A Day on the Trail: A Behind the Scenes Tour of Bardstown Bourbon Company
A different kind of bourbon company. That’s the way I had heard Bardstown Bourbon Company described before my visit there. I read the pitch a few times before but I didn’t really understand it until I got the chance to see it in person. Making bourbon in the Bourbon Capital of the World may not be unique but, the way they’re going about their business is pretty unique.
Transparent, Authentic & Collaborative
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According to company President and CEO, David Mandrell the company is all about Transparency, authenticity and collaboration. When you arrive at the distillery you quickly find, it’s not just a slogan, as David says, “it’s built into their ethos.” The distillery operation is surrounded by glass. Driving up to the distillery you see the giant shiny grain silos holding the corn, rye and wheat that make up their bourbon. As you get closer you can’t help but notice the 50′ foot tall Vendome Copper and Brass Works stainless steel column still gleaming through the glass. The still itself has tons of glass, probably more glass per square inch than any other column. A quick look to the left shows a collection of eight 12,500 gallon fermentation tanks. A look to the right shows an open learning and retail location that is still under construction. The facility has a modern almost minimalist kind of look adorned by tinted glass, warm wood and cut stone that sits on 100 acres in the rolling hills of Kentucky.
I recently had the opportunity to be a part of a small group to get the first official tour of the new facility since it started distilling operation just a few days before our arrival. Since it is still an active construction site all visitors had to don the sporty day glow reflective vests and matching safety helmets you can see in the photos below (quite stylish!)
The Business Has 3 Major Components
David explained that the company has three major components that make it unique.
1. Bardstown Bourbon Company Brands – The Bardstown Bourbon Company will have its own brands of bourbon. He was not ready to disclose any of brand details on this visit but said they will be released soon. One thing I can tell you for sure is that there will be a wheated bourbon. The maiden run of distillate coming off the still while we were their was a wheated bourbon. Master Distiller Steve Nally said it’s a 68% corn, 20% wheat and 12% malted barley mash bill. Considering their spirits will age for 5-7 years, they have some time to figure out their branding story.
2. Collaborative Distilling Program – “The story of where things come from has gotten more and more important. Authenticity, transparency, these are things that are very critical. What we have done with the collaborative distilling program is said come to us, we have certain qualifications…if you are the right company and the brand meets our ethos, we’ll produce your product for you custom. You’ll come in, you’ll work with our great distilling team, with Steve Nally. We’ll make your product, we’ll age it here and then that brand, the Bardstown Bourbon Company becomes the home for that brand. We showcase it, it becomes part of the experience, you can bring your distributor, you can bring your customers here and you can actually celebrate where it comes from, because it’s yours.”
David shared that they have already sold out their wholesale program to about 12 customers. He would not give specifics but said that out of the 1.5 million proof gallons the distillery will make annually more than half of that will be for their distilling partners. He said “because of the collaborative distilling program, the company is already cash flow positive from day one.” He expects the distillery to be running at full capacity from the start.
3. The Visitor Experience – The visitor experience at the Bardstown Bourbon Company distillery is a big deal. The site will include two classrooms, a full service bar, a restaurant, fireplace, a large living wall, indoor and outdoor events space as well as the distillery and rickhouses. You can see a lot of this under construction in the photo gallery below. The company will be working on their plans along with companies like Mint Julep Tours to create unique experiences. David explained, “We don’t do tours, we are about creating experiences.”
“Hip to be Square” Still Design
As many new high gloss distillery’s are built across the country, each strives to have their own unique personality. In the case of Bardstown Bourbon Company it’s clearly Hip to be Square. Traditionally, the glass portals on a column still are round and relatively small. In the case of this design, the portals were designed with the visitor experience in mind. They are square and they are large, a full 11″ x 16″ adding to their concept of transparency. As you walk past the 50′ tall, 36″ diameter stainless steel column still you can literally see the steam rolling up the column as the grains and liquid trickles down the plates and across the glass. The large still not only has one eye level window to see what’s going on inside, it has another window on the opposite side that literally allows visitors to see through the distilling process.
Employees to Receive the First 18 Barrels of Bourbon
In an earlier press release put out by the company it included the names and years of service each of the employees had in the distilled spirits industry. It’s an impressive list with a totals some 230 years. Bourbon Hall of Famer and Master Distiller Steve Nally was at the head of the list with 38 years of experience. I didn’t really understand why the company was sharing all the names and years of experience until the site visit. Toward the end of our distillery tour, David gathered all the employees together for and announcement. He told the employees, “The building is great but the building is nothing, and the equipment is nothing without all of you all. And that’s what’s going to make this company so special.” He went on to say, “The first 18 barrels that will be produced here are going to you all. They’re yours. I want you all to know, this is your company and it’s your product. Those first 18 barrels are going to you.” I can tell you, there were 18 very happy campers in the room after that announcement.
In case you are wondering, barrel No. 1 goes to Steve.
Over the last week the distillery started producing its first bourbon and expects to be open to the public for tours starting in the second quarter of 2017.
Photo Tour of the Bardstown Bourbon Company
Click on any image to enlarge the photos.