In October, 2014 Mrs. Wonk and I toured eight whiskey distilleries in the vicinity of Louisville, KY, and Nashville, TN. In a prior post, I described the common elements of these tours in detail, while this post focuses on the unique parts of our Barton 1792 Distillery visit. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, it’s a good idea to read that post first.
CocktailWonk Rating: 6/10 (standard free tour)
The Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, KY, is home to the well-known 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Straight Bourbon, as well as several less well known labels such as Very Old Barton. Since 2009, Barton Brands and the Distillery have been owned by the Sazerac Company of New Orleans, which also owns the nearby Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY. The Barton distillery totals 192 acres and has been continuously operating since 1879, not 1792 as you might guess from the name.
Upon driving into the distillery and parking by the gift shop, it’s obvious that you’re smack in the middle of a large scale enterprise and not in some out of the way visitors’ parking lot like other distilleries. Giant trucks haul grain and barrels mere feet from where you’re parked. A giant brick building housing the distillation apparatus looms over the parking lot and the house-sized visitor’s center. A few hundred yards away is a large, black painted rickhouse, one of many owned by Barton, full of barrels aging whiskey.
After a brief introduction at the gift shop, we walked outside to one end of the distillation building, where we saw a semi-truck full of grain being weighed before discharging its load into holding bins. Before discharging, probes reach into the grain and sample it for water content – a bad load will be rejected.
We then walked outside along the building for a bit, stopping at a few points to talk about mash content (corn, barley, and rye) as well as peer through some windows at what we were told were fermentation tanks. We didn’t get to see any of the actual mash being fermented, which was a disappointment — most other distilleries show off their mash tanks, and some encourage you to sample it.
Eventually we made our way inside and ascended several sets of metal stairs to near the top of the Vendome column still. (I was amazed that we didn’t have to sign a liability waiver, given the steep stairs and close proximity to very hot metal.) As we made our way up I spotted lots of interesting gauges with labels like “Fusel Oil Draw Plate 37, low.” Barton’s tour wins on this point – we saw much more of the still than at most other distilleries. At the top level we spent some time gathered around the copper and glass spirit safe, through which you can see a strong steady flow of clear, just-born whiskey flowing directly off the still. Below it is a copper “barrel” with clear ends with more fresh, clear spirit gushing into it. The guide took a sample of the fresh whiskey and passed it around, encouraging us to sample it. As around 70 percent ABV, it overwhelmed some people, but I found it quite enjoyable with a fruity essence. The guide had us rub our hands together briefly, then smell them, yielding the scent of one of the grains. Another short rubbing interval, and we now smelled a different grain. A very enlightening experience for many in our group.
After the still, we made our way back outside and across the main yard to the black-rickhouse. Along the way we glimpsed a big pile of coal–reserve in case it’s needed to keep the boilers running. Barton paints their rickhouses black to hide the splotchy distiller’s mold. It also gives them a cleaner, more imposing look. From where we stood outside the rickhouse, we could see other Barton houses perched on nearby hills. Inside we saw the traditional charred oak stave and several ceremonial barrel heads representing important milestones, for instance, barrel number four million.
The tour ended back at tasting room and gift shop. Our group tasted the 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Very Old Barton’s (80 proof), and then a choice of bourbon eggnog or chocolate bourbon ball cream liquor. We were also given a wooden bunghole plug with the Barton logo as a souvenir.
Photography wise, the tour had no restrictions and the surrounding countryside is very picturesque. However, without seeing the mash tanks or bottling facilities, you get a limited view of the overall operation. For this reason, I ranked the Barton tour lower than I might otherwise. I’ve read online that there are multiple Barton tours, including a longer tour that includes the bottling facility. However, I couldn’t find any information on Barton’s web site, and I saw no mention of it when we arrived at noon on a Monday afternoon.
The Barton gift shop is relatively small, with no limited or distillery-only bottles to be found other than perhaps the eggnog and bourbon ball liqueur, which while good weren’t something I would give up precious suitcase space for. There is a moderate amount of branded apparel and knick-knacks, as well as bourbon candy, if you’re into that sort of thing.