We’ve now come to the Kentucky portion of my distillery road trip. I’ve been to Kentucky many times in my life, but this is my first trip into bourbon country. And I’ll never forget the first breath I took when I stepped out of my car in the Bardstown Bourbon Company parking lot. There’s nothing like the sweet smell of aging bourbon, and I had a huge grin on my face as I walked across the parking lot to the distillery. Now you know what I meant by the title – enjoying the breeze!
Bardstown Bourbon Company (BBCo) doesn’t have the brand recognition that Jim Beam or many other bourbon brands do, but they’ve very quickly become a major player in the bourbon world and are one of the ten largest American whiskey distillers (7 million proof gallons and 110,000 barrels per year). The bulk of their business is contract distilling for other bourbon brands. They’ve brought together a team of extremely experienced distillers and blenders who learned their craft at Maker’s Mark, Barton 1792, and other distilleries and now work to provide extra capacity for brands who can’t meet demand in their existing distillery or new brands without distilleries of their own.
BBCo provides what they call their Collaborative Distilling Program, essentially a completely bespoke distilled spirit production offering. Their team of distillers and blenders currently produce almost 40 different mash bills, and can tweak almost any part of the production and aging process so that brands get just what they’re looking for. Not all of the brands made at BBCo publicize that they’re made there, but some do including Jefferson’s, High West, Belle Meade, Hirsch, Calumet, James E Pepper, Chicken Cock, and Cyrus Noble.
New brands that start out at BBCo can also work alongside the BBCo team in the production of their spirit, adding consistency to their product and making it easier for these teams to move production to their own distillery in the future if they choose. This is a very different model from the sourced whiskeys some brands use — a brand built on sourced spirit runs the risk that the kinds of casks they need might not be available in the future.
In addition to their contract distilling programs, they also have two product lines under their own name. The first is a blended whiskey made with whiskey from other distilleries called the Discovery Series. The second is their Fusion Series, a straight bourbon whiskey blending younger BBCo bourbons with older bourbon from other distilleries. So far they haven’t released a whiskey that’s 100% their spirit. Their labels have a refreshing transparency, detailing the percentages of each whiskey going into it and the age, origin, and mash bill for each one.
From time to time they also release whiskey blends finished in casks that previously aged other beverages. Previous finishes have used armagnac, rum, Irish whiskey, Cognac, beer, wine, and even orange curacao casks. These releases are often partnerships with the company providing the cask, with the other company also releasing a product finished in ex-BBCo casks, such as the Plantation Long Pond 1998 rum release that aged in BBCo casks.
They’re also growing quickly. After being purchased by Pritzker Private Capital in early 2022, they announced a $28.7 million investment to expand production, including a new column still and 16 additional fermenters. Remember, this is a distillery that just started producing whiskey in 2016.
I soon learned that their distillery is very different from most others you’ll find on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and I’ve heard it described as a Napa Valley winery experience. You’ll find a well-rated restaurant and bar in the distillery lobby, as well as an outdoor bar and seating area. The distillery is designed to be a destination, not just a place to come for a tour and then leave after a quick tasting.
TV displays in the tour waiting area show live industrial control information from sensors in the production area.
The tour starts out with an overview of the company and a tasting. There are three spirits: a 60% high rye bourbon distillate, the same spirit after three years in oak, and their seventh Fusion Series release at 49%.
After the tasting, everyone grabs a radio, dons headphones, and heads into the distillery for a tour. This part of the tour is conducted over the radio to ensure everyone can hear.
Grains are cooked in internally heated 12,500 gallon mash cookers.
Below are photos of more ICS monitors, these are for the cookers and fermentation tanks. You can see that the batches are coded and tracked, critical when they’re working with so many mashbills over so many different brands. I’m not posting photos of it here, but when you go on the tour you’ll also see weekly production schedules that track what recipe is being made for which customer, which fermenters they go into, and when they were started. They run 24/7 across three shifts, and on the week I was there, fermenters were refilled up to three times. As they’re a bepoke production facility, they’ll also use any yeast a customer requests, and I saw the batch they were starting to run that day used Ferm-Solutions yeast (I’m a Dr. Pat fanboy, sorry).
Next we come to the fermenters. There are 32 at the moment (only a few are on the tour).
If you haven’t toured a bourbon distillery before, here are few things to note. These are just the tops of the fermentation tanks. They extend quite a ways below the walkway we’re standing on.
