Daytrippin’ in the Most Beautiful Small Town in America

Written by Heather KW Brown
Photography courtesy of Kip McGinnis and Heather KW Brown

kMdowntownSmaller-1After all the hours I’d invested in Louisville’s food scene, the time had come for a quick road trip to Bardstown, dubbed “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” by USA Today and Rand McNally. This haven, the second oldest city in the state of Kentucky and a downtown that’s home to 200 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, also happens to be The Bourbon Capital of the World. As wine is to Napa Valley, we’d come to Bardstown for bourbon.

But first, we needed coffee.

We stopped in the historical old courthouse, now the Welcome Center, which you can’t miss in the middle of Court Square, to get a map and our bearings. Zeroing in on caffeine, we walked a short block to Java Joint Cafe, where the locals are friendly and the lattes are downright delicious, all the while noting several home decor and apparel shops to visit later in the day.

It’s also worth noting that while serious enthusiasts will want to garner more knowledge and plenty of palatable pastimes for future reflection by tackling the entire Kentucky Bourbon Trail (not to be confused with the Urban Bourbon Trail back in the city), we chose to visit only three distilleries. Call it sampling the spirit of Bourbon Country.

First thing, first: in order to be classified as bourbon, it has to be made with at least 51 percent corn. The remaining 49 percent can be a combination of rye, wheat or barley. One of the key ingredients to Kentucky bourbon is that the central part of the state sits on top of a limestone shelf, creating water that has a natural filter. This creates an iron-free, calcium-rich water perfect for making bourbon. Its caramel color and distinct taste are derived from its time in the barrel. Much like the recipes themselves, the art of aging bourbon – the type of barrel, its placement in the warehouse and the duration of each aging process – varies from distillery to distillery.

With a little history in our pocket, we were ready for education we could taste.

Bourbon tours
Our first stop was Barton 1792. This 192-acre distillery sits on the site of the historical Tom Moore Distillery and draws water from the very same spring. During our tour, we learned the distillery has 28 aging warehouses with the most famous being Warehouse Z – home to the 1792 Ridgemont Reserve. For those of us sippin’drinks outside of the bourbon circle, the 1792 Ridgemont Reserve is the official tasting bourbon of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival and that warehouse is where it matures to its signature flavor.

From here, we ventured to Heaven Hill, the biggest distillery out of the three on our itinerary. Started by the Shapira brothers, this distillery has become the largest independent, family-owned and operated producer of distilled spirits in the United States. Think you haven’t heard of these folks? Ever heard of Evan Williams or Elijah Craig? Thought so! Besides bourbon, Heaven Hill also makes rum, vodka, gin, brandies and liqueurs – and you can learn all about them at the Bourbon Heritage Center.

My friend and I went inside the barrel-shaped tasting room at the Bourbon Heritage Center for a sampling that had the aficionados among us acting like children awaiting ice cream cake at a birthday party. Apparently, they had already spied coveted labels like the 2002 Evan Williams single barrel vintage and 12-year-old Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Shortly into the tasting, we learned that vanilla flavor comes from the charring of the barrels, and perhaps most importantly, we learned the beauty that water brings to bourbon.

Our host warned that I was going to get “some heat”in my chest and right on cue, I started coughing. She smiled and reassured me that I didn’t have to be a bourbon sipper to enjoy it, I just needed to learn how to drink it.

Although I was having a hard time believing that, I trusted her once again when she instructed, “Add two drops of water, swish that bourbon around, mix all those molecules and now taste it.”

Confessing she loved her bourbon over crushed ice, she waited for our group to take another sip. This time, the room filled with “oohs”and “ahhs”followed by several epiphanies. Proud that the class had discovered how to enjoy her favorite beverage, she raised her glass and issued a friendly warning, “But don’t add Coke or Sprite or Red Bull to it. This is the way to drink bourbon.”

Our last stop was to Willett Distillery, located on the craft distillery trail. The family behind the bourbon here has been in the biz since the 1850s and has been an established company since 1935. The company got off track when the oil crisis hit in the 1970s and stopped distilling until the younger generation swooped in. The distillery is now home to a new 1,200 gallon pot made by Louisville’s Vendome Copper and Brass as well as a gift shop and tasting bar housed in the former distillery offices. Here we shopped and sampled until our heart’s content as we listened to the big plans on the horizon for the distillery. Be sure to stop by and meet the makers. You’ll thank us later.

KentuckyBourbonTrailLunch and a stint in nature
With enough education on color, aroma, taste and finish, we were anxious to dive into something more familiar – like shopping and food. Back in the heart of Bardstown, we stopped for lunch to meet Dzevad and Merima Kreso, a couple that fled war-torn Bosnia with their daughters in hopes of starting a new life. The community has embraced the Kreso family and the Kresos continue to say thank you through every dish that leaves their kitchens. The family owns Kreso’s Family Restaurant as well as Mozart’s and the restored Arco Theatre for bigger events. We ate so much that the only option was to walk it off around town. We strolled up and down the main street, stopping more often than not at the many shops lining both sides before finally having to bid adieu to Bardstown.

On the way back, we decided to check out a beautiful park that had captured our attention on the drive into Bardstown. The Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest was well worth our detour. Knowing it’s there, I would recommend planning to picnic here either before or after your time touring distilleries. Here you’ll find 14,500 acres including a 600-acre arboretum (Kentucky’s Official Arboretum), home to more than 6,000 labeled trees and shrubs, a fishing lake, biking, picnic facilities, and my personal favorite, 35 miles of hiking trails.

During our visit, we stood in awe at the twisting passages of North Carolina-based artist Patrick Dougherty’s stickwork installation. Using saplings and sticks woven together, Dougherty creates quasi-architectural structures that are fantastical and enticing. This one called “Snake Hollow”is a maze-like sculpture that resembles two large snakes with coiled tails. Constructed entirely out of bent and woven saplings, it took Dougherty and a crew of more than 50 volunteers to complete in April of 2012. Temporary and environmentally friendly, Snake Hollow is able to remain for two years before it starts to decompose and get recycled back into the earth as mulch for the arboretum.

We read all about him and his work until we could no longer resist walking through every looped section and snapping pictures that would ultimately help describe our outing to others.

A day trip to Bardstown was a fabulous way to end our adventures in Kentucky. We’ll be back to finish the rest of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail once we’ve had a little more time to practice sipping our bourbon over crushed ice.

Read more about Heather’s trip to Louisville’s culinary scene in the May 2014 issue