Nestled in the heart of Kentucky, Bardstown is known as the “Bourbon Capital of the World” and is a must-visit destination for bourbon enthusiasts. The town’s rich history, culture and tradition surrounding bourbon make it a top travel destination for those looking to explore the roots of America’s native spirit.
From world-renowned distilleries and tasting rooms to food and bourbon pairing experiences, Bardstown has something for every bourbon lover. In this guide, we’ll explore the best bourbon-related activities in Bardstown, share tips for planning the perfect bourbon-themed trip, and give recommendations for the best places to stay and eat while in town. So grab your glass, let’s dive into the world of Bardstown bourbon tourism!
Bardstown was founded in 1780 as settlers were moving west after the Revolutionary War. That’s 12 years before Kentucky officially became a state! With a population now just under 50,000, the county seat of Nelson County is thriving with bourbon tourism. And there’s a good reason for that.
With 11 major distilleries within 16 miles of its Courthouse Square, Bardstown is the perfect destination for bourbon enthusiasts. It’s also a great place for history buffs, boutique shoppers, foodies, festival-goers and more, and to add to its resumé, it was named “The Most Beautiful Small Town in America” in 2012 by Rand McNally and USA Today.
The History and Culture of Bourbon in Bardstown
So how did Bardstown earn the name of “Bourbon Capital of the World”?
For a long period of time, Bardstown was home to the most distilleries per capita out of any other city in Kentucky. And some of these Bardstown-area distilleries are the most well-known and historic ones in the state, including Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Barton 1792 and Heaven Hill. These bourbon mainstays were operating long before there was city infrastructure like electricity and water lines, so it was important that they were located near a viable source of water and a path well-traveled. And lucky for them, Bardstown checks both of those boxes.
Maker’s Mark, located in Loretto, Ky., is just a few winding miles southeast from Bardstown (17 to be exact), and it lays claim to being one of the oldest distilleries in the region. The distillery was built next to Hardin’s Creek (there’s that important water source we told you about) in 1805 by Charles Burks. After his death in 1831, his family kept the facility going as the Burks Spring Distillery, but it was shut down during Prohibition and then sold to a local farmer.
In 1953, Bill Samuels Sr. bought the property for $50,000 to restore the site’s distilling history and make his mark on the bourbon industry with a wheated bourbon recipe he’d call Maker’s Mark. And the rest, they say, is history sealed with red wax.
While Bardstown is home to some newer brands, it’s these historic bourbon behemoths that helped plant the town’s footing firmly in the industry. The James B. Beam Distillery, now located just outside of Bardstown in Clermont, has ties to Nelson County as early as 1854, about 50 years after farmer Jacob Beam first distilled barrels of corn whiskey in 1795. The current distillery was built in 1933 as soon as Prohibition ended, and it still produces the No. 1-selling bourbon around the world, Jim Beam, as well as brands like Booker’s, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden and more.
If you’re looking for the true OG of Bardstown proper, look no further than the Barton 1792 Distillery, which was established in 1879 and is known as the oldest fully-operating distillery in Bardstown. Situated on 196 acres near the Tom Moore Spring (water!), the industrial site features 29 rick houses and 22 other buildings used for distilling, storing, dumping, etc. Unfortunately, the Barton Distillery is no longer open for tours, but you’ll be able to feel, see and smell the distillery’s presence all around Bardstown.
Finally, we’d be remiss not to mention Heaven Hill, which got its start in 1935 by the Shapira brothers who built the facility with other business partners near a spring in Bardstown. And there’s Willett Distillery as well, which sits right across the road from Heaven Hill and was founded in 1936 by Thompson Willett. Both Heaven Hill and Willett are still family-owned distilleries.
Bourbon Distilleries in Bardstown
Now that you have some historical context of bourbon in Bardstown, let’s take a look at all 11 bourbon distilleries in the area and what they offer. To keep it simple and succinct, we’ll list them in alphabetical order.
Bardstown Bourbon Company — Founded in 2014, this modern distillery offers visitors a Napa Valley-style experience, complete with a full-service restaurant and bar, plus several tours to choose from. BBCo just released its own bourbon as part of the Origin Series, and it’s also known for the Discovery Series, Fusion Series and Collaboration Series. Tours run all throughout the morning and afternoon and feature everything from an in-depth look at distilling to thieving bourbon directly from a barrel in a rick house.
Barton 1792 — As we previously mentioned, while Barton is one of the oldest distilleries in Bardstown, it is no longer open to public tours. The Sazerac-owned facility makes 1792, Thomas S. Moore and Very Old Barton, among others.
