Like sentinels watching over a village, warehouses filled to the rafters with Kentucky Bourbon barrels surround Bardstown — the Bourbon Capital of the World. With its three distilleries, Bardstown is the hub of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and folks here are anxious for their guests 12 Bartonto understand what makes bourbon bourbon — from distillery tours, bourbon tastings and the annual Bourbon Festival held every September.

Bourbon history

Bardstown and Kentucky Bourbon’s history closely follows each other. Settled 12 years before Kentucky became a state in 1792, Bardstown reflects the western migration after the Revolutionary War. 

During the same timeframe, farmers found getting their crops to market over makeshift roads and mountainous passes an overwhelming task. They soon learned that converting corn and other grains to whiskey made them easily transportable, prevented the excess grain from spoiling, and gave them some 6 Willettwelcome diversion from the rough life of the frontier. In fact the word bourbon comes from one of the three original counties in Kentucky, established in 1785 when Kentucky was still part of Virginia. When farmers shipped their whiskey, the oak barrels were stamped Bourbon County.

As the barrels made their way down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, the whiskey aged and the oak wood gave it the distinct flavor and amber color.

It didn’t take long for the whiskey from Bourbon County to grow in popularity and become known as Bourbon whiskey.

How is bourbon distilled?

There are three distilleries in Bardstown: Barton 1792 Distillery, Heaven Hill and Willett Distillery. All three, in their own right, tell the story of 11 Bartonhow bourbon became an important Kentucky export to other parts of the nation and the world. It has been reported that 97 percent of all bourbon is distilled and aged near Bardstown.

By definition, bourbon must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn; aged in new, charred-oak barrels; distilled to no more than 160 proof and bottled (like other whiskeys) at 80 proof or more.

The variations in product come from recipes. After corn, what grain goes into the other 49 percent of the mix? How long is the barrel charred before it’s used? How long is the bourbon stored in the barrel before its bottled? All these factors go into the taste, price and brand of bourbon.

9 Barton The process begins by measuring and grinding the grain — corn, rye, barley and wheat. Add iron-free water that has been filtered through the high concentrations of limestone that is unique to the area. This step is often touted by bourbon distillers in Kentucky as a signature step in the bourbon-making process.

Cook the mixture for about a half hour until it becomes a hot mixture called a mash. Allow it to cool down so it won’t kill the yeast cells. Bubbling alcoholic ferments the yeast and converts the sugar into alcohol and CO2. The fermentation usually lasts three days. The mixture is then distilled.

Finally the clear liquid is put into new charred oak barrels for aging during which time it gains color and flavor from the caramelized sugars in the charred wood. Changes to the spirit also occur due to evaporation and chemical processes such as oxidation. Bourbons gain more color and flavor the longer they mature. 35 Heaven HillMaturity, not a particular age, is the goal.

It is estimated there are 4.9 million barrels of bourbon currently aging in the state of Kentucky. There’s actually more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than residents.

Although each tour is a little different, the process is the same. And at the end of each tour visitors are invited to sample the distillery’s product.

Other Bardstown Attractions

In addition to bourbon, Bardstown is the home of My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Judge John Rowan and his wife Ann Lytle Rowan built “Federal Hill,” the mansion that is said to   57 Old KY Homehave inspired his cousin Stephen Foster to write the song “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Wickland, Home of Three Governors, also is open for tour. Considered one of the best Federal-style houses in Kentucky, it was built circa 1825-1828. Exhibits focus on the three governors and the Civil War.

The Old Talbott Tavern, built in 1779, is another famous landmark located just off the Courthouse Square in the center of town. Several notables including Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone were patrons here.

From the courthouse north along 3rd Street are several shops and boutiques filled with unusual treasures. At Mary’s Art and Antiques, Shaq & 81 Train Ride 2CoCo, and Hurst Soda Fountain and Gifts are excellent examples of fun shopping here.

Further north on 3rd Street you’ll find the train depot and My Old Kentucky Dinner Train.  Along with the beautiful scenery, guests are served a gourmet meal.

Bardstown also offers several other historic attractions including an excellent Civil War museum and a historic village.

If you go:

Where to eat:

On the east side of the square is Circa Restaurant tucked into the town’s oldest stone house, built around 1780. Menu items include Steak au Poivze, Bourbon Lacquered Short Ribs and Almond Crusted Snapper. 103 E. Stephen Foster Avenue; 502-348-5409;

Kreso’s Family Restaurant & Mozart Café is an upbeat destination specializing in hearty Bosnian food including schnitzel and goulash as well as chicken, steak and pasta specialties. 218 N. Third Street; 502-348-9594;

For lunch, Hurst Soda Fountain is a good choice. 102 N. Third Street; 502-348-9261.

77 B&BWhere to Stay:

Beautiful Dreamer Bed and Breakfast is located right across the street from My Old Kentucky Home. Hosts Dan and Lynell Ginter offer four beautifully appointed rooms, three with Jacuzzis, and a full breakfast. 440 E. Stephen Foster Avenue; 502-348-4004 or 800-811-8312;

For more information on bourbon tours and attractions:

Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist & Convention Commission; 502-348-4877 or 800-638-4877;