Exploring the people, places, and pastimes that
celebrate bourbon, America's native spirit
Bill and Chad’s Excellent Adventure at
Bardstown Bourbon Company
Co-founders Bill Varnell and Chad Cadden made the trek to the Bourbon Capital of the World from WBSE World Headquarters in Pennsylvania. I was fortunate to join the pair for the inaugural online event that night. We got to talk and taste with John Hargrove, Chief Operating Officer at Bardstown Bourbon Company, along with Nicholas Lewis, the company’s General Manager for the Mid-Atlantic.
Bourbon Spirit profiled Bardstown Bourbon Company in the January issue of Whiskey Network Magazine. This company has since become a sponsor of the magazine.
We arrived at the Bardstown 100-acre site in late morning rain. Our full day included lunch, a tour with the head distiller, thieving bourbon directly from a couple of barrels, checking out the Vintage Bourbon Library, having small bites and bourbon pairings with the Executive Chef, and meeting with a wide array of the interesting people who are helping put this young company on the bourbon world map.
“Our experience today was phenomenal,” Varnell said during the live event that evening. “We’ve seen a bunch of distilleries. I’ve always said if you’ve seen one distillery, you’ve seen them all. I changed my mind today…it was exceptional, introspective, and completely different from what I expected.”
In less than five years, Bardstown Bourbon Company has grown to be the seventh largest whiskey producer by volume with its three different series, Fusion (60 percent Bardstown Bourbon blended with sourced bourbons), Discovery (various blended sourced bourbons), and Collaborative (finished bourbons in wine barrels).
Collaboration is the word
Cadden noted that we had heard the word “collaboration” more than once during our visit that day.
“Our main focus here at Bardstown Bourbon Company is collaborating with other distillers, other brewers, other wine makers,” Hargrove said. “That’s the core of our business model. That’s what’s really allowed us to take off and become one of the top 10 distilleries from a production capacity standpoint since 2016.” The company is on track to produce 115,000 barrels of spirits this year.
Bardstown Bourbon Company creates high-end custom bourbon, rye, and other whiskies for brands including Jefferson’s, Kentucky Owl, High West, Belle Meade, Hirsch, Calumet, James E. Pepper, Cyrus Noble, and many others.
The distillery now has 32 customers in its collaborative distilling program, utilizing more than 50 customized mash bills for their products. That customization is key. “From grain procurement, to barrel procurement, to blending and aging,” Hargrove said. “We invite the teams that we partner with to come in and work side-by-side with our team from brand development to product development, all the way to finished product out the door.”
A New Blend of Bourbon Makers
Bardstown Bourbon Company is doing some exciting and unique things blending its own bourbon with some of the top whiskeys out there. Before we began the tasting, Hargrove talked about their new approach to the concept of blending.
“Traditionally, blending has had a bad name in the bourbon industry,” Hargrove said. “But these three products you have in front of you really showcase our blending capabilities, with stuff coming out of our distillery, stuff we’re sourcing out on the open markets across the United States, and upcoming, maybe, across the globe.”
“We really want to give blending in the bourbon category a different mindset,” Hargrove said. “When people think about blending with Canadian whisky, Scotches…we really want to change what that typically means.”
Hargrove finished, “While we honor the tradition of bourbon, we’re also pushing that envelope.”
The Napa Valley of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Bardstown Bourbon Company opened the first full-service restaurant and bar at a Kentucky distillery more than two years ago. The company places equal emphasis on distilling, beverage, culinary, and the visitors’ experience. People here like to call this their attempt to become “the Napa Valley of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.”
Hargrove said, “As soon as you walk in, whether you just want to come in for a tour, whether you want to sit down and have a nice dinner or lunch, sit on the patio and have a cigar, or go thief from a barrel, we have something for any type of fan that’s on the bourbon trail.”
“It all comes back to talent acquisition and the team and culture you build here at the facility. If you get that right, it’s pretty easy to put out some amazing products,” Hargrove said.
A Special Day of Great Food and Bourbon
Our day started in the Kitchen & Bar for lunch with Vice President of Brand Sales and Marketing, Herb Heneman. The open, spacious room of modern glass, steel, and wood was abuzz with people, despite the 50 percent cap set by pandemic protocols.
President and CEO, Mark Erwin, stopped by our table to say hello. Heneman ducked out to host an online tasting. When he came back, he brought us pours of Bardstown Bourbon Company’s yet-to-be-released Discovery #5 series. It will include a blend of 6, 7, and 13-year-old Kentucky bourbon and a 17-year-old Tennessee bourbon.
Pro Tip: when Discovery #5 comes out in April or May, do whatever you can to get your hands on a bottle. “It is truly something special,” Cadden said. “I tasted it and it was a ‘We’re going to need a moment here,’ kind of pour.”
After lunch, we toured the distillery with the ultimate tour guide: Nick Smith, Distillery Manager and Head Distiller at Bardstown Bourbon Company. Nick has been with the company since day one, when it opened its doors with only 15 employees. Its unique and varied business model has allowed Bardstown Bourbon Company to grow and become successful in a short time.
Smith explains their approach like this: “Let’s give them a taste; that’s the Fusion Series with a little bit of the young stuff with some old stuff. Then we show our teamwork, quality, and how well we can blend with our Discovery Series. And then working with others coming out with our cool products with the barrel finishes in our Collaboration Series. We’re waiting for our Origin Series in 2023 when we’ll have that true six-year-old (Bardstown Bourbon) product.”
Vintage Whiskey Library Offers Bourbons from 1892 into the 1960s
After the tour, we stopped into the new Vintage Whiskey Library and got a chance to visit with Mark Erwin again. This spectacular and unusual room is home to more than 400 bottles of bourbon. Selections range from a Cedar Brook handmade sour-mash whiskey from 1892 and a 1916 George T. Stagg, to the recently-released Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition.
