GOURMET HIGHWAY: Bardstown, Bourbon Capital of the World

Bardstown Most Beautiful City2

By Doc Lawrence –

Bardstown is beautiful any time of year
Bardstown is beautiful any time of year

BARDSTOWN, Kentucky- Not long after leaving this beautiful city, I heard the news that Phil Everly died. As half of the Everly Brothers who inspired the Beatles, Linda Ronstadt, Simon and Garfunkel and many others who recorded their songs and emulated their vocal alchemy, their roots and accents were vintage Kentucky and their songs about the Bluegrass State gently resonate. Kentucky, home to Bourbon, Bill Monroe, the Clooney family, Hollywood’s Jennifer Lawrence and Johnny Depp and the great journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, is a mosaic of sights, sounds, talents and flavors. The spiritual epicenter of all this could be Bardstown. With very little effort, a visitor here can learn much about traditions that run deep.

Hunter S. Thompson remains a revolutionary force in journalism
Hunter S. Thompson remains a revolutionary force in journalism

This city of around 15,000 has a big presence in the tourism limelight. Bardstown has The Abbey of Gethsemeni, the final resting place of Thomas Merton, the Stephen Foster-themed My Old Kentucky Home and rightfully calls itself the Bourbon Capital of the world. USA Today selected it as the most beautiful small town in America. For those who enjoy history, tradition, cultural heritage and hospitality served by thoroughly friendly residents accompanied by a glass of 100-proof Bourbon, Bardstown is waiting for you.

Kentucky claims celebrities and many other prominent figures in history and today’s cultural landscape. With the Civil War Sesquicentennial in high gear, Kentucky reminds the nation that Abraham Lincoln and Confederate president Jefferson Davis were native sons. Bardstown’s Civil War Museum of the Western Theater ranks with the best anywhere in the country. The magnificent facility is brilliantly curated and staffed by professionals. It is the fourth-largest Civil War Museum in the United States and the only museum dedicated to the women of the Civil War.

Lodging in Bardstown mixes heritage with comfort. Colonel Michael and Margaret Sue Master’s circa 1787 Kentucky Bourbon House on the old courthouse circle in downtown Bardstown provides hospitality emblematic of Kentucky’s tradition of elegant

Jazz interpretations by Rosemary Clooney blend well with Kentucky Bourbon
Jazz interpretations by Rosemary Clooney blend well with Kentucky Bourbon

living. A descendant of Daniel Boone and a member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, the Colonel made me feel right at home with anecdotes, genuine charm and a fine Old Fashioned cocktail skillfully made with his recipe.

Bardstown’s small family-owned Willett Distillery welcomes visitors to observe the entire production process ending with a tasting of small batch Bourbon and Rye. Tasting and tours here can go on for as long as a stranger can stand, but it was time for dinner. Circa Restaurant is located just around the corner from the Colonel’s Bourbon House. Dining in this luxuriously decorated facility merited an aperitif: another version of a well-crafted Old Fashioned.

Bourbon is the foundation of all good things in Bardstown
Bourbon is the foundation of all good things in Bardstown

Bourbon enlightenment is part of the Bardstown experience. Multi-generational family owned and operated Heaven Hill Distilleries with its Bourbon Heritage Center offers a varied menu of fascinating tours. It was in the barrel-shaped tasting room I learned from the eloquent Bill Renner about the vital role of Master Distiller Parker Beam in creating the distinctive Bourbons being poured, part of a heritage from early America. The taste thrill of Bourbon is surely steeped in our country’s history.

Bardstown is much more than a beautiful small town. Civic pride and visionary leadership propels the showcasing of its cultural heritage. The downtown arts center was only a short distance and the Christmas concert in the Basilica of St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral was a musical production combining New and Old World choral arrangements. Under street lamps beside storefronts, brass bands played music of the season. Good cheer flowed.

Colonel Michael Martin offers a toast to guests at his Kentucky Bourbon House in Bardstown
Colonel Michael Masters offers a toast to guests at his Kentucky Bourbon House in Bardstown

Enjoying Bardstown’s attractions will stimulate the appetite and finding wonderful food is easy. Lunch at Kurtz Restaurant included savory butterbean soup followed by homemade lemon meringue pie, a house specialty. A Saturday afternoon in Bardstown almost requires an hour or two at the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace where you might find a local bank executive tending bar. It combines a gift shop with a high-energy tasting room where there was proof that Bourbon is a liquid gateway to new friendships.

The Rickhouse Restaurant in Bardstown’s Spalding Hall features over 100 Bourbons at the bar. Live music and warm ambience fueled by Bourbon cocktails set the stage for a Kentucky gourmet adventure of beef, pork, fish or fowl. Fresh is an important part of the restaurant vernacular here. And with a full wine list, you can order an exceptional Malbec to accompany that filet mignon.

Just outside Bardstown is the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery and final resting place of Thomas Merton. Gethsemani is the oldest operating monastery in the United States and produces legendary fruitcakes, a seasonal favorite enjoyed coast-to-coast.

Bill Renner admires his pour of fine Bourbon at Heaven Hill
Bill Renner admires his pour of fine Bourbon at Heaven Hill

Many memories beckon me back to Bardstown. Smiles come naturally to locals. The easygoing pace exists side-by-side with prosperity. Whether served as a beverage or incorporated as flavoring in creative dishes, Bourbon is omnipresent.

Bardstown, like much of Kentucky, is more than meets the eye. The spirit of pioneer America is still here. It manifests in music, art, history, hospitality and many other good things. I keep my CD’s of dear Rosemary Clooney’s wonderful songs at hand when I need spiritual revitalization. An Old Fashioned cocktail blends seamlessly with Rosemary’s smooth voice. Bourbon lingers. A few sips and suddenly the world is a much better place. After the sun sets during the colder months, nothing warms the soul better.





Doc Lawrence is a veteran travel, food, wine and spirits journalist. Contact him at: editors@docsnews.com.

2 thoughts on “GOURMET HIGHWAY: Bardstown, Bourbon Capital of the World”

  1. Great article. But of course I am a little biased, I moved to Bardstown about 20 years ago. We are affectionately known as “brought ins”. I do love my ” Most Beautiful Small Town” – thank you for visiting. I hope you can come back soon 🙂

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