The bourbon boom has been good to Kentucky, but especially to Nelson County., home to more than a third of the state’s whiskey production. As bourbon’s popularity has soared, the quaint city of Bardstown (pop. 13,500) has witnessed a tourism explosion.
Or, perhaps better put, it’s enduring one. Bardstown has loved and welcomed tourists for nearly a century, but this decade-long crush of the whiskey-loving commonweal has created growing pains.
- Traffic is becoming so heavy that plans are afoot for a new bypass around the town.
- Overnight accommodations have been in short supply for years despite an explosion in Airbnb options.
- Modern restaurants and bars are in short supply, especially those catering to high-end spirits and cocktail drinkers visiting area distilleries.
- Not long ago, parking spots were so plentiful in its Historic District that civic leaders removed street meters. Now that supply is tight again, the town is considering building a parking garage to create space.
All good problems to have, right? True enough. But real solutions can’t come quickly enough, visitors and locals say.
Meantime, distilleries are radically overhauling their tourism components with bars, restaurants and deep-dive interactive experiences. In 2018, Bardstown Bourbon Co. came right out of the gate with a restaurant, bar and vintage whiskey library. Willet Distillery spent three years overhauling its visitor experience to create The Bar at Willett and recruited culinary talent from top Southern restaurants to staff its kitchen. Maker’s Mark Distillery, just 25 minutes away in Loretto, opened its own bar and restaurant, Star Hill Provisions, and new food and bar options are in the works at Barton 1792 Distillery, Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, and Jim Beam Distillery nearby.
Sound exciting? It is. So thrilling, in fact, that a London publisher asked two Nelson County civic leaders to write a book about it titled, “The Rebirth of Bourbon: Building a Tourism Economy in Small-Town USA.” Problem was, both leaders were too busy doing the work that’s furthering the bourbon boom to bang out the book themselves.
The pair, Kim Huston (president of the Nelson County Economic Development Association) and Mike Mangeot (executive director of the Bardstown Nelson County Tourism Commission) were asked by Emerald Publishing to write a book that would study Bardstown’s whiskey-fueled growth and compare it to the tourism boom that began in the California Wine Country in the 1980s.
Though they told the publisher they’d do it, they knew neither hand the time to research and write it. And that was the truth. Huston was helping land bourbon distilleries and support businesses in Nelson County while Mangeot was working to improve the area’s tourism response to the ever-unfolding craziness.
“We need someone else to do this book,” Huston told me on a conference call with Mangeot. “Would you like to partner on it?”
Of course, I did, and I started a month later.
This would be the fifth book I’d written, but it was the only one that came with experts to advise me and provide guidance interview sources. When the interviews were done, I’d chatted with 54 people, many of whose doors were opened by Mangeot and Huston. They also did full manuscript edits of the book—twice. Tedious work, but invaluable to me. This was a team effort. And if you know Huston and Mangeot, you know that’s good.
To the credit of Bardstown locals, only one person declined to talk. The others were as helpful as you’d expect: friendly, forthcoming with facts and detailed stories, and funny. Always funny. Sometimes flat-out funny as hell. Talking to them was a pleasure.
If you’re a Kentuckian, this is a book you’d love because it contains multiple historic stories unfolding in real time. The book looks backward and forward simultaneously in an effort to align conflate both views in a present-day perspective.
It contains interviews with some of the bourbon industry’s best-known personalities who told me more tales than I could squish into this tome’s pages. I also spoke with local legends—restaurant and hotel operators, politicians, historians, etc.—whose words will tell you so much more about this incredible town than you’ve likely ever known unless you live in Bardstown.
“The Rebirth of Bourbon: Building a Tourism Economy in Small-Town USA” reads more like a collection of feature stories and essays than a point A to point B novel. That means it’s perfect for readers who like to pick up a book and put it down without losing the story arc. While talking a whole, whole lot about bourbon, it also dabbles in the business of Bardstown, too, which is educational—and frankly some of the most interesting parts for me. The city may be small, but it’s complex in so many ways. Trust me.
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I’m confident you’ll enjoy this look into one of Kentucky’s most amazing cities.