Four Roses Warehouse & Bottling Facility — If you’re a bourbon aficionado, you surely are familiar with the Four Roses brand. While the full distillery and visitor center are located in Lawrenceburg, Ky. (about an hour from Bardstown), the Warehouse & Bottling Facility is located just a few miles away in Coxs Creek. In fact, if you take the main thoroughfare from Interstate 65 to Bardstown, you’ll pass by it. And there’s plenty to see and do here, as most of Four Roses’ single-story rick houses are located on the site, as well as a state-of-the-art bottling line and a small but welcoming visitor center. They offer two different tasting experiences and one full-blown guided tour around the campus.
Heaven Hill — Heaven Hill recently completed an expansion and renovation to its Bourbon Heritage Center, and the space now includes modern tasting rooms, a bar, an expansive gift shop, a museum, a theater and even an area where you can bottle your own bourbon. Heaven Hill’s distillery was destroyed by fire in 1996, so they now make all their bourbon and whiskey at Louisville’s Bernheim Distillery. But Bardstown has always been and will always be the home of Heaven Hill, so they’re constructing a new distillery in the area that’ll be open in the next couple of years. They offer several tasting experiences, a Bottled-in-Bond Tour inside a rick house, as well as the You Do Bourbon experience where you can bottle your own bourbon.
James B. Beam — Beam offers guests a plethora of experiences from tours and tastings to lunch at the new Kitchen Table Restaurant. With over a dozen options, you can choose from a high-end tasting of new products to a 90-minute jaunt around the historical distillery. We highly recommend stopping in for a meal at the Kitchen Table as well, and you can make reservations online.
Log Still — Log Still is one of the newest distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail®, and it’s truly an experience like no other. Located in Gethsemane, which is about 13 miles south of Bardstown, Log Still at Dant Crossing is run by members of the Dant family who trace their roots to a famous distiller who once made whiskey in Nelson County, J.W. Dant. While they don’t own that brand today, they are putting out Monk’s Road Bourbon and Rattle & Snap Tennessee Whiskey. Log Still is also home to an outdoor concert venue and wedding hall, and it will soon have a farm-to-table restaurant, a lodge, and many more amenities as well. The hour-long tour offers folks a walk-through of the new distillery and a tasting.
Lux Row — Lux Row opened in Bardstown in 2015 and has quickly become a favorite place to stop in Bourbon Country. The 18,000-square-foot facility with 10 barrel warehouses and a 43-foot copper still produces about 3 million gallons of whiskey a year for Lux Row brands like Rebel Bourbon, Ezra Brooks, David Nicholson, Daviess County, and Blood Oath. They offer both a standard 1-hour tour around the distillery that includes a tasting, or the upscale Taste of Lux Row tour features a tasting of all their products, plus a trip into a rick house to taste directly from a barrel.
Maker’s Mark — Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Ky., is definitely worth the 30-minute drive from Bardstown. The historic landmark dates back to 1805, but it’s now equipped with modern amenities, regional and national artwork, a comfy gift shop, and even a bourbon cave. Maker’s offers several tours, but its most popular is a standard walk around the campus and distillery to see how things have been done since 1953 when the Samuels took over the property. Visitors to the gift shop also have a chance to hand dip their own bourbon bottles into that signature Maker’s red wax.
Old Steelhouse Distillery — The Old Steelhouse Distillery has taken over the hallowed grounds of Bardstown’s T.W. Samuels Distillery, which dates back to 1844. Yes, the Samuels is the same family as the Maker’s Mark Samuels mentioned above, but this distillery made a completely different style of bourbon and pre-dated Maker’s Mark. Since the site had been sitting idle for more than 50 years, a lot of work has to be done still, but tours and operations should be up and running very soon. The team behind Old Steelhouse also intends on adding private cottages, a restaurant and bar, a museum and a world-class tasting room.
Preservation Distillery — Preservation Distillery & Farm is a small but mighty operation located in Bardstown. Since opening seven years ago, the distillery is the first and only 100% pot-stilled producer in Nelson County in the modern industry, and they’re known for brands like Very Old St. Nick, Rare Perfection, Pure Antique, Wattie Boone & Sons, and Cowboy. They offer three tour options from an exclusive tasting experience to a “Whiskey Walkabout” around the facility.
