Mrs. Joseph Bourbon had surprised me with the gift of a distillery experience. While she had encouraged me to take in an exclusive rare whiskey experience, being more practical and frugal, I chose, instead, the Bardstown Bourbon Company Rickhouse Barrel Thieving. Boy, did I choose wisely!
A Collaborative Effort
Bardstown Bourbon Company began as a concept in 2013, led by David Mandell and Master Distiller Steve Nally. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Steve is a Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame member and former (retired) Master Distiller at Maker's Mark and Wyoming Whiskey.
The current site in Bardstown, Kentucky began in 2015 with a $25 million investment to make a "bourbon destination", with a distillery, aging warehouses, and state-of-the-art restaurant and cocktail experience. While many new distilleries focus exclusively on producing their own spirits, BBC paid attention to collaboration, respect, and innovation.
While most distilleries have access to three or four mash bills, BBC has access to more than fifty different bourbon recipes, and distills not only for itself under the Bardstown Bourbon label, but for more than thirty other brands, including Belle Mead, Bird Dog, Calumet Farm, Chicken Cock, Cyrus Noble, Four Gate, James Pepper, Jefferson's, Hirsch, Lucky Seven, and Pursuit United.
Innovation is foremost in the Bardstown Bourbon products, highlighted in their Fusion Series, blending their own distillate with that from other distillers, as well as the Collaboration Series highlighting well-aged spirits. Growth is evident for Bardstown Bourbon. Production is more than seven million gallons annually. When we visited, several additional warehouses were in various states of construction. In March 2022, the private equity firm Pritzker Private Capital acquired BBC, followed three months later by BBC's acquisition of the Green River Distillery (former O.Z. Tyler) in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Who Was that Masked Man?
Bardstown Bourbon Company offers several tours: a traditional Distillate to Barrel tour, a Shaken and Stirred cocktail experience, and a Rickhouse Barrel Thieving experience. As we hadn't experienced a rickhouse thieving and the chance to taste straight from the barrel, we opted for the Rickhouse Barrel Thieving.
Before we dive into our tour, there was a truly extraordinary happenstance experience that day. In true Joseph Bourbon style, we arrived fashionably early for our tour, allowing ample time to scope out the extensive gift shop and take some photos of the restaurant where we'd enjoy a leisurely lunch following our thieving. As I perused all the brands available for purchase, I noticed a gentleman quietly removing bottles from the shelf and carefully replacing them. As others in the shop moved about picking up souvenirs, I positioned myself for a better view.
Imagine my surprise and delight to find it was Master Distiller Steve Nally selecting bottles and signing them. As I snagged a bottle or two to add to my home display, I asked if we could take a snapshot together. Following that, we struck up a 15-minute private conversation while others milled about oblivious to this bourbon legend. We talked about his history and how he had retired from Maker's and came out of retirement to start up Wyoming Whiskey and how his wife wanted him closer to their Kentucky roots.
We chatted candidly about the many brands they contract-produced along with their recent acquisition of Green River (formerly O.Z. Tyler). I shared how I was not a fan of O.Z.'s Terrapure rapid aging-process. Steve indicated they had tried to convince him to try the process, and Steve replied back with a voice of experience, "Some things just can't - and shouldn't be - rushed." On that we both agreed.
We then went into a discussion of the many brands for which they provided distillation and aging, as well as their own Fusion and Collaboration series. I shared how much I had enjoyed some of their Fusion releases and asked if the well-aged 12-year bourbon included in the blend had been from their neighbor Heaven Hill. "I can't comment on that, but if you go on the internet and search for the mash bill, you'll find your answer." Sure enough - the mash bill for that well-aged bourbon in the Fusion series - matches up with the flagship mash bill at nearby Heaven Hill.
I thanked him again for taking time out of his busy day for a chat and a photo and we headed to catch our group that was almost ready to depart for the rickhouse.
It was a blustery fall day as we walked swiftly from the Visitors' Center to an adjacent warehouse. Outside, on the 100 acre campus, stand numerous elegant whiskey monuments - many with ground-to-roof glass-paneled ends allowing glimpses into the spirits quietly aging inside. Several more warehouses were in various stages of construction, with cranes swinging pieces into place. It's interesting to note that unlike many traditional buildings, rickhouses are built from the inside-out. The various "ricks" (or racks) that hold the barrels are built in a skeleton-like manner, with the roof and siding moved into place at the end of construction.
Inside the warehouse our host shared some of the history of bourbon and the Bardstown Bourbon Company, its Master Distiller (whom we'd just met), and the products we sampled. We sampled three spirits in the warehouse - a traditional bourbon (corn-rye-barley), a wheated bourbon (corn-wheat-barley) and a rye whiskey (rye-barley).
Each of these were sampled, with our guide using a copper whiskey thief to dip into the barrel and fill our sampling glasses with barrel-proof whiskey, uncut and unfiltered and with a few flakes of barrel char for flavor. Suffice it to say, each of these whiskeys were absolutely delicious. While bottled water was available for everyone in the warehouse in the event of a throat tickle, the finished products were incredibly flavorful, smooth and silky, with balance between warm vanilla, oak, and spice. My wife - Mrs. Joseph Bourbon - even remarked how much she enjoyed these high-proof products as they were "they were not harsh and there was no burn".
After our first pour, our host allowed us each to thieve our own subsequent pours which provided some great photo and video opportunities. I caught some glimpses of the tags and markings on the barrels. The bourbons we sampled were each nearly 6-years old. Not long after we visited, Bardstown Bourbon announced the release of their Origin Series marking the launch of their first 100% BBC produced products. It was pretty neat to sample these before release to the general public.
We ended our tour in an exclusive tasting room inside the rickhouse to enjoy a pour of their most recent release - Fusion Series #8. This can only be described as an incredibly flavorful pour that blends two four-year BBC bourbons with a 12-year sourced Kentucky straight bourbon (with a mash bill identical to that of Heaven Hill's Evan Williams and Elijah Craig). You can check out the full review on this special bourbon here.
With that, we wrapped our tour, heading back to the Visitors' Center where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch. The menu includes a number of dishes touting locally-sourced ingredients, BBC bourbon flights, as well as other whiskeys and an extensive list of signature cocktails. Reservations are an absolute must, as we watched a few visitors turn away when told it was a 90-minute wait for a table. Another good spot - though, also requiring reservations - is the former stagecoach stop Talbot Tavern in downtown Bardstown.