“We really wanted that room to be able to bring back those memories for people, to bring people together, to have that wide selection,” Hargrove said during the tasting. “What a great experience to be able to go in there. If those bottles could tell a story, we’d be in there for a very long time.”
Hargrove noted that by-the-drink options from bottles on the library shelves range from a $6 Old Charter to a $2500 1973 16-year Pappy Family Reserve in the Vintage Whiskey Library.
Bourbon and Bites with Chef Stu
Later, we found our way back to the Vintage Whiskey Library to partake in a food and whiskey pairing called Bourbon and Bites. Executive Chef Stu Plush guided us through food pairings with two bourbons and a Kentucky rye.
The food and bourbon pairings were amazing. It was great to hear Chef Stu’s take on how and why each of them came together. They included a seared scallop in butternut squash puree paired with Fusion Series #4 bourbon; lamb kofta (like a kebab without the skewer) with capriole farm goat cheese paired with Kentucky Owl Straight Rye; and grilled hanger steak on a corn cake with kimchi and fig BBQ sauce paired with Discovery Series #4. Absolutely delicious.
In a nod to the company’s wholistic approach, Chef Stu actually developed the blending recipe for the recently released Discovery Series 4 that we tasted that night. Members of the distilling, culinary, beverage, and hospitality teams voted on his blend.
You can book your own Bourbon and Bites here.
Tasting Times Three
While we sampled some wonderful whiskies throughout the day, as night fell it was time for the official online tasting event with Hargrove and Lewis. (See Tasting Thoughts below.)
We wrapped up our day in Pete’s Place, a tasting lounge that views a rick house through a wall of glass. It’s named for the company’s late founder, Peter Loftin. The room displays touches of the Versace Mansion in Miami, which Loftin owned at one time.
Cadden recounted the events of the day to Hargrove: “Right away, it was just a truly exceptional experience. From sitting down in the restaurant and having lunch to doing the tour which was immersed with information. We did a little thieving back here in the rick house, and then Chef Stu’s Bourbon and Bites. It was absolutely amazing. I totally get what you’re going for with the Napa Valley Experience on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.”
Varnell summarized his take on our day this way: “It’s an experience that I’ll remember forever. I think anyone that’s listening tonight, any of our (WBSE) members that wants to experience one of the best experiences on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, needs to come to Bardstown Bourbon Company.”
Cadden ended the live tasting event with his familiar closing remarks: “Remember, open those bottles. Share a pour. Create a memory. Cheers everybody.”
Bardstown Bourbon Company will host an online tasting event for WBSE members. Twenty members were randomly chosen to receive home sample tasting kits before the event. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter at the bottom of the page to enter.
Tasting Thoughts on the First Sample: Fusion #4
Hargrove: “What this expression allows us to do is highlight the really bright notes of the 3 and 4 year, and really give it some legs with the older Kentucky straight bourbon. One, it showcases the juice we’re getting ready to come out in the market, our 100 percent Bardstown Bourbon. Two, it showcases our blending capabilities.”
Varnell: “You were spot on with the adjective 'brightness.' The nose is just super bright.”
Cadden: “You’re getting a lot of the cherries, the vine fruits, the viscosity is beautiful. It’s a very well-balanced bourbon.”
Tasting Thoughts on the Second Sample: Discovery #4
Cadden: “This Discovery Series #4 is honestly a breathtaking pour. It’s something I have at my house. I think I have two bottles at my house now. The flavor profile, the viscosity, and mouth feel are just absolutely wicked insane.”
Hargrove: “I think it’s a drink that makes people curious about what’s going on: ‘This isn’t my Dad’s traditional bourbon.’ This is really cool and innovative and there’s a lot going on.”
Tasting Thoughts on the Third Sample: Collaborative Series Phifer Pavitt Cabernet Finnish II
Lewis: “We take those barrels, within minutes of them being dumped out, ask them to Saran wrap them, basically seal them. Not washing them out, leaving that wine in the wood because we want those flavors in our whiskey. They travel by refrigerated truck from California to Kentucky, and we fill them as soon as they get off the truck.”
Hargrove: “We really want to capture all that flavor that’s really going to shine through when we’re finishing our whiskies.”
From the Online Tasting:
Fusion Series #4
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Description: The latest series, Fusion #4, showcases the fusion between exemplary 13-year-old sourced bourbon with our own carefully-selected mashbills. As we grow, our bourbon ages — a difference you can taste with each fusion release.
Tasting Notes: A complex bouquet of apricot, black cherry, and cinnamon meet the oak and smoke of 13-year Kentucky bourbon. Rich maple and toffee coat the palate and lead to a lasting, hazelnut finish.
BBC 3 and 4 year, KY 13 year bourbons
94.9 Proof / 75ml / $59.99
Discover Series #4
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Description: The unifying concept in Discovery Series #4 is three aged bourbons blended to create a smooth and unique expression.
Tasting notes: Waves of caramel and baking spice meet depths of oak and smoke. Dried figs and dates round out this complex, aged Kentucky bourbon. On the palate, lively bursts of fruit and spice evolve into an enduring, balanced finish.
KY 10, 13, and 15 year bourbons
115 Proof /750ml / $129.99
Phifer Pavitt Cabernet Finish II
Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Phifer Pavitt Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Barrels
Description: Exceptional 10-year-old Tennessee straight bourbon whiskey. Polished in decadent Phifer Pavitt Reserve Cabernet barrels from Napa Valley for 18 months.
Tasting Notes: Deep, indulgent notes of dark chocolate, cassis, and caramel envelop this extraordinary pour.
TN 10 year bourbon
100 Proof / 750ml / $124.99