Fermentation tank use is staggered to help ensure a steady flow of beer to the column stills, and you’ll see fermentations at various stages of completion. You don’t want fermented beer sitting around waiting to be pumped into the still and getting sour, and you don’t want to run out of beer to feed the still. If you look at the previous ICS panel photos, you’ll see that many focus on more than just the current process in that area. For example, a mash cooker panel also shows the status of the fermenters (that’s where the cooked mash will end up after cooling) as well as the status of cisterns before and after the still. Everything has to be balanced to ensure a steady flow of product through the distillery.
Here’s a video I made that shows two fermenters at very different stages of fermentation. I apologize for making this a vertical video, I made it for Instagram.
The fermented beer heads to the still. This is my first time trying to get a photo of large column stills, and let me assure you, it’s not easy. It was easier to take a picture from outside after the tour.
I’ve heard these two Vendome column stills are unique in that they have those large rectangular windows from top to bottom and give a great view of the wash in the still.
After emerging from the column stills, the distillate is condensed and moves into doublers, located under the floor in the second still photo. These weren’t visible on the tour, but you can see them through a window in the restaurant.
From the doublers, the distillate moves back upstairs where it’s condensed into the spirit receiver (they’re on the same level I was on in the second column still picture).
Next, the distillate goes into cisterns, where it’s held until ready to be put into casks.
From here, the casks head outside to the rickhouses.
In Kentucky, aging warehouses are called rickhouses. In general use, a rick is a pile of something (I’ve heard it to describe haystacks). I’ve wondered why bourbon warehouses were called rickhouses (as have many others before me), and while I’ve never gotten a great answer, I’m guessing that it’s probably a combination of rick (as in piles of things) and rack (as in, well, racks of whiskey). A rickhouse is made up of ricks (which are basically racks) that hold the barrels.
It takes a bit of skill to manage a cask of bourbon. They weigh over 500 lbs (226 kg), so lifting them by hand is out of the question and they clearly need to be treated with respect. Casks are rolled to where they need to be, and it takes practice to move them safely and efficiently. Once casks arrive in the rickhouse, they need to be rolled down the rails of a rick to where they’ll spend the next few years working their magic. But it’s not as simple as just sending a barrel rolling down the aisle until it reaches its spot. The barrel bung needs to point up to avoid leaks, so you need to calculate where the bung is at the start of the roll so that it stops rolling in the right position. This is called clocking the barrel.
Any career that involves learning and mastering physical skills will eventually have its own competitions, and the teams that work in the rickhouses are no different. Some distilleries have teams of rickers that compete against each other at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival and other events. BBCo has such a team, and their practice yard is just outside the rickhouse used for tours.
You can also see an experimental glass-sided rickhouse behind the practice yard.
You’ll notice berms between rickhouses. These aren’t there to create a scenic, rolling landscape. They’re there to help contain whiskey in case of a rickhouse collapse or fire. Kentucky has seen some epic rickhouse collapses and fires in the past, leading to changes in fire and building codes for rickhouses.
Inside the rickhouse
I don’t have a lot to say here about the interior of the rickhouse, other than to say it smells wonderful. If I wasn’t very clear about ricks and clocking barrels earlier, I hope these pictures will help clarify.
I mentioned that BBCo is growing, and new rickhouses were under construction at the entrance to the property. The ricks go in before the sides and roof go on.
Behind the scenes
The tour doesn’t take you through the entire production process. Remember, whiskey is made from grain and while we’ve seen the grain cooked and distilled we haven’t actually seen where it comes from (or where it goes after the still). All of that is behind the distillery, and I got some photos before I left.
The distillery produces over a hundred thousand gallons of spent grain every day, and local farmers pick it up from the distillery and use it to feed their cattle.
You’ll note the construction going on behind/beside the distillery, this is part of the major expansion they just started thanks to investment from their new owner.
There’s also a relatively new bottling facility you pass on the way to the distillery. Unfortunately it wasn’t open for tours when I was there, but the folks at Bourbon Obsessed have posted some pictures and details if you’re curious.
BBCo tours are a professional, dedicated operation and tour staff are dedicated to the role. My tour was very well designed and executed, and the guide was excellent, giving a practiced and accurate tour. Production tours were conducted with radio and headsets for guests, and this worked flawlessly. They offer a very large range of tour experiences that you can book online. I bought the Distillate to Barrel tour, though next time I might add on their Taste of Whiskey History, Behind the Scenes, and Tour With The Master tours (hint hint to Ms BoozeGeekSouth, this would make a great birthday present!). There’s an extensive selection of merchandise and bottles for sale in the gift shop.
They’re located at 1500 Parkway Dr in Bardstown. Because there’s so much going on there, I’m not going to list hours — you should check their website. Walk-in tours may be available (someone joined our tour), but I wouldn’t count on it, it’s a very popular destination. You should book ahead.