Willett — The well-attended Willett Distillery has been in operation since 1936 and for good reason: They make great bourbon! The scenic campus offers a handful of rick houses, the still house, a pond with a relaxing fountain, and a bustling visitor center that has a small-ish restaurant and bar on the top floor. It’s a good idea to book ahead for both a tour and a drink or snack, as this bourbon paradise fills up quickly. The tour includes a walk around the historic grounds, a little background on the Willett family and tastings, of course, of their core products like Willett Pot Still Reserve, Johnny Drum, Old Bardstown, Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, and Pure Kentucky.
And as a bonus, we’re throwing in another nearby distillery:
Limestone Branch — Founded in 2011 by brothers Stephen and Paul Beam (yes, of that Beam family), Limestone Branch is located 25 miles southeast of Bardstown in Lebanon. Yellowstone Bourbon and Minor Case Rye Whiskey are produced here, and tours are offered seven days a week. You’ll hear more about the family’s bourbon distilling heritage, see many artifacts and then get a full behind-the-scenes look at distilling, plus a tasting of course. There’s also Minor’s Lounge, which is open every day as well.
Bourbon Tour Tips
A few tips about taking tours at bourbon distilleries:
- The first and foremost rule is to ALWAYS book ahead. As Bourbon Country becomes more and more popular, these tours often sell out weeks in advance.
- The second major tip, is to always wear close-toed shoes, as sometimes you have to climb around distillery equipment or walk on grated flooring.
- Make your Bardstown bourbon experience stress free and easy, by booking a guided bourbon tour with Mint Julep Experiences. Tailor your itinerary to fit your interests, schedule and bourbon bucket list — start planning a custom bourbon tour today!
If you head to Bardstown and think you can tackle all 11 distilleries in one day, you will be sorely disappointed. We recommend you spread them out over a couple days and do various types of tours at each. For example, start at Bardstown Bourbon Company for a tour and lunch, and then head over to Lux Row for a tasting, and then end your day at Willett with another full tour. It’s best to mix and match experiences so you don’t burn out your brain or tastebuds.
Bourbon Eats in Bardstown
You may think it’s all about bourbon in Bardstown, but thankfully there are some great dining options that pair well with the native spirit. You’ll find most locally-owned Bardstown restaurants have some tie-in with bourbon, and some even offer bourbon-themed menus.
We have to start with the most famous restaurant in town, which is located in a building that has been called the oldest Western stagecoach stop in America. The Old Talbott Tavern has been providing shelter, food and fine Kentucky bourbon to tourists and locals alike since the late 1700s, and while you’re dining for lunch or dinner, you can check out lots of artifacts from its sordid (and haunted) history.
If you’re looking for a farm-to-table experience with amazing bourbon cocktails and a welcoming environment, you’ve gotta check out the newly renovated Toogie’s Table, which is situated next door to the new Bardstown Motor Lodge (more on that below). The building dates back to 1937, when it opened as Kurtz Restaurant and was run for many years by the venerable Marilyn “Toogie” Dick. The new owners of the motel and restaurant named it in her honor. The kitchen integrates the rich history of the property with present-day culinary flair.
There’s also The Rickhouse Restaurant & Lounge, which offers up more than 150 bourbons on the bar menu, along with Southern-style fare from barbecue chicken to burgers, steak and pasta. They also put a spin on the Kentucky-invented Hot Brown, which is savory, rich and oh-so decadent.
A few other restaurants not to miss on the Bardstown bourbon trail include the Kitchen & Bar at Bardstown Bourbon Company, which offers a full array of Southern-style sandwiches and entrees, plus amazing barrel-aged Old Fashioneds and Manhattans; the Bardstown staple Mammy’s Kitchen & Bar, which serves up home-cooked fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner; Scout & Scholar Brewery, which offers a wide array of beers brewed onsite, a reputable bourbon list, and delicious fare that’ll pair with both beer and bourbon; and Bourbon Brick Oven & Grill, offering delicious pizza in a casual environment with a bourbon flair.
Other Bourbon-Related Activities in Bardstown
This will come as no surprise, but Bardstown is also home to many bourbon attractions like the Oscar Getz Museum, the world-renowned Kentucky Bourbon Festival, and My Old Kentucky Home State Park, to name a few.
The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History features a 50-year collection of rare whiskey artifacts dating from pre-colonial days to post-Prohibition days. The hundreds of pieces include rare antique bottles, a moonshine still, advertising art, novelty whiskey containers, and much more. The museum, located inside Spalding Hall, also shares space with the Bardstown Historical Museum, which showcases 200 years of history.
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival began in 1991 as a bourbon tasting and dinner among fellow distillers and fans of the spirit, and it now attracts hundreds each year for a three-day festival in September. From tastings to interview sessions to bourbon artwork, this festival is the place to be for any and all bourbon aficionados. It takes place on the Spalding Hall lawn.
