Mention to anyone the possibility of putting together a drinkers guide to Bardstown, and you will be met with laughter. Guaranteed. Which is odd, considering the fact of its status: home to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, to a clutch of distilleries; Bardstown's claims to being the Bourbon capital of the world are a trademarked reality. Visit in April or September and you can't move for fans of the 51 per cent plus corn. It's heaving with the great, the good and the downright thirsty. It's a pop-up city, homage to a god called Bourbon. Only, as my naysayers well know, that's just the point. Outside of festival time, the more regular benefits of distillery tourism shared with nearby Louisville, and with horse-mad Lexington, Bardstown shrinks back to what it is: a small and perfectly formed country town, one stuck on Bourbon, but less the sheer local drinking power with which to sustain more than a clutch of genuine drinking holes.
Even so, that's the charm of the place. Bardstown's a one-off. It's fantastically idiosyncratic. It's beautiful. It lives and breathes Bourbon. So, to business: My downtown Bardstown pick: five bars, the world's finest whiskey museum, a liquor store to the stars and a diner that serves Bourbon. All within walking distance of each other. My very own Bourbon crawl. Let's roll.
1. The Talbott Tavern
107 W Stephen Foster Ave, Bardstown, KY 40004
Top of many a Kentucky Bourbon hunter's bucket list, the Talbott Tavern lays reasonable claim to being the world's oldest Bourbon bar. Built in 1779, owned over time by a string of big Bourbon names, including TD Beam and Tom Moore, it's what one might call a landmark, a card it plays with shabby abandon. Most things to most people, it's a proper historic-country stop: Rooms are named after historical personages, all of whom are said to have in some way a connection with the tavern. Ghosts and poltergeists own the night. A southern fried cuisine predominates, the Kentucky Hot Brown an all time favourite. Noise waivers signed, the weekend plays host to a variety of live music performances : it was sub-bass loving 'Stone The Crow' who played me almost to sleep. There are two bars, though the newer of the two is the most used, its long serving bartenders, Heather Richardson and Erin Mackin, the tavern's current super-able pilots, authors of excellent five shot flights and of the Bourbon based Sidecar that won this year's festival cocktail competition.
2. Kresos Restaurant
218 N 3rd St, Bardstown, KY 40004
Don't be fooled. While my beef goulash was perfect evidence of the fineness of its kitchen, Kresos is by no means limited to its culinary delights. Proud purveyor of some 182 Bourbons, the setting an ex-art deco theatre, Kresos is a positively excellent place to hunker down and start hitting on a variety of whiskies. A stone's throw from the Talbott, owned by the ever present Kresos family, and guided by the inimitable Jason Spratlin ('I'm the guy who's full of crap'), bartender extraordinaire and part-time student of regular punter Four Roses master distiller Jim Routledge, it's a wonderful bar, jam-packed with soul, story and surprise. 'Try the Old Weller Antique 107. It's exactly like the Pappy van Winkle 23, only much cheaper.' Makers Mark's the best seller, which isn't the surprise, though the fact that the distillery's Bill Jr. Samuels should find so much time to pop in and sign all those collectors' bottles most certainly is. As well as the inevitable Pappy range, top shelf offers include a couple off the Willett portfolio - very much a favourite around these parts.
3. Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace
110 Flaget Avenue, Bardstown, KY 40004
New gent on the block, the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace is a liquor store, shop and bar. We're here to talk about the bar. It's just around the corner from Kresos. Owned by local banker and Bourbon enthusiast, Howard Keene, it's the converted front room of that most rare of American abodes: the terraced house. Don't be shy. Enter, turn right and bingo: a bar dedicated to the business of Bourbon. All wood, a stripped back look, the bar itself occupying one corner of the room, the feel here is upscale spit and sawdust, the Bourbon collection substantial. While I enjoyed a super-generous shot of the Four Roses Single Barrel, accompanied by a complimentary bar snack, Keene's 'standby everyday drink' is the Evan Williams Single Barrel, his regular special treat Wathens Single Barrel Bourbon. (The place seems to be bristling with single barrels). Quite different from anything else you might find in downtown Bardstown, the Marketplace is a brave new world.
