When you hear the name Kentucky, the first things which come to mind are probably fried chicken or the Kentucky Derby. Well, maybe it’s time to change that and think bourbon instead.
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held over six days from the 16th to the 20th of September in the town of Bardstown, celebrates the fact that Kentucky knows a lot more about the fiery brew than anywhere else. But there’s more:
Bardstown in Kentucky may only be a small place, but it sure knows how to hold a party. Apart from having plenty of bourbon on hand to taste during the six days of the festival, there’s a good session of boot stomping to country music and open-air concerts too. Is that it for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival? Not a chance.
While the Kentucky Bourbon Festival may be a celebration of bourbon and the distilling industry, it isn’t just for adults, it’s also a real family event. There are night-time balloon glows, vintage car shows, an arts and crafts market plus lots of food which make it a celebration you really just can’t afford to miss.
But as the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is about bourbon, let’s start at the beginning:
Fermentation is where it all starts and if you thought making bourbon was just a case of putting all the ingredients in a barrel and waiting for them to do their thing, then you should attend the exhibition given by Moonshine University. Yes, believe it or not, there really is a school which teaches the art of distillation and they take their bourbon very seriously.
They go to great lengths to demonstrate on how each and every grain adds its own individual character to the whiskey during the distilling process. They’ll even show you how to cook up the grain to get a tastier end product. If you’re suddenly feeling a touch of fermentation fever coming on, the ticket price of thirty dollars could be very well spent and may even lead to a new hobby.
By Allagash Brewing
Barrel Relay Race
If you prefer your bourbon martini-style, shaken not stirred, well, you might just want to taste a drop from one of the barrels when they’ve finished using them in the relay race.
The bourbon is definitely shaken in the Kentucky Bourbon Festival Barrel Relay Race which is a show of pure skill and muscle. In individual and team events, bourbon warehouse workers manoeuvre bourbon barrels over tracks. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not.
The barrels are full and weigh in at around five hundred pounds. That’s a hefty bulk to move with your bare hands and to make it even harder, it’s against the clock, the barrel bung has to be on the top when it stops rolling and the company logo must be facing in the right direction.
Tricky to say the least. Don’t be mistaken into thinking this is just a bit of competitive fun, it’s not. It’s actually a world championship event which is free to attend and has the crowds on their feet cheering the competitors on.
Whiskey City Cruisers Car Show
The people of Bardstown don’t just like their bourbon aged they love their old cars too. From Friday midday through to Sunday evening of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, the Whiskey City Cruisers Car Club put on a vintage car show in front of Bardstown city hall.
Convertibles of yesteryear, with their chrome trim buffed till it glints, are parked alongside Cadillacs with gleaming paintwork. There’s only one word for the display they put on and that is classic.
The vintage car show isn’t the only event of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival which lays siege to Bardstown city hall. A diverse market takes over the lawns from Friday afternoon through to Sunday evening so be prepared to trample over the grass to sample some of what the stalls are offering.
There’s everything from art and handicrafts from local Kentucky artisans to distillery presentations and plenty of food stalls with lots of bourbon influence.
Master Distillers Auction
Can you imagine bidding at auction for a bottle of bourbon which has been opened and half drunk? Seems a strange thing to do, but it happens at the Master Distillers Auction at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
Rare bottles of bourbon, bottles signed by master distillers and some which have been sitting around on someone’s cupboard shelf for more years than anyone’s counting, are put under the hammer. The money raised all goes to a good cause which is helping to keep the Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum’s doors open.
The excitement at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival doesn’t stop even when night falls. As the moon rises over the Nelson County Fairground, hot air balloonists get ready to attempt to out shine it. Bright blasts of flames from the burners inflate the huge, colourful balloons until they float above the ground.
Then the intermittent flares of the burners re-igniting illuminate the balloons from inside until they glow in the dark like enormous fireflies.
It’s a one and a half hour exhibition which starts at around seven thirty in the evening and the admission is free. Is the balloon glow the end of the evening entertainment? No, it’s just the beginning.
