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Bardstown Bourbon Company Makes a Name for Itself in Just 4 Years
You might say that Bardstown Bourbon Company is the biggest, little distillery in the bourbon business. Driving through the knee-high corn fields that flank the road into the Bardstown Bourbon Company for the first time last year, my initial thought was, “What an impressive, modern craft distillery.”
But it’s not a craft distillery. Bardstown Bourbon Company is one of the “big boys”. Big, as in “Top 10 U.S. whiskey distillers by volume.” Big, as in custom distilling bourbon for 25 different customers using 50 different mash bills. Big, as in more than 110,000 barrels distilled per year.
The Kentucky distiller creates high-end custom rye, bourbon, and other whiskey for brands including Jefferson’s, Kentucky Owl, High West, Belle Meade, Hirsch, Calumet, James E. Pepper, Cyrus Noble, and many others through its one-of-a-kind Collaborative Distilling Program.
In addition, Bardstown Bourbon is building its own brand with several iterations, including the Fusion Series (blends of its own 3-year-old bourbon and other Kentucky bourbons, including a 13-year from an undisclosed distillery partner); the Discovery Series (blends of straight bourbons from several states); and the Collaborative Series (working with partners to age bourbon in various wine, sherry, and spirits barrels).
Bardstown Bourbon Company opened its distillery four years ago; opened Kitchen & Bar, the only full service restaurant in a distillery, two years ago; and began visitors’ tours last year.
Despite the Bardstown Bourbon Company distillery being closed to visitors because of the pandemic, I was able to tour the facility recently. Dan Callaway, Vice President of Hospitality and Product Development, was my gracious, genial, and knowledgable guide.
The main building on the 100-acre property houses the distillery, restaurant and bar, along with the visitors’ center. Sheathed in glass, stainless steel, and wood, it looks more likely to grace the cover of Architectural Digest than some industrial plant magazine.
As we walked, I asked Callaway what Master Distiller Steve Nally meant when he said Bardstown Bourbon Company wanted to be “the Napa Valley of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.”
“The modern bourbon experience. From day one we were trying to create something unique, combining that beverage, culinary, and distilling experience,” Callaway said. “Coming here, taking the tour, having a great meal, having the restaurant and bar onsite. That ‘Napafication’ is really something modern; a new approach, combining the culinary element.”
Telecommunications mogul Peter T. Loftin, who founded Bardstown Bourbon Company, died last year. But the company is still privately held.
“With the people and the management, it’s like a craft distillery. It’s hands on,” Callaway said. “We’re approachable, we’re accessible, we’re transparent. There’s no parent conglomerate. But with capacity and true volume, we’re one of the big guys.”
The collaborative business model, immediately distilling spirits for so many clients, means the company didn’t have to produce vodka or gin to make money while waiting for its own bourbon to age.
Our first stop was the distillery, where we saw the custom-built Ignition state-of-the-art computer processing system that monitors every activity and temperature in real time ranging from 32 fermentors, to two 40-foot column stills, to tracking 50 different mash bills.
At one point on the tour, we could see through a window into the retail store where Executive Chef Stu Plush was being photographed signing bottles of the Discovery Series 4 that were about to go on sale.
Why does the chef get to sign the bottles? The distillery’s Facebook page the next week explained it all: “Because (Chef Stu) developed the recipe for the new Discovery Series 4, as voted by members of the distilling, culinary, beverage, and hospitality teams.
“I am really pleased with the final product and think that the age comes through. While it is bottled at 115 proof, it is definitely something that I personally would be able to sip neat,” Plush said. “I like big bourbons and I cannot lie.”
Later, we entered a tasting lounge connected and open to the first rick house. It’s called Pete’s Place, after the late founder. The elaborately decorated room recalls touches of the Versace Mansion in Miami, which Loftin owned at one time.
Even though the pandemic is keeping visitors away for now, Callaway says the in-person experience is a big part of the company’s success.
“We try to do our tours differently than anyone else on the (Kentucky Bourbon) Trail. We don’t want that feeling of cattle just getting herded along,” Callaway said. “They’re immersive, they’re interactive. We do a ton of tastings, different distillates, different maturates. All to really separate our tours from others.”
I asked about the company’s connection to the community, since it has Bardstown in its name. “We celebrate Bardstown. We have the teams from Willett, from Maker’s, they’re in here all the time,” Callaway said. “We want to not just celebrate bourbon, but the town of Bardstown. We work community initiatives, donations, work a great deal on the tourism side. What’s good for Bardstown is good for us and we’re proud to be in the Bourbon Capital of the World.”
