded by exquisite wallpaper. This is where during the 13 years of prohibition the wealthy or police came, while the next room with the Steel walls was the actual bar selling alcohol. The place was named the Blind Pig in a throwback to the police of that time that use to frequent places like this during prohibition and turned a “blind” eye to the sale of liquor.
Bardstown is a pretty little town, with so much history behind it. As there are so many Bourbon Distilleries around here, the rest of the history tended to get lost. But I have to admit to arriving as a non Bourbon drinker and I am now …. well lets just say I don’t dislike as much as I use to.