Go on a few bourbon distillery tours around Kentucky and you’ll hear stories about the pioneers whose names adorn the bourbons bottled today. Most of those tours take you through rather un-glamorous paths around industrial equipment that’s been in place and making liquor for decades.
When tourists start coming to the Bardstown Bourbon Co. early next year, they’ll see similar equipment, except that it’s all brand-spanking new and shiny, and their walk to see the whole thing will be less than a quarter-mile. Better yet, afterward they can relax with lunch at a cafe and a drink from the bar.
At least that’s the experience David Mandell, president and CEO, has planned for visitors to his $25 million Bardstown Bourbon Co., when it’s completed early next year. Last week, in part to celebrate the beginning of bourbon production at the site, Mandell invited a select group of reporters to enjoy the first tour of the brand new facility, set on 100 acres near the Bluegrass Parkway in Bardstown. The massive complex, the largest of any new bourbon distillery in the U.S., is surrounded by a field of corn, some of which was used in the first batch of product.
“This is a celebration of the craft of making whiskey,” Mandell said at the start. “We see this as a Napa Valley-style destination experience.”
Looking around a spacious and still nearly empty main production room, Mandell pointed to the future locations of a cafe, fireplace, bar, patio, classrooms — all with a clear view of the production stills and behind a glass wall with a view of rickhouses where its whiskey will age in barrels.
Eventually, Mandell said the distillery will produce a signature, not-yet named bourbon, nad operate a collaborative distillery program, in which master distiller Steve Nally will make up to a dozen different brands that will be sold and marketed by contract customers.
“The authenticity of the story of where it comes from is important, and we will produce custom product for those brands and we will be home to those brands,” Mandell said.
The third part of the business is tourism at the plant. Nally emphasized that transparency of the distilling process is key, pointing to a still with multiple manways (windows offering views inside the column still), so that visitors can see the more of the manufacturing process than at any other distillery. There are classrooms designed so that consumers can participate in programming designed to educate and entertain tourists.
Of course, the process of making bourbon involves aging, and the first product won’t even be in barrels for a few weeks. Nally, a 40-year veteran of the industry and the long-time master distiller at Maker’s Mark, said he won’t allow any of the barrels to be bottled until they’re ready.
While we were there, though, Mandell gave 18 of the original distillery workers something to celebrate. He handed out certificates giving them ownership of the first barrels to come out of the distillery. That valuable perk, however, won’t be released until Nally says it’s so.
NOTE: Listen to my interview with Steve Nally on this week’s EatDrinkTalk podcast, which will be online Sept. 22.