A vintage train carrying bourbon enthusiasts rattles through the undulating knob hills of Nelson County, Ky., home to Bardstown, "The Bourbon Capital of the World." It rolls past harvest-ready cornfields, cattle grazing in verdant pastures and horses nonchalantly watching the train chug past their black plank fences.
In the bar car, some sip Monk's Road bourbon from graceful snifters, savoring smooth caramel nuances between slow drags on fine cigars, while others relish the peppery bite of Monk's Road rye whiskey. There's a burgeoning sense of camaraderie among the group, united in their passion for "America's native spirit."
That's what John Wallace "Wally" Dant III envisions for the next phase of Dant Crossing, the new 350-acre, bourbon-themed recreation and entertainment complex with Log Still Distillery at its heart. Think of it as the Disneyland of bourbon.
A collaboration with the nearby Kentucky Railway Museum will help facilitate a 45-minute excursion through the pastoral setting where seven generations of Dants have distilled bourbon.
Dant is reviving the family's bourbon legacy that began in 1836, when an ancestor distilled whiskey in a hollowed-out poplar log. The new distillery will sit on the site of the old operation that closed decades ago.
In the meantime, the savvy businessman and former Nashville health care CEO is gearing up for the 30th annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held Sept. 16-19.
Dant may be the scion of a well-established bourbon family, but this is Dant Crossing's first Kentucky Bourbon Festival, a rite of passage for any area distillery.
"The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is such a well-respected and longstanding event, and it's an honor to be a part of it this year," Dant said. "I'm looking forward to bourbon fans from across the world getting to experience our campus and taste our Monk's Road spirits for the first time."
If you can't make it to the sold-out festival, no worries. Bardstown distilleries offer tours year-round.
When completed next year, the $30 million Dant complex will have a 22,000-square-foot events center, a farm-to-table restaurant, and, of course, a craft distillery that can produce 15,000 barrels of bourbon annually.
Portions of the campus are still under construction, but the expansive tasting room is open. The inviting two-story space with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooks a 2,000-seat amphitheater.
Since the Log Still has yet to produce its first barrel, the tasting room is stocked mostly with a lineup of debut products that don't require aging, such as Monk's Road Barrel-Finished Gin and Rattle and Snap Tennessee Whiskey. The exception is the six-year-old Monk's Road Fifth District Series bourbon that will be sourced from another local distillery until Log Still is complete.
Within walking distance of the tasting room is the Homestead at Dant Crossing, a five-bedroom bed-and-breakfast in a restored lakefront farmhouse that has been in the Dant family for generations.
Guests relish the simplicity and charm of the countryside, fishing from a nearby pier or strolling along a trail that circles the 12-acre lake.
Some festivalgoers base themselves at the Homestead and branch out from there to other distilleries.
Start with Heaven Hill, which includes Elijah Craig and Evan Williams in its extensive bourbon portfolio, and check out the new visitors center called the Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience. Following a $19 million expansion, the 30,000-square-foot space features three tasting rooms, a rooftop bar and even more bourbon-themed fun.
Today's savvy bourbon consumer has a thirst for knowledge, and the new You Do Bourbon experience enlightens. Set in a classroom with a lab, it takes a deep dive into everything from mash bills (grain recipes used to produce bourbon) to quality control.
Surrounded by attentive bourbon lovers, a host discusses how mash bills that contain varying amounts of corn, malted barley and rye give each bourbon a distinctive flavor profile.
Bourbons crafted to let malted barley shine have a rich, nutty flavor that seems to grow more complex from first to final sip. Rye-forward bourbon shimmers with vibrant spicy heat that makes it a welcome fireside companion on a blustery day. But all bourbon is made from at least 51% corn, the most important grain.
Visitors choose from one of four spirits to bottle and take home. They label it, write the proof, and sign it with a flourish, just like Bardstown's legendary master distillers do.
More to see and sip
With 11 distilleries in and around Bardstown, it would be nearly impossible to experience all the bourbon tours and tastings during one visit, but here are a couple that you'll want to add to your itinerary.
It's worth visiting Maker's Mark, a granddaddy of the industry and a National Historic Landmark, just to roam the vast, bucolic grounds. You'll learn about bourbon's not-so-secret ingredient, limestone water, and have a chance to dip your own bottle into Maker's Mark's signature red wax.
By contrast, Lux Row Distillers has only been around for three years, but it's already making a splash with a unique tasting that demonstrates how chocolate brings out the nuances of Rebel Yