Ireland has her whiskey, France her brandy, Mexico her tequila, England her gin. And America? Well, we have our bourbon. A unique spirit with roots in the rolling, verdant hills of Kentucky, bourbon is America’s only indigenous liquor. Born from a distinctive blend of sweet, golden corn, pure spring water, and the ticking time of maturation, bourbon isn’t just America’s spirit, it’s the spirit—both literally and figuratively—of the South. And the Bourbon Capital of the World lies where the liquor began, in Bardstown, Kentucky.
A couple of hundred years ago, distillers fled from the taxation of the nation’s new government to the rich lands of Kentucky. Upon arrival, migrants to the region quickly discovered that crops, especially corn, flourished in the fertile organic soils of their new home. And distillers knew that with good corn came great whiskey. Add to corn the limestone-rich waters that sprang naturally from the ground and distillers realized they had happened upon a liquid goldmine.
But it takes more than just corn and water to separate bourbon into a class of its own. The secret ingredient, discovered accidentally, was time. With corn harvested in the late summer and whiskey produced with the falling leaves of autumn, distillers would have just as soon packaged their product then if possible. Instead, they had to wait for the rains of spring, when local rivers like the Mississippi and the Ohio would fill and flood, allowing their simple boats to float easily downriver and carry their whiskey to port. So their barrels sat untouched through the winter before embarking on the lengthy trip downstream. Once they finally reached their destination and their seals were broken, drinkers discovered that the corn whiskey had melted into a deep, golden brown and the taste had lost its original harshness, leaving a smoothness as sweet as molasses.
And so bourbon was born. Bardstown’s distilleries grew into the finest, and most famous, makers of bourbon in the country: Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Barton 1792, and Maker’s Mark still call Bardstown and her surrounding lands home. Unlike other spirits industries, bourbon distillers have long been like family, working together to produce fine products rather than against each other as competitors. That means that Bardstown is now home to a booming bourbon business—so booming, in fact, that the town has been trademarked as the Bourbon Capital of the World.
Bardstown’s history of companionable production means that those distillers can still come together for unique events and showcases. Every year the town gathers for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. What began as a small dinner and bourbon-tasting for 250 connoisseurs in 1992 is now an internationally-renowned festival that draws in 50,000 visitors from all over the world.
Local and national distilleries set up displays for interested visitors to learn more about the production of bourbon, but the festival offers much more than dry facts. Visitors enjoy live music, vendors, fresh food, and, of course, plenty of bourbon tastings. In a playful twist, local distilleries also send out representatives for the annual Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay, where they see who can roll bourbon barrels fastest. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival celebrates the history of the local spirit and the art behind its production.
Bardstown honors bourbon throughout the year with their Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey. The museum chronicles the history of bourbon, from its beginnings in the late eighteenth century through the ’60’s and the renaissance of bourbon. The museum also houses fun and interesting whiskey-related tchotchkes, like Abraham Lincoln’s liquor license, original bourbon bottles, moonshine stills, and prescriptions for the medicinal use of liquor dating back to the Prohibition. The museum is the perfect stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which of course runs straight through the heart of Bardstown.
Bourbon is undoubtedly the spirit of Bardstown, but it also defines the spirit behind the town. Since their early beginnings, bourbon and Bardstown have thrived in a symbiotic relationship, each depending on the other. With the growth of local distilleries and events and an unfaltering grasp on their history, it seems that Bardstown, her bourbons, and her title of Bourbon Capital of the World are here to stay.
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