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Raise a Glass to Bardstown

Kentucky’s bourbon-making heritage is celebrated
with a spirited fall festival and year-round tours.

At the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, 79-year-old Jimmy Russell, the legendary master distiller of Wild Turkey bourbon, tirelessly autographs bottles of the rich, smooth elixir he has been perfecting for 60 years. Bourbon enthusiasts put down their glasses of Wild Turkey American Honey to shake hands with the “Buddha of Bourbon,” as Russell is known in the industry.


Above: Master Distiller Ken Pierce sampling the bourbon at Barton 1792 Distillery. Barton 1792 Distillery photo

Below: Tours of the Barton 1792 Distillery showcase one of its 28 aging warehouses. Wesley K.H. Teo


When asked how he likes his bourbon, Russell says he takes it neat or on the rocks. No fancy cocktails for the patriarch of the bourbon business. He doesn’t want fruit, sugar, or anything else interfering with the whiskey’s distinct flavor profile.

Bourbon was consumed almost exclusively by Southern gentlemen for many years. Like so many delightful things about the South, it took the rest of the world a while to discover it, but now whiskey connoisseurs everywhere are demanding bourbon–Southern hospitality in a glass.

Most of the world’s bourbon is made in Bardstown, about 40 miles southeast of Louisville, earning the small, central Kentucky town the moniker “Bourbon Capital of the World.” The 23rd annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held Sept. 16-21 this year, is a six-day celebration of Kentucky’s 230-year-old bourbon-making heritage. Approximately 50,000 enthusiasts make their way to Bardstown every year to join the festivities; that’s about four times the town’s population.

Festivalgoers can choose from more than 20 entertaining events, so whether they want to become a master mixologist, learn to pair bourbon with delicious regional cuisine, or listen to a fast-picking bluegrass band, it’s all possible in Bardstown.

All-Star Event

The Kentucky All-Star Sampler, one of the festival’s most popular events, brings the region’s master distillers together under one roof. Bourbon industry celebrities such as Fred Noe of Jim Beam, Jim Rutledge of Four Roses, Chris Morris of Woodford Reserve, and Greg Davis of Maker’s Mark are dedicated craftsmen with an uncompromising approach to whiskey making, but Russell is the granddaddy of them all. As the longest tenured active master distiller of any whiskey brand in North America, Russell was a bourbon connoisseur before some of the others were of legal drinking age.

Bourbon practically runs through the Kentucky native’s veins. Russell’s family has been in the bourbon-making business for generations, and his son, Eddie, is keeping the tradition alive. The father-and-son duo has been working together for 33 years, and someday, Eddie will undoubtedly take over as master distiller.

But Russell’s in no hurry to turn over the reins.

He loves going to work every day and says he takes pride in producing a consistently fine bourbon year in and year out.

“We are still making Wild Turkey the old-fashioned way, with less corn and more rye and barley malt,” Russell says. “I started in 1954 and we haven’t changed a thing. Even the yeast is the same.”

Tour the Bourbon Distilleries

For those curious about the art of bourbon making, the Tour the Kentucky Bourbon Distilleries event is a festival highlight. Two trails–Bardstown and Bluegrass–take guests to several very different distilleries. Part of the fun is getting there. Scenic country roads that bisect Kentucky’s rolling hills wind past verdant pastures dotted by colorful wildflowers and chestnut-colored horses peeking over white fences. One reason so many distilleries are in Bardstown is because of that crucial ingredient–Kentucky’s special limestone-filtered water. Distillery visitors also learn about grain selection and the importance of yeast in the fermentation process. They walk among 10,000-gallon mash cookers that emit a pungent aroma and observe hundreds of bottles efficiently filled on the line.

At Maker’s Mark, bourbon lovers can fill up and seal their own bottles with the brand’s signature red wax cap. While touring Heaven Hill, they sip Evan Williams straight bourbon and 12-year-old Elijah Craig in an elegant, barrel-shaped tasting room.

Noteworthy at Jim Beam is the collection of whimsical vintage bottles and decanters shaped like various animals and historical figures. Some commemorate special events and anniversaries.

Barton 1792 Distillery invites visitors to have a look at one of its seven-story rick houses (barrel warehouses) where bourbon is aged; a kind of bourbon incubator.

Tour guide and visitor center manager Joshua Hollifield explains that Kentucky’s climate of hot summers and cold winters is perfect for aging bourbon because the barrels expand and contract with each season. As the liquid flows in and out of the charred wood, it is imbued with a golden honey color and picks up those delicious notes of toasted caramel and vanilla that bourbon enthusiasts savor.

“Bourbon picks up 100 percent of its color and up to 50 percent of its flavor from the barrel,” Hollifield says. “We often find that visitors are surprised the distillate or ‘white dog’ is colorless when it comes off the still.”

Another surprise is that those barrels get lighter as the bourbon ages because a portion evaporates. Those in the industry call the lost bourbon the “angels’ share.”

Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History

Wrap up your time in Bardstown with a self-guided tour of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History located on the first floor of historical Spalding Hall. Exhibits chronicle the history of American whiskey making from the Colonial era through the 1960s.

Artifacts include old stills with curling copper coils (one is believed to have been owned by George Washington), artistic advertising posters, antique bottles, and novelty whiskey decanters.

One exhibit examines the economic devastation wreaked on Bardstown by national Prohibition. Note the axe wielded by Kentucky native Carrie Nation, a temperance zealot known for vandalizing drinking establishments.

Bardstown may be small, but it’s big on Kentucky history and heritage. Most festivalgoers head home with a better understanding of the Bluegrass state, a collection of souvenir bourbon glasses, and fond memories.

Tracey Teo is a contributor from Evansville, Ind.

Bourbon University

Consider yourself enrolled in Bourbon 101. For the uninitiated, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Are you taking notes? Bourbon is American-made whiskey that must be 51 percent corn and aged in new white oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Other whiskeys can age in re-used barrels.

By law, bourbon distilleries can’t add anything except water to their product, but other whiskey makers can add artificial colors and flavors.

September/October 2014 Issue


Do not drink and drive. Arrange for a designated driver or other transportation.

For more information about Bardstown, contact
(800) 638-4877 or

Details about this year’s bourbon festival can be found at

To visit Bardstown, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Kentucky through the Free Travel Information Card found online.

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