Whisky lovers have one more reason to hit the hallowed Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Bardstown Bourbon Co. opened its new visitors center on Sept. 9, offering tours, cocktail classes, and tastings geared toward every level of bourbon drinker, from novice to connoisseur. The facility features a sleek, modern vibe, with glass paneling, moss art walls, and an open design that’s meant to highlight the company’s focus on transparency and collaboration, while celebrating both the art and science of whiskey making.
It wasn’t long ago that now-former chief executive David Mandell, who co-founded Bardstown Bourbon Co. back in 2014, had grand plans for its visitors center; the company was part of a wave of next-generation distillers building their enterprises from the ground up with the guest experience in mind. “We’re trying to create a Napa Valley experience on the Bourbon Trail,” Mandell told Whisky Advocate in 2017, before the distillery had even opened its restaurant. Bardstown Bourbon Co. began distilling in 2016 with capacity to produce 1.5 million proof gallons of whiskey annually, but quickly found that it needed to ramp up, a year later announcing an expansion to boost capacity to 6 million proof gallons. Most of that production has gone toward supporting the needs of partner brands that contract with the distillery to make their whiskeys. Bardstown Bourbon, however, also recently launched its own expressions, including the Fusion Series, Discovery Series, and Collaboration Series.
Now the company’s original vision to offer a visitor-centric tourist destination is coming to fruition under the aegis of newly appointed CEO Mark Erwin. Guests are invited to taste their way through the distilling process in the hour-long “Main Event” tour ($20). There’s also a more in-depth 90-minute experience, “Bardstown Bourbon Company’s Best,” led by master distiller and Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame inductee Steve Nally—who made his name at Maker’s Mark and previously worked at Wyoming Whiskey—which includes “sensory exercises” focusing on flavor profiles created by blending different mashbills, as well as tasting bourbon at different stages of maturity. Both tours focus on Bardstown Bourbon Co.’s experimental distilling method that incorporates nearly 40 mashbills to produce a variety of bourbon, rye, and other whiskeys for its Collaborative Distilling Program, which has grown to include more than two dozen partners such as Jefferson’s, High West, Belle Meade, James E. Pepper, and Hirsch.
But even the shorter tour wastes no time, as tasting begins the moment guests enter an all-glass classroom overlooking 100 acres of active farmland in the heart of bourbon country, before discovering how the distillery’s whiskeys are produced, aged, developed, and finished. Tasting continues, straight from the barrel, at the conclusion of the tour in the distillery’s rickhouse bar, surrounded by stacks of bourbon barrels. Visitors can also refine their mixing skills in hands-on cocktail classes ($55; included with the 90-minute tour), where they’ll learn how to make a Sazerac and a Kentucky Mule. Those with limited time can skip the tour altogether and taste three limited-release whiskeys only available at the distillery ($15), guided by Stave & Thief Society-certified bourbon stewards.
The new visitors center follows the debut of Bardstown Bourbon Co.’s Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar, which opened in June 2018, billed as the first full-service restaurant and bar in a Kentucky Bourbon Trail distillery. Guests can book tours online on the distillery’s website or in person at Bottle & Bond, which offers plenty of belly-lining comfort food (shrimp and grits, bourbon-rubbed baby back ribs), barrel-aged whiskey cocktails, and a bottle library with more than 400 antique American whiskeys. But whether they opt for a full tour, take a class, or just taste bourbon, the whiskey is sure to be front and center every step of the way.