So our first full day in Bardstown began with food. And lots of it.
The place we’d stayed that night was called the “Beautiful Dreamer Bed and Breakfast” and is owned by two of the sweetest, kindest people you’ll ever meet – Dan and Lynell Ginter. We’d already been warned about Lynell’s legendary, super-delicious and super massive breakfasts, but even at that we weren’t prepared for the feast she prepared for us to start our day. Wow.
Our bellies stuffed and our hearts full (after getting one of the best hugs ever from Lynell), we met up with Dawn Ballard, who was part of the awesome team in charge of coordinating our visit to town.
We followed Dawn a short drive away to downtown Bardstown, where we made our first stop of the day at the quaint, colorful and very cool Bardstown Farmers Market.
We spent a few minutes there, browsing the booths (which for the most part consist of folks just backing in their trucks and laying gobs of fresh-picked produce down on the tailgate) and chatting up some of the locals. It was so great being at a real, honest-to-goodness country farmer’s market for a change. The last time we went to a farmer’s market was in downtown Austin, which was as much a joke as it was insulting. (Sorry, but SIX DOLLARS for a half-dozen eggs just because you slap a fancy hipster label on them that says they’re “organic, cage-free and farm fresh?” Please.) The folks here were honest and down to earth, and the selection of fresh produce, crafts and other hand-made goods was just great. We even picked up a jar of homemade apple jam and some homemade soap. Good stuff.
Then it was time to head to the distilleries. Giddyup.
With all the different area distilleries to choose from, Dawn figured it would be cool if we checked out two of them in particular – the area’s smallest family-owned distillery, and the largest family-owned distillery. Great idea! We were excited at the thought of not only getting to sample some great bourbon and see how it’s made and stored, but also to see the contrast between a big operation and a small operation.
Our first stop was at the smaller of the two, the Willett distillery. Willett Distilling actually has a long and proud history in the local bourbon business which dates back to its founding in the 1930s. And over the past several years great efforts have been made to restore the distillery to its original glory, and reestablish the brand as one of Kentucky’s finest. There are even plans to make Willett a “destination distillery” so to speak, with the addition of a bed and breakfast there on site. (Save us a room, by the way.)
Family member Hunter Chavanne gave us a great tour of the revamped facility, including a walk-through of the distilling process and a look around one of their “rick houses,” which are the huge warehouse-looking buildings in which the barrels of whisky are stacked and stored and the bourbon is aged. And we ended our visit with a quick tasting of their finest spirit – which was fine, fine, fine indeed. Thanks Hunter! And y’all be sure to go by and pay the folks at Willett a visit when you’re in town.
From Willet we drove literally maybe a quarter-mile and across the street to the area’s largest family-owned distillery, Heaven Hill, where they produce a number of great brands including their flagship Evan Williams and Elijah Craig bourbons.
The place is massive. A huge complex of large buildings and rick houses. And we soon learned that Heaven Hill isn’t just the largest family-owned distillery in the area, it’s the largest independent family-owned and operated producer and marketer of distilled spirits in the United States. So safe to say they know a thing or two about good whisky. And right there at the heart of the complex is the Bourbon Heritage Center, where visitors can gather and learn about Heaven Hill, its history, its brands, and of course get a taste of that good stuff.
We were actually met at the door by one of the legends in the bourbon biz: Harry Shapira, the executive vice president of Heaven Hill… and Harry couldn’t have been nicer. He gave us a big handshake, a warm welcome and a brief run-down on the operation. Then, like any good host, directed us immediately toward the most important room in the building: the tasting room. Giddyup again.
The visitor’s center itself was packed full of folks the day we visited. Packed. A flurry of people taking tours, buying souvenirs, browsing the exhibits. But Harry and the staff at Heaven Hill cleared out the huge tasting room for a few minutes so that we could have our own private, informative and intimate bourbon tasting experience. And it was so cool.
We sat there, surrounded by glasses of bourbon arranged ever-so-neatly around the barrel-shaped table, and listened and learned about the proud history of not only Heaven Hill but of bourbon itself. What it is. How it’s made. Why it’s special. And what it means to Kentucky.
And then we got to taste.
Interestingly (and embarrassingly), despite being the lovers of whisky that we’ve been for a few years now we never really knew the proper way to taste bourbon. (It’s wild how doing that enhances the experience.) Ahhhhhhhhh. And of course – and this should go without saying, y’all – don’t pollute good bourbon with mixers for Pete’s sake. Worse than putting ketchup on a fine steak.
After the tasting we boarded a trolley with Harry and rode over to one of the distillery’s rick houses, where Harry gave us a personal tour and shared lots of great information (including the fact that each rick house holds about 20-thousand barrels of bourbon). Quite, quite impressive we must say. Seeing those thousands of barrels stacked high and wide, and breathing in that fine bourbon-thick aroma (which they call “the angels’ share”), it was an excellent experience. Very cool.
Lunchtime rolled around and we said our goodbyes to Harry and the crew at Heaven Hill, and followed Dawn back downtown to a great little family-owned café on Main Street called Mammy’s Kitchen. The menu is downright marvelous, and features a number of homemade bourbon-inspired dishes, including a bourbon burger and bourbon chicken sandwich, which we ordered, ate and absolutely loved. Good, good stuff and good people. Thanks guys for a great lunch!