More than 400 vintage bourbons
Our final stop on the tour just opened three months ago: The Vintage Whiskey Library. This spectacular room is home to more than 400 bourbons ranging from a Cedar Brook handmade sourmash whiskey from 1892 and a 1916 George T. Stagg, to the just-released Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition.
Every bottle is available by the drink ($1600 for a 2 oz. pour of the Cedar Brook.) The Library room is also available for more reasonably priced bourbon flights and for 10-person dinners. “We want people to experience it,” Callaway said. “We want it to be open and available.”
On the way out, we ran into Master Distiller Nick Smith, also signing some bottles. I congratulated him on the pending release of the Discovery Series 4 and asked about business. “We were breaking bottle sales every week for two months straight (prior to closing again to the public),” Smith said.
Smith went on to say that there are still some major bourbon unicorns available, pointing to a bottle: “Think about it, that’s Discovery #1. How many other bourbons can you still get the first one in a series, off the shelf. No one.”
Next up for Bardstown Bourbon Company is the opening in June of a significant bottling facility now under construction that will allow Bardstown Bourbon Company to go “from grain to glass” right there on its property. After that, Callaway said, “It all builds to 2023 when we will release 100 percent state-distilled wheated Bardstown Bourbon.” That’s where our vision is now, getting in all 50 states and then international.”
“The most difficult thing to do in the whiskey industry is to build a brand and get your name out there,” Callaway said. “If you go into Total Wines or Liquor Barn, you’ll see hundreds of brands that are trying to make it, to cut through. We have to be unique, we have to be special, we have to make high-end bourbon.”
In just four short years, Bardstown Bourbon Company has already made a significant mark on the bourbon world. Expect even more great things to come.
Bardstown Bourbon Company By the Numbers
7,200,000 proof gallons per year
110,000 barrels per year
Top 10 U.S. Whiskey Distillers by Capacity
50 different mash bills
25 custom distilling customers
Sits on 100 acres of active farmland
8 rick houses, aging more the 25,000 barrels
“World’s Top Whiskey Taster”
Bardstown Bourbon Company just wrapped up a major marketing effort, the “World’s Top Whiskey Taster” contest, by giving Connecticut’s Matt Porter the inaugural title.
Earlier this year, the company asked for videos from potential contestants and got 400 entries. First came 10 regional competitions (based on the 10 states where Bardstown Bourbon Company products are available). Then the 10 finalists came to Bardstown to take on 4 additional challenges based on sensory evaluations, whiskey blending, and culinary pairing.
Judges included Steve Nally, Bardstown Bourbon Company Master Distiller; Peggy Noe Stevens, the first female Master Bourbon Taster; and Colin Blake, Director of Spirits Education at Moonshine University.
Bourbon Hall-of-Famer Nally said this about the finalists: “They’ve got to be able to prove to themselves, ‘I do know what I’m doing. I’ve gotten this far by knowing what I’m doing and I’m going to do my best to get to the end of it.’”
Challenge #3, called “The Perfect Pair,” gave each contestant a dish representative of their hometown and asked them to pick a bourbon pairing and defend it to Peggy Noe Stevens. While others got things like breaded pork tenderloin, pit barbecue, and Nashville Hot Chicken, Stevens told Matt Porter, “I’ve got to tell you, this is a tough one…white clam pizza.”
Porter admitted, “I’ve never had a white clam pizza, but when I saw ‘white pizza’ I immediately thought it was going to be light on flavor.” His winning recommendation: Maker’s Mark.
“This has been an incredible journey for all of us here at Bardstown Bourbon Company,” national brand ambassador Sam Montgomery told the finalists. “It’s the first ever competition of its kind. And just having all of you here has been awesome and fun for all of us. We really hope you guys have made friends over drinking bourbon and continue those relationships for life. That’s what this is all about.”
“It (the contest) was a way we found to connect with people,” VP of Hospitality and Product Development Dan Callaway told me. “The more people we can reach and tell them about what we do, the better.”
During our visit, I chided Dan about having a worldwide contest that included only 10 states. He admitted the contest would grow as Bardstown Bourbon moves into 13 more states next year. He even offered, “Next year, if someone from France wants to submit, let’s do it.”
Porter’s bourbon booty includes a $20,000 check, a contract to serve as a Distillery Ambassador for the Bardstown Kentucky distillery, and a scholarship to attend the Executive Bourbon Steward certification program at Moonshine University.
You can watch a short video on the final contest here.