Boots and Bourbon
The Boots and Bourbon is a big, country-style hoedown held at the Guthrie Opportunity Centre. It’s ticket entry only for this major night out and they cost around seventy dollars. What do you get for your money?
Lots of foot tapping live music, plenty of food and of course, lashings of bourbon. When you’ve had enough of the dance floor, you just might want to test your skill on the mechanical bucking bronco. Yeehaa!
Do you prefer to just sit back, listen and not have to pay for your entertainment? If you do, then you need to be on the lawns of the city hall at around 5pm on Friday and Saturday of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
Local bands take to the stage and perform free of charge until midnight. There’s also a great Sunday afternoon session which starts at one o’clock and goes on for about four hours. That’s definitely worth spreading a blanket on the grass for.
After all the partying and consumption of bourbon, you might feel in need of fresh air and exercise. Why not get a team together and participate in the Kentucky Bourbon Festival Golf Tournament? It takes place at the Bardstown Country Club golf course on the Saturday morning of the festival.
You’ll need to be up early though as it starts at around 8am. The tournament is for teams of four, entry is one hundred and thirty five dollars each but that includes lunch and the all-important t-shirt.
No prizes for the tournament champions, just prestige. Though don’t worry if your swing is off on the day, a draw is held for door prizes so you could still end up being a winner.
So why Kentucky Bourbon Festival?
Whether you’re a bourbon connoisseur or not, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is six fantastic days of both adult and family entertainment.
If you’re in Bardstown for the festivities, then keep an eye out for the ghost of outlaw Jesse James. Though if you do happen to see him, you’ll never really be sure if it was his ghost or a bourbon induced hallucination.
Bardstown, KY. The exact location of the festival is on 114 North Fifth Street.
Kentucky Bourbon Festival Tips
1# Get Your Tickets
The ticket only events sell out very quickly, so if you’re planning on going to one make sure you purchase your entry well in advance.
2# Control Your Nerves
If you’re planning on attending the Master Distillers Auction just to watch rather than bid, sit on your hands so you don’t get carried away by the excitement of the moment.
3# Be Time Conscious
If you’re planning on entering a team in the golf tournament, don’t leave it too late as places are limited.
What to Do?
Bardstown in Nelson County, Kentucky may have a current population of less than fifteen thousand, but it’s had a lot of distinguished visitors in its time.
From Daniel Boone to Abraham Lincoln and even the infamous outlaw Jesse James have all strolled along the sidewalks of Bardstown’s streets.
Bardstown has a great historical centre with lots of atmosphere and a reputedly haunted tavern which dates back to the 18th century.
There’s also plenty of bourbon distilleries still producing in the town which has been trademarked the bourbon capital of the world.
Oscar Getz Museum Of Whiskey
Bardstown really is all about bourbon and a tour around the Oscar Getz Museum Of Whiskey is an absolute must. Discover everything you’ll ever need to know about the whiskey beverage from its origins to present day.
There’s exciting exhibitions about bourbon during prohibition times, displays of different bottles designs from over the years and lots more information about the drink itself.
If you’ve had enough bourbon and fancy a change in flavour, then head out to the McIntyre Winery for a tour and tasting, but be prepared for a surprise.
The McIntyre Winery don’t produce wine from grapes, but from berries such as blackberries and blueberries. The fruit they use is all home grown on their farm and if you’re there for harvest, you even get to pick your own as well as sampling several different vintages.
Old Talbott Tavern
Have dinner or drinks at the Old Talbott Tavern if you dare. Is it possible that the ghost of Jesse James moves the cutlery on the tables while people are dining or a spectral female figure dressed in white stalks the dining room?
Once a western stagecoach stop, do the clip clop of hooves and the sound of carriage wheels really still ring out? Who knows. Even if you’re not into spooks, it’s worth going for the good food and nightly live music.