(A very sad side note: we learned that just days after we left, a fire broke out in an apartment above the store next to Mammy’s and did extensive damage to not only Mammy’s but two other downtown businesses as well. All are closed now for repair and the investigation into the cause of the fire is underway. We want y’all to know we’re thinking about and praying for you guys! We know you’ll be back up and running and better than ever real soon.)
We left Mammy’s and went around the corner to our next stop, which wasn’t at all on our original itinerary. But a few days before our visit, we noticed something … unusual… on our Facebook page. It was a homemade video, featuring a very animated puppet calling herself the “Balloon Lady.” Here it is, for your viewing pleasure…
Yep. We know.
So after seeing that, we knew we had to meet the Balloon Lady and the folks responsible for such an awesomely unique welcome video. And as it happens, the Balloon Lady’s shop is just a short walk down the block around the corner from Mammy’s.
The Balloon Lady, as it turns out, is modeled after an equally animated and very real person called Miss Trudy. They are without a doubt two of a kind. Birds of a feather. Peas in a very wacky pod. And together they’re part of a crazy fun group of people who operate this little shop in Bardstown, selling gifts and novelties and party favors and all sorts of funky, fun stuff. We chatted with them for a bit, took some crazy photos and even got an interview with Miss Trudy and the Balloon Lady, which will certainly make for a can’t-miss video. (Stay tuned for that.) We so enjoyed our time with them. They’re fun people, who love to make people laugh and love people. And the shop is another one of those places you’ve just gotta check out when you come to town. Just tell ‘em we sent you.
By the time we left the Balloon Lady it was late afternoon, and we had an important appointment to keep. We’ve actually made a specific point NOT to make any appointments for the remainder of the trip, simply because we’ve never been able to make a single one on time since this whole thing began. (Sorry about that everybody.) But this one was different. We had to be there.
The local folks had a real treat set up for us… an awesome dinner aboard the My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, which leaves out of Bardstown a few nights a week and rolls through the countryside for a few hours before returning to town. And on this night, the train was full. Sold out. So we had to get to the station on time, or miss the ride altogether.
Fortunately we got there a few minutes early, and found out that despite the big crowd that night, they had set aside a special table just for us. And when the time came, we boarded with the group, found our table and got comfortable.
The train itself is very cool. The four cars of the train are all steel skirted cars built in the late 1940s, and have been meticulously refurbished by the R. J. Corman Railroad Company. It’s elegant, but casual – if that makes any sense. Very fancy without being over-the-top, which we loved.
We pulled out of the station and rolled through Bardstown and out into the scenery, which like everything in this area is just so, so pretty. Lush and green, a mix of flat lands and rolling hills, dotted by lots of quaint country homes and bourbon rick houses and covered in a blanket of acre after acre of beautiful cornfields.
The executive chef, Gil Logan, came by the table many times for friendly chats and to make sure that our every need was taken care of. He and the staff treated us to a couple of bottles of fantastic wine and one of the best prime rib dinners (one of our very very very favorites) we’ve ever had. It was such a treat, being able to relax and enjoy an amazing meal while the train gently clickety-clacked its way across the landscape. We rolled for about an hour and a half in one direction, until the train stopped, the engine switched ends, and we rolled another hour and a half back toward town. Our favorite part, other than the food, was after dinner when we made our way out the back end of the last car, where you can stand on an open-air enclosure and feel the wind and smell the air and really soak up the experience. What a great time, and a great ride.
When the train rolled back into the station it was about 8 p.m., and we were hoping to dash over to the beautiful My Old Kentucky Home State Park, where the state’s official outdoor musical The Stephen Foster Story has been entertaining crowds for 54 years. We’d been invited to catch the show, which we had already heard so many wonderful things about. But we had a special visit to make first. Another very important appointment, if you will. And we weren’t about to miss it.
In our last blog we made reference to Kim Huston, who (among other things) heads up the local economic development agency. She’d been our “point person” for our visit to Bardstown, helping us coordinate and plan our visit from day one of the rally, and helping us weed through all our problems and issues and complications (which as anybody in any of these towns will tell you is a massive, complicated, stressful undertaking). And just by the many phone conversations we’d had with her – night and day, mind you – we could tell that she and her team were working tirelessly to make sure we’d be taken care of. No matter the time, Kim was there for us.
So imagine our surprise and utter shock when we find out that on the very day of our visit – the day when all this massive planning and coordination would come to a head – Kim was getting married. That’s right. Freakin’ married!
We’d already had such a wonderful day, and a wonderful experience in Bardstown. And anyone in town will tell you Kim was a large part of the reason why. So at the very least – and at the risk of missing the musical – we felt we owed it to her to take our crew and our cameras and crash her wedding reception. To thank her, and maybe help her already special day feel a bit more special. And that’s just what we did.
We showed up at her house and barged in among the many guests and gave Kim and her new husband some big congratulatory hugs and handshakes. And everyone was so great. They invited us to stay and enjoy the rest of the reception – which we did – and shared some great drinks and great conversation and great times. We even got to share in the newlyweds’ first dance, which was so cool.
So guys, congrats again. Thanks for letting us crash your big moment. You gave us a moment of our own, that we’ll never forget.
And thanks everybody in town for such a great day. Good stuff. Good stuff indeed.
Working on one more blog from Bardstown (since there’s much more to tell), as well as the video – which we hope to have up in the next day or two. So y’all keep checking back!