Kentucky is known for its bourbon, and probably nowhere in the state is there more of it than in Bardstown, the self-described Bourbon Capital of the World.
There are 11 bourbon distilleries within 16 miles of downtown Bardstown, located about 55 miles southwest of Frankfort, the capital. The state’s second-oldest city, Bardstown is the seat of Nelson County, where nearly 3 million barrels of bourbon are aging.
Federal law requires that bourbon be made in the U.S., consist of at least 51% corn and be aged in new, charred oak containers, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That recipe makes bourbon distinctive from other American whiskeys. Consumer interest in bourbon has soared in recent years, and in 2020, more than 28 million 9-liter cases of American whiskey (mostly bourbon) were sold in the United States, generating over $4.3 billion in revenue for distillers.
As a result of the increased interest, new companies have built distilleries and established brands have expanded operations, says Sen. Jimmy Higdon (R), whose district includes Bardstown. He says visitors to Bardstown are immersed in the culture of bourbon as soon as they drive into town, passing fields of corn, smelling the mash cooking—“the best aromatherapy ever”—and seeing dozens of warehouses storing barrels aging the bourbon.
“In Bardstown you can touch, taste, smell and see the lifespan of bourbon from field to bottle,” Higdon says.
“As the Napa Valley of the bourbon industry, we are the epicenter of all things bourbon.”
—Kentucky Sen. Jimmy Higdon
In September, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival attracts thousands of bourbon enthusiasts to Bardstown. “I enjoy this event because I not only get to visit with my friends in the distillery business, but I meet people internationally and get to enlighten them about bourbon and its significance to Bardstown and the entire state of Kentucky,” Higdon says.
For nonenthusiasts, Bardstown has other appeal. It was named “The Most Beautiful Small Town in America” in 2012 by USA Today and Rand McNally. “They said Bardstown was beautiful on the inside and out, meaning the people of Bardstown had passion and pride for their community,” Higdon says. “They said that was a big factor in their decision.”
Three hundred buildings in the Bardstown area are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and nearly 200 of them are in the downtown district. Higdon says Bardstown was one of the first cities in Kentucky to adopt historic preservation guidelines. Visitors can stroll tree-lined streets, shop in boutiques or dine at restaurants ranging from an old-fashioned soda fountain to upscale dining venues.
Higdon says visitors also should make time for My Old Kentucky Home State Park, which includes Federal Hill, the house that inspired Stephen Collins Foster’s famous song “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!” The park hosts a variety of outdoor musicals, including “The Stephen Foster Story,” a long-running drama inspired by the composer. Bardstown’s Civil War Museum is the fourth-largest of its kind in the nation. And people can hike or bike the trails at the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest or golf at one of many 18-hole courses in the area.
It is mostly about the bourbon, though.
“As the Napa Valley of the bourbon industry,” Higdon says, “we are the epicenter of all things bourbon.”
Bardstown is represented in the House by Chad McCoy (R).
“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from high-profile events and destinations to the fun facts only the locals know. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelancer.