Three days in Bardstown, KY

willetts distillery

bugsy walking down street in bardstown

We interrupt this beer-soaked narrative to bring you a brief tale of bourbon. Bardstown, in the heart of Kentucky bourbon country and with five distilleries of its own, is called the Bourbon Capital of the World. Even if you quit drinking bourbon in college (yep, that’s me), you’d enjoy strolling the streets of the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America.”

Campground

bugsy on picnic table at bardstown campground

bugsy at my old kentucky home campground

We stayed at a quiet, wooded campground within My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Our full-hookups site was separated from the golf course by a narrow stand of trees, and in the twilight we could cut through and go for a stroll along the cart paths. Fortunately, when we were briefly joined on our golf course walk by a skunk, Bugsy was on her leash–can you imagine living in a tiny trailer with a skunked dog? Anyway, it was a lovely place to stay; our only nitpick was that judging from the map we thought we’d be walking distance to downtown Bardstown, but since the campground is on the far end of the park, we were not.

Drinking

makers mark tasting flight

We toured one distillery, had a tasting at a second, and visited a museum at a third, but our favorite bourbony watering hole was in downtown Bardstown.

Maker’s Mark

makers mark distillery

makers mark distillery

makers mark chihuly

On our Distillery Day, we chose to tour Maker’s Mark first because it’s a short drive from the campground, and the grounds are expansive, historic, and beautiful. While waiting for our tour (we didn’t buy tickets online in advance, so had to wait about 30 minutes) we explored a bit and sampled the free bourbon coffee. The tour lasts about an hour, and takes you orally through the 150+ years of Samuels family distilling history, and physically through the different stages of bourbon distillation–which is actually a really fascinating process. We enjoyed the stories, sights, and smells, the tasting at the end (J liked the bourbon flight, I liked the bourbon bonbon), and the surprise Chihuly installation covering the ceiling of a hallway in the barrel room. It was a great introduction to the Bardstown bourbon scene.

Willett Distillery

willetts distillery

willetts bourbon tasting

Stop 2 was at nearby Willett, where we missed the last tour of the day, but the staff graciously poured us a private tasting from four different bottles. It was fun trying to find the “floral nose” and “notes of citrus” and acting like we knew what we were talking about. And then once you think you have a bourbon’s flavors figured out, you add a little water and the whole flavor profile shifts. It’s pretty cool, except I don’t particularly like drinking straight bourbon, so there’s that. Fortunately, in my role as DD, I could only take dainty sips. Is it any wonder that my favorite of the bourbons was described as the “beginner’s bourbon”?

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center

daniel boone quote

Our last stop of Distillery Day was at the Heaven Hill Distillery Bourbon Heritage Center. This is not a distillery but rather a visitors center / museum / tasting room. They offer a couple “tours,” which is really just a guided walk through the gallery exhibits and then a tasting in a room shaped like a giant barrel, but again we missed the last one of the day. We spent some time with the interesting historical exhibits and then headed home, just down the road.

Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace Bourbon-Tasting Bar

bourbon cocktails at kentucky bourbon marketplace tasting bar

Strolling the streets of downtown Bardstown, the small Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace shop caught our attention, and we bought a few gifts there. It’s a sweet little shop, but our favorite thing about it was the Bourbon-Tasting Bar just across the hall. We started both of our Bardstown evenings there, asking the knowledgable bartender all sorts of newbie bourbon questions and taking his recommendations on the cocktails he should make us. On our first visit, we had an old fashioned (J) and a whiskey sour (me) and we both really enjoyed our drinks. When we returned the next day, I tried an old fashioned and J tried a tasting flight, and they were too much for both of us. It’s a low-key (at least at the beginning of the night) bar with just a few tables and a patio out back, and upstairs is a B&B where we thought we’d like to stay if we return to Bardstown without a rolling house.

Eating

Our first stop in Bardstown after we parked our home and set out to explore on foot was lunch at Mammy’s Kitchen, which we chose because it has a dog-friendly patio. The food was simple, not terribly healthy Southern cooking, and the portions were fairly small, but we were grateful to be able to sit down for lunch with Bugsy in tow.

harrison-smith house bardstown menu

That night, we had an amazing dinner at the Harrison-Smith House, phenomenal Southern-leaning dishes and inventive cocktails, using local and seasonal ingredients. They have a big, beautiful patio, but as we had no reservations and were happy to be stuck at any table anywhere, we sat indoors. Service was attentive and the food was so good that we wondered if we should have dinner there again the next night–until we learned the restaurant would be closed so everyone could go work a catering gig at a private party at Maker’s Mark. Now that’s a fancy party.

empty plates at the rickhouse bardstown

For a Distillery Day appetizer before going home for dinner and campground lounging, we stopped into the highly-regarded Rickhouse Restaurant steakhouse. We had top-notch bruschetta (and reduced-speed service) in the dark, interesting underground bar in the basement of a big old brick building that was once a boys’ school. Before I could get out my phone to take a picture, we had scarfed the entire dish down.

We were excited to visit the Bardstown Farmers Market on Saturday morning, but alas, when we arrived 40 minutes before the end of the market, the only vendors remaining were selling flowers. This was the beginning of our “you just missed it” Saturday after a leisurely brunch at home (see tardiness at Willett and Heaven Hill above).

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