4. Xavier's Pub
169 Mulberry Alley, Bardstown, KY 40004,
The Back Alley Between 3rd and 4th
'A Bourbon Bar. Ask around and we're hard to find.' It's not, actually. It's just across the road from the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace. However, it is most certainly a Bourbon bar. Owned and run by the magnificent Franklin 'Frankie' Hibbs lll, it has the long, narrow look of a sports bar, features live music on the weekend and doesn't mix drink with food. An enormous fan of Bourbon, and especially of the reasonably well aged ('I'm a 10 Years Old man'), his palate something of a legend among regulars, Hibbs's relaxed approach to his post-retirement punt makes for an anything goes atmosphere, one that attracts a rock 'n roll crowd as much as it does the geeky barfly variety. If Heaven Hill's Evan Williams range sells like hot cakes, then that's possibly because he's a deep and long term fan of the subtle pleasures of the Single Barrel. Nevertheless, Hibbs is no single distillery man. Willet's well represented, as are the premium Beams, Buffalo Trace, Michter's, Maker's Mark and more than a few of the small boys.
5. Toddy's Liquor
110 S 4th St, Bardstown, Kentucky 40004-1006
Bardstown's preeminent liquor store, I have to confess to having slightly misled in claiming 'stars' as featuring among Toddy's customer base. It's highly unlikely, whatever the hype, that Kentucky's old guard of master distillers, many of whom still live in and around Bardstown, would ever fall for the dubious attractions of celebrity culture. Bourbon may be on the fast up and up, but being stars is not what its makers do. Truth is, whatever Toddy's status vis-a-vis being on Distiller's Row, almost next door to the Talbott, and offering a startling range of Bourbons, it's the least pretentious liquor store one could hope for. Owned by Guthrie Makay, ably assisted by Dennis Downs and Davey Redman, its aisles rammed with unopened cases of whisky, an ancient TV going nuts in the background, it stocks everything from an entry level Beam to a Michter's 20 Years Old Single Barrel to one of the hard to find Parker's Heritage Collection. I even came away with a free T-shirt. Fantastic.
6. Mammy's Kitchen
114 N 3rd St, Bardstown, KY 40004
If you're after something completely different, in the morning, and still on a Bourbon tip, then allow me to recommend Mammy's Kitchen, all American diner, small bar and fine example of Kentuckian small town hospitality. A Christy Clarke - Mammy - brainchild, the gestation of which saw a café, antique and sewing store combination gain enough traction for Clarke to move premises and go the whole hog, Mammy's Kitchen is an extended family affair, and features a bric-a-brac design that includes a cow in the window, a whole host of joke-signs, stuffed chickens and a ramshackle mix of booth and table seating, the sum of which is a diner like no other. The menu's a poem: Pap's Special, Sweet Street, Philly Steak Omelette. I had a Cinnabon Pancake - huge and delicious. I am reliably informed that Bourbon is available, whatever the time.
7. Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History
Spalding Hall, 114 North 5th St Bardstown, KY 40004
It's a mouthful, and possesses a number of shortened forms, but no one could accuse the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History of not being exactly what it says on the tin. Whisky Magazine's whisky visitor attraction of 2014, it's located in historic Spalding Hall, once and variously a seminary, Civil War hospital, an orphanage and private boys school, and holds a range of whisky paraphernalia, arranged in rooms either dedicated to actual distilleries or themed according to various interests and VIPs: advertising art, moonshine technology, Stephen Foster and so on. Presently curated by the marvellous Mary Ellyn Hamilton, who not only pointed me in the direction of bottles encumbered by sobriety locks, but also bedazzled Mike Veach, the Bourbon historian, into having me in on a private tasting he just happened to be running the afternoon I visited... The Oscar Getz is special - be you a whisky fan or no.
8. The Rickhouse
112 Xavier Dr, Bardstown, KY 4000
While I didn't get the opportunity to indulge in one of its famous steaks, I was lucky enough, in the company of Mike Veach and his team of tasters, to pick at a range of the Rickhouse's buffet sides (look out for the Bourbon soaked prawn kebabs), and to be given a quick-fire tour by owner Jason Heath, all of which gave me some idea as to why it's considered one of Bardstown's finest restaurants. Occupying the bottom of Spalding Hall, it's a fine looking place, has plenty of room and banks a 100 plus Bourbons. Being there during closing time, I can't vouch for service and bartender knowledge, but I did note the presence of a Colonel EH Taylor Single Barrel, which is always a good thing, and would go very well, I imagine, with the 24 ounce apricot and Bourbon chutney topped porterhouse pork chop - as recommended by Mr Heath.