Craft, Curiosity, and Conversation on the Bourbon Trail
Dotted across the rolling hills of northern Kentucky are more than a dozen distilleries that form the nationally recognized Bourbon Trail. Ranging from famous to micro, they offer guests from around the world a glimpse into the production and taste of the most American of spirits.
One might assume that the tourists flocking to the Bourbon Trail are interested in only bourbon, but David Mandell, president and CEO of Bardstown Bourbon Company, thinks that’s selling visitors short.
He believes that, in addition to excellent bourbon, they want conversation, a variety of delicious food, and even wine and beer. In June, Mandell opened Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar, the trail’s first full-service restaurant, on the sprawling grounds of Bardstown Bourbon Company distillery.
“Unlike at the other distilleries that are singularly brand-focused, you come to us and you can experience everything related to bourbon but also so much more,” Mandell says.
In a modern, open space, guests sit in plush chairs and leather booths while enjoying what Mandell calls comfort food with flair—primarily featuring locally sourced ingredients. They might break up their day of bourbon tasting with a regional favorite like bourbon-rubbed baby-back ribs, a charcuterie plate, or a caprese salad.
“Our philosophy is of elegance and Southern comfort. We wanted to become a Napa Valley destination on the Bourbon Trail,” Mandell says. The approachable yet sophisticated menu was designed to bring people together, he adds.
For example, foods like the shareable grilled cheese sticks often spark nostalgia, as well as conversation among guests and staff.
“Everyone’s idea of a perfect dining experience is different,” says John Donnelly, executive director of food and beverage. “Hospitality and conversation can take many forms. We want to bring the community together, bring the people on the trail together, and we want them to have fun.” Guests can even take a look at executive chef Felix Mosso and his team working their magic in the open kitchen.
Sommelier Dan Callaway is the director of beverage operations and bourbon education. He curated the long list of wines—not unlike ones found in wine country. The bourbon is presented, selected, and crafted with similar refinement. Bardstown’s own spirits are featured alongside dozens of other brands served straight up, in craft cocktails, or even boozy milkshakes.
The crown jewel is the vintage whiskey library curated by renowned whiskey writer Fred Minnick. Minnick selected more than 200 American whiskeys that date from the late 1800s to the 1980s. These, along with contemporary whiskeys, can be enjoyed in a variety of creative flights.
To facilitate guest education, employees, including executives, must complete the immersive Executive Bourbon Steward course at Moonshine University in Louisville. Guests are also curious about up-and-coming companies and partnerships, Callaway says.
Buying base spirits from other distillers and then customizing them is a common practice but taboo subject in the distilling world. Many brands on the trail are prohibited from discussing such topics with guests, Mandell says. Bottle & Bond changes that. Employees are happy to discuss the brands they sell and what other companies produce.
“We are able to talk about brand differences. We are able to talk about our partnerships because we distill for micro-companies and create innovative products,” Callaway says.