Embarking on a spirited journey from Louisville to Bardstown, a conference tour led by the Kentucky Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier explored the heart of Kentucky’s Bourbon country including iconic distilleries Jim Beam, Willett and Heaven Hill.
Arriving at Jim Beam’s Kitchen Table restaurant we were greeted by Dame Erin Kette (Nashville Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier) for a true taste of Kentucky hospitality. Our intimate breakfast was hosted before Kitchen Table was open to the public and offered a front-row seat to the distillery’s charm.
A flaky biscuit sandwich with ham cured on-site was perfectly paired with a side of rich Bourbon history and a taste of three of the distillery’s most iconic brands. To cap off our experience, bartender Hayley prepared a decadent breakfast cocktail with house-made coffee liqueur boba, salted caramel syrup, Basil Hayden Dark Rye, coffee and cream.
Our next stop was at Willett and hosted by Janelle Kulsveen, wife to seventh generation Master Distiller, Drew Kulsveen. Willett is one of the oldest distilleries in the area that remains family owned and operated.
Here, we learned more about Bourbon’s deep roots dating back to when Bardstown settlers recognized the region’s limestone-filtered water as ideal for Bourbon production. We enjoyed a full tour from grain-to-glass, learning about the stages of production from fermentation of the grains, to distillation and aging in rickhouses. A rickhouse is a warehouse used to age whiskey, and the term comes from the wooden “ricks” that hold the barrels in place.
After a tour and tasting we had a multi-course lunch at their onsite restaurant, the acclaimed Bar at Willett. An open floorplan allows a view of their expert culinary team at work, crafting internationally-inspired dishes with a local flare.
Satiated, we enjoyed stretching our legs on Bardstown’s Main Street for a bit before heading to our third and final tour stop.
At Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Experience museum we enjoyed learning more about the history of collaboration in the Bourbon industry with Dame Jean Michalak (Kentucky Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier). We watched a short historical documentary which emphasized the region’s pension for collaboration.
The documentary centered around the Heaven Hill Distillery fire of 1996, one of the most devastating incidents in the Bourbon industry, yet also showcased the spirit of collaboration. When the fire occurred, several neighboring distilleries and businesses stepped up to offer equipment and expertise. Heaven Hill’s recovery and the support they received from their peers have since become a part of bourbon lore, reinforcing the industry’s bonds and commitment to quality.
A central theme throughout the tour was Bardstown’s history of collaboration in the Bourbon industry and how they have fostered a resilient and thriving whiskey ecosystem, a testament to the enduring power of cooperation in the face of economic challenges and changing times.
During Prohibition, when the production and sale of alcoholic beverages were illegal, many Bardstown distilleries including Willett banded together to survive by producing medicinal whiskey, ensuring their survival until the repeal of the 18th Amendment.
In the 19th century, the famed Kentucky Bourbon Trail was born as a collaborative marketing effort, bringing together distilleries like Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, and Willett to promote Bourbon tourism.
This immersive experience offered a taste of the rich history and craftsmanship behind Bourbon, America’s only native spirit.