In 2013, Mayor Greg Fischer declared that Louisville is the Bourbon Capital of the World—and created a minor public relations maelstrom. Bourbon drinkers, distillers and the City of Bardstown disputed his claim vehemently, even when he pointed out that 40% of Kentucky’s distilling jobs are in Louisville.
Pshaw. That’s a tedious technicality compared to the important stuff like proof gallons distilled, barrels filled and a registered trademark stating Bardstown is the world’s bourbon capital. Fischer missed this key point: People care about where the liquid is made and aged, not where paperwork is generated.
Five years later, Bardstown is even more the capital, as much of the bourbon building boom is happening there. In Bardstown and nearby are distilling legends like Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Barton 1792, Willett, Maker’s Mark and Four Roses (aging and bottling only). In the past six years Bardstown Bourbon Co., Lux Row Distillers, Limestone Branch Distillery and Preservation Distillery have joined the mix.
Sure, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail head is in Louisville, but the bulk of those visits happen near Bardstown and Frankfort, where you’ll find whiskey makers, not accountants.
Trading in History
I’m standing up for the little guy here because Bardstown deserves its due. And that sentiment is one of many reasons that led Louisville’s Frazier History Museum to loan its longstanding exhibit, “Spirits of the Bluegrass: Prohibition and Kentucky,” to Bardstown’s Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. “The Getz,” as it’s commonly called, is a wonderful museum that needs and deserves more traffic, patronage and support. Loaning “Prohibition” to the Getz could drive needed visits to the site, the city and that branch of the Bourbon Trail. The economic impact on the Getz and Bardstown is potentially significant.
And if you listen to bartenders and whiskey brand ambassadors, the added educational impact is needed as well. Most Kentuckians, they say, know little about bourbon — or about the Noble Experiment that nearly killed it. It takes about five minutes’ study to understand the profound setback the Volstead Act dealt distilling and every allied Kentucky industry. Had Prohibition not passed, bourbon, not Scotch, might now be the world’s preferred spirit, and Kentucky would have been at the center of production.
Who knows how large Bardstown might have become? Who knows how much more grain would be grown here or how many farming and distilling industry jobs would now be available? And while we’re at it, let’s get in a dig at the Feds: Who knows how many billions of tax dollars weren’t harvested because of Prohibition? Expect answers to many of those questions and others at the Getz exhibit.
The partial exhibit opened on May 19 — partial, I say, because the Getz’s available space couldn’t accommodate every element of the extensive collection of artifacts. Linda Miller McCloskey, the executive director of Bardstown Historic Development Corp., which runs the Getz, closed the museum temporarily to update it so it could house “Prohibition.” To no one’s surprise, countless volunteers and tradespeople from around Bardstown, even Louisville, donated or discounted their time and fees to install the exhibit.
“It’s taken a village to make this happen,” McCloskey said. Even the landscaping around Spalding Hall, where the Getz is located, needed updating. “I said we’d move heaven and earth to get this exhibit in, and that happened.”
I like happy stories like this one, and I love educational stories like the ones the Getz crew is now telling — free of charge to crowds of all ages. It’s a Kentucky-centric story that needs regular revisiting, and perhaps no place more than here in the Bluegrass.
Bourbon, not basketball, is king here, people. If you don’t believe me, take a drive to the actual Bourbon Capital of the World and visit “Prohibition” at the Getz.
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned food writer and is the author of “Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke.”