Distillery Focus

Flying the flag

Charles K. Cowdery visits the revitalised and renamed Barton Distillery
By Charles K Cowdery
Bardstown, Kentucky, fancies itself the Bourbon Capital of the World. The Jim Beam Distillery is nearby, so is Maker’s Mark, but the only distillery inside the city limits is Barton 1792. Though obscured by trees, it is just a stone’s throw from one of Bardstown’s major landmarks, the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, which was built from 1816 to 1819.

Catholic settlers, mostly of English and Irish descent, began to emigrate from Maryland to Kentucky in about 1775. The first missionaries arrived in about 1787. Many were French, fleeing the anti-clerical temper of Revolution-era France. In 1808, the diocese of Bardstown was created. It covered a vast area, from New Orleans to Detroit.

When the diocese was reduced in size and moved to Louisville, in 1841, St. Joseph’s became just a parish church and was demoted to “proto-cathedral,” but Bardstown and Nelson County has a large Catholic population to this day.

This is significant because it was Baptists and other Protestant denominations who championed the assault on beverage alcohol that led to National Prohibition in 1920. Roman Catholics, then as now, were much more tolerant in their views, and it’s no coincidence that some of Kentucky’s major whiskey-making districts coincide with high concentrations of Catholic inhabitants.

Despite its location so close to town, the Barton Distillery has largely been a mystery.

For most of the last two decades, it did not welcome visitors and its products were not widely distributed outside of Kentucky. It performed a lot of contract production for brands owned and marketed by others. People knew there was a whiskey distillery in Bardstown named Barton, but that was about it.

For most of that time, Barton was owned by Constellation Brands, the big international wine company, and they kept pretty quiet about it. If you happened to know someone who worked there you might be able to peek inside. The white-washed, steel clad warehouses are visible from several vantage points around town, but that’s all most people ever saw.

In 2009, Sazerac bought the distillery and its American whiskey brands. Sazerac already owned the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort. The acquisition also included a maturation facility and bottling hall in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Sazerac desperately needed the additional maturation and bottling capacity, but there were questions about whether it could use another distillery, since Buffalo Trace is very large and not operating at capacity, even with the current Bourbon boom. However Sazerac president Mark Brown was determined that Bardstown should have its own terroir, different from Frankfort, and the company would have a richer whiskey portfolio if Barton stayed in the mix.

In 2011, it was announced that Barton would keep distilling.

A new visitor centre opened, with a new tour and gift shop, and Barton became accessible like never before.

The Barton site had distilleries on it from an early date because of a good spring and nearby surface water source, and its proximity to town. For most of its early history, the site was associated with Tom Moore who, like many distillers in those days, was involved with several whiskey-making enterprises.

"The distillery will maintain a light but regular distilling schedule for the foreseeable future"

In about 1876, Moore joined forces with Ben Mattingly to build the Mattingly & Moore distillery near the current Barton site. In 1889, Moore split from Mattingly to establish the Tom Moore Distillery on an adjacent property.

The Tom Moore Distillery was important up to Prohibition, when it closed like all the others. Moore’s son brought it back after 1933, but had trouble getting it established and it changed hands several times. In 1944, it was acquired by two Chicago-based whiskey dealers, brothers-in-law Oscar Getz and Lester Abelson, who largely rebuilt it to make industrial alcohol for the war effort, then rebuilt it again after the war to make whiskey. They also renamed it the Barton Distilling Company, a name whose origin is unknown.

Although both Getz and Abelson lived in Chicago, Getz in particular became enthralled by the heritage and culture of Kentucky whiskey-making. He started to collect anything to do with the business and displayed his collection in the lobby of the distillery’s business offices.

As the collection grew it was opened to the public and dubbed the Barton Museum.

Getz died in 1982 and the company’s interest in hosting a public whiskey museum died with him. The Getz family retained ownership of his collection and donated it to the City of Bardstown, along with enough cash to launch the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, a small but important museum, open to the public, located just north of St. Joseph’s.

Thus began the distillery’s long period of isolation that did not end until shortly before the sale to Sazerac. After a period of analysis, Sazerac made a few cosmetic upgrades and built a new visitor centre in an underused storage room. The new centre features exhibits, a tasting bar and a gift shop. The grounds include picnic areas and the World’s Largest Bourbon Barrel. Whitetail deer and other wildlife are often spotted by visitors. Bardstown is a small city surrounded by farms and undeveloped countryside, so nature is never far way.

The visitor centre is open Monday-Friday 9 am to 4:30 pm and Saturday 10 am to 4 pm.

Tours start every hour on the hour. The last tour is at 3 pm Monday through Friday and 2 pm on Saturday.

“We have been thrilled with the success of our new visitor centre and refreshed tour route,” says centre manager Elizabeth Hurst.

“It has allowed us to offer a new experience for our guests and an up close and personal look at what goes into making our Bourbons.”

The new visitor centre has been open for less than a year. Some visitors have been Bardstown locals who have lived with Barton in their midst, but never been inside. Many tell stories of family members who worked there. Barton has also welcomed visitors from as far away as Argentina and Australia.

“Guests have commented most often about our tour guides, who have a deep knowledge and passion for the Bourbon industry and our products,” says Hurst.

At their request, one visitor tried to stump several of them with arcane points of Bourbon lore and was unsuccessful.

In the final years of Constellation’s ownership, Barton finally got into the super-premium Bourbon game with its 1792 Ridgemont Reserve. The name commemorates the year Kentucky became a state. It is unique for containing more barley malt in its mash than any other Bourbon.

When the new visitor centre opened in 2011, the distillery was officially renamed the Barton 1792 Distillery to promote its flagship Bourbon brand.

The distillery’s portfolio also includes Very Old Barton, a 6 Years Old Bourbon available in four different proofs. It is value-priced but excellent and one of the best-selling Bourbons in Kentucky, though not widely available elsewhere. Barton also makes Ten High, which is straight Bourbon in some states, blended Bourbon in others, and distributed nationally.

When Sazerac looked at Barton’s operations, it determined that the distillery had been over-producing. A long distilling holiday was taken, which finally ended in December of 2011. The distillery will maintain a light but regular distilling schedule for the foreseeable future, holding capacity in reserve for future growth.

Even on days when the distillery is silent, the place buzzes with activity as barrels are pulled from warehouses and dumped, and whiskey and other products are bottled and shipped.

Bardstown has a well-preserved collection of 19th century buildings. Now its most convenient and historic distillery can also be enjoyed by the public.