My Old Kentucky Dinner Train
Take a journey back in time aboard the Old Kentucky Dinner Train. It’s not exactly the Orient Express, but it’s still an elegant railcar and you can enjoy a three course dinner while being shunted from Bardstown to Limestone Springs. Formal dress is required so don’t turn up in jeans.
Where To Stay?
Bardstown has been offering hospitality to travellers since the early 18th century. As it is a small town, there aren’t hundreds of places to choose from so make sure you book early as the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is a very popular event.
If you really want to go all out and do it Kentucky-style, then stay at the Bourbon Manor Bed and Breakfast.
It’s a stately home set in its own grounds with rooms and suites decked out with four poster beds. They do have family rooms, but Colonial luxury does come with quite a high price though the Bourbon Manor breakfast is second to none.
Couldn’t find your deal? Compare with these leading accommodation sites:
White Acres Campground
If you’re arriving at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in an RV, then this is the perfect place to park up for the duration. It’s a huge open space full of trees, there’s a site office and connections to mains power and water supplies.
Where To Eat?
Need Fusion with Bourbon?
There’s plenty of food at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival plus a few events which combine eating and drinking bourbon.
To find out what food pairs well with bourbon try the Sip and Savor or if you’ve really worked up an appetite head to the festival’s food court where local vendors sell every type of dish under the canvas awnings.
Fan of Southern Home-Style Cooking?
If you want to try some southern home-style cooking and like to pick and choose your dishes,then head to the Stephen Foster Restaurant which serves an all-day buffet.
They also offer daily specials too which can range from meatloaf and cabbage to a great smoked sausage and scrambled egg brunch on Sundays.
Fried Chicken and more in Kentucky
Maybe you just happened to have over indulged on the bourbon and need some comfort food, if so, try Mammy’s Kitchen for a stomach settling big burger with fries or go to Pat’s Place for a plate of shredded beef, mash and gravy.
If you just can’t imagine being in Kentucky without eating fried chicken, then hit Lee’s for a bucket full and some slaw on the side. Need some greens, grits and gravy? Then Tom Pig’s your place.
If you’re in need of some soya protein, then you’re in luck as you’ll find tofu and soya are the main ingredients used at Roots. Try the freshly steamed Edamame beans or the tofu squares with tamarind sauce.
For a real belly filler try the Atomic Wrap from the Falafel House. There’s everything in there but meat and the kitchen sink and they also do a very tasty lentil soup.
How To Get There?
The closest airport to Bardstown is the Louisville International Airport. There are no public transport services from the airport either to Louisville itself or to Bardstown.
Shuttle services run by private companies can be pre-booked online. Limousines are also available for hire.
From Louisville airport to Bardstown
Two cab companies operate out of Louisville International Airport. They are Taxi7 and Yellowcab. A cab from the airport to Bardstown costs in the region of $70.
There are possibilities of a ride and share option which can be arranged at the taxi stand. Both companies also offer disability transport services.
Lyft and Uber are also authorised to provide ride sharing from the east side of the airport terminal. Prices vary depending on the number of passengers and standard of vehicle. Rides can be pre-booked on-line via their company websites.
Renting a car is another option you can use. You can hire a car and pick it up from the Louisville airport.
Bardstown does not have a station with functioning rail service. There is a station, but it is an historic monument and only used as the depot for the Old Kentucky Dinner Train.
There are no public bus services which run to Bardstown. A special shuttle service is provided by the festival organizers which functions inside the town limits and picks up from different designated stops for the duration of the festival.
The best way to get to Bardstown is by car. From Louisville itself the drive will take around forty minutes and from Nashville in Tennessee about two-and-a-half hours. From Lexington or Frankfort the journey to Bardstown takes around an hour.
There is free parking on the neighbourhood streets though expect places to be of a premium so get there early. Also be aware that all normal drink driving regulations apply to visitors of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
Many a good idea has been born at the dinner table and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is one of them. From good food combined with a bourbon tasting session the festival has emerged to become what it is today.
Its growth from humble beginnings that has been sponsored by many of the local bourbon production companies and the festival now attracts over fifty-thousand visitors annually.