By James Natsis
As obvious as it may seem, I think many Louisvillians don’t realize that Bardstown Road heading south leads directly into downtown Bardstown, the “Bourbon Capital of the World” and home to the Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center. This picturesque route linking Louisville and Bardstown is especially delightful during the mid-October season, when autumn’s colors are culminating in full display.
Established in 1934, the Shapira family-run distillery covers an impressive spread of land just at the outskirts of Bardstown on the edge of the Kenny Rapier Golf Course at My Old Kentucky Home State Park.
Heaven Hill distilling operations were moved to the historic Bernheim Distillery in downtown Louisville in 1999 following a fire that destroyed the Bardstown Distillery in 1996. However, all of the freshly distilled products are trucked directly from Louisville to Bardstown where the barrels are filled, stored and later bottled and packaged for distribution. The Heaven Hill campus is also home to 22 seven-story warehouses (aka “rick” or “rack” houses) that hold about 20,000 barrels each.
First opened in 2004, the state-of-the-art center was designed to offer an educational experience to visitors interested in better understanding the history and process of producing bourbon. Among the many museum-like displays is a series of models showing the steps of grinding and cooking of grains, fermentation and distillation at the Bernheim Distillery.
There are four tour options you can select at Heaven Hill. The first tour lasts 30 minutes and includes the viewing of a 13-minute informational video on bourbon history and Heaven Hill’s operations and process. This is followed by an educational tasting of two bourbons. The second tour adds a visit to a rickhouse as well as the addition of a third bourbon to taste. The third “Behind the Scenes Tour” lasts almost three hours.
The fourth “Whiskey Connoisseur” tour was recently implemented at the end of the summer, but it’s quickly becoming Heaven Hill’s pièce de résistance tour. It features a private tasting of four top-shelf bourbons. Although I went on the second tour, after my tasting I was escorted to the increasingly popular top-shelf tasting room where I was treated to a sample of the 23-year-old Evan Williams that retails for about $400. The other three bottles in the room retail from $150 on up and are not easily available elsewhere. The price for this experience was a remarkable $15.
Although Heaven Hill has taken the tasting to another level with its “Whiskey Connoisseur” experience, the three-bourbon tasting that was part of the 75-minute second tour was exceptional in its own right. We started with a 100 proof 10-year-old Rittenhouse Rye whisky. The second sample was a 92 proof, 6-8-year-old Larceny. This wheated bourbon is comprised of 70 percent corn, 20 percent wheat and 10 percent malted barley. The final beverage was a 94 proof small-batch Elijah Craig. The 12 percent rye content added a nice spicy contrast to this otherwise smooth, mature 12-year-old bourbon. The tasting was concluded with a Rebecca Ruth bourbon ball crafted with Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon.
I also recommend the tours at the Heaven Hill Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville.
At both locations, I was impressed by the quality of the offerings and educational experience of the tours. My recent tour guide, Herb, was right when he informed me that at Heaven Hill, they dedicate much “time and attention on how to drink and taste bourbon.”