The farm that inspired the imagery in Stephen Collins Foster’s song “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night,” which is sung before the Kentucky Derby, has been turned into a state park that offers daily tours of the historic site. The structure, which was built between 1812 and 1818, was originally called Federal Hill. And the My Old Kentucky Home State Park also serves as a place for events, weddings, meetings and more.
If you’re interested in exploring more of that same history, you can check out “The Stephen Foster Story,” which is Kentucky’s longest-running outdoor drama. The musical features more than 50 Foster songs and is quite lively with all of its colorful period costumes and fun choreography.
And staying with the history theme, Bardstown’s Civil War Museum is the fourth largest Civil War museum in the country. It also includes the Women of the Civil War Museum, which depicts the achievements of women during the war and throughout the 1800s. The exhibits combined take up more than 8,000 square feet.
If you’re a train lover, Bardstown has two options for you. The Kentucky Railway Museum is located in town and features hundreds of rail equipment and artifacts on display. You can also take a train ride through Kentucky with themes that range from Train Robbery to Christmas Trains. The second train highlight is the My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, which includes an upscale meal while you roll through the Bardstown countryside and beyond. There’s a lunch excursion, a dinner event, and even a bourbon-themed train ride.
If you’re shopping for bourbon-related souvenirs in Bardstown, just head toward the Courthouse Square where you’ll find all kinds of locally-owned boutiques, gift shops, pubs and restaurants. Artists Barrel on North Third Street, which sells hand-crafted pieces from local artists, is a shop not to miss!
Accommodations in Bardstown
Bardstown has an array of hotels and lodging opportunities for those looking to visit the Bardstown bourbon trail. Of course there are your chain hotels like the Fairfield Inn by Marriott, Holiday Inn and La Quinta, but we’ll focus on the more unique options for your stay.
We previously mentioned the Talbott Tavern, which is connected to the infamous Talbott Inn. The historic inn has welcomed many famous guests during its time, including Abe Lincoln, Stephen Collins Foster and outlaw Jesse James, who left two bullet holes in the wall that are still visible today. The rooms are quaint, and some say they’ve experienced friendly ghosts who might be after your bourbon while you sleep.
There’s also the newly opened Bardstown Motor Lodge, which is next to Toogie’s Table mentioned above. This mid-century-inspired boutique hotel offers modern rooms with welcoming outdoor spaces, fire pits, a swimming pool, a poolside bar and a retro-style rec room.
If you prefer going the B&B or Airbnb route, there are many options in Bardstown for those as well. The Bourbon Manor B&B is one of the first bourbon-themed B&Bs in the state, and it offers 10 spacious rooms perfect for people traveling along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail®. The building is on the National Historic Registry but offers modern amenities like whirlpool tubs, a spa, an onsite bourbon bar and, of course, a full country breakfast served daily.
Other notable Bardstown B&Bs and Airbnb vacation rentals are the Jailer’s Inn B&B in downtown; The Samuels House, a historic home that has been in the Samuels (Maker’s Mark) family for eight generations; The Homestead B&B, which is located at Dant Crossings/Log Still Distillery; Springhill Plantation Winery & B&B; the Huston House; and the AirBourbon & Branch near downtown, among others.
There’s no doubt that Bardstown is a great destination for bourbon tourism. With 11 distillery experiences within 30 miles of the town center, it’s no wonder it’s named “The Bourbon Capital of the World.” From OG distilleries like Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark to modern facilities like Bardstown Bourbon Company and Log Still Distillery, Bardstown offers up the full spectrum of Kentucky bourbon distilleries.
Remember to give yourself a few days of exploring all Bardstown has to offer, and always book ahead. We have no doubt Bardstown’s small-town charm will lure you into a good time. Go ahead and book that bourbon-soaked trip to visit Bardstown — request a custom tour quote and craft your own itinerary.
About The Author
Sara Havens has been a bourbon enthusiast and educator long before the boom began. As a Louisville-based writer, her work has appeared in various national and regional publications, including Bourbon+ Magazine, The Bourbon Review, Alcohol Professor and Food & Dining Magazine. In 2020, Havens was one of 10 finalists in the World’s Top Whiskey Taster competition held by the Bardstown Bourbon Co., beating out more than 400 contenders to represent the Kentucky region. She maintains her own website, barbellelou.com, covering the bourbon industry and local nightlife scene, and in her down time, you can find her leading tours along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® for Mint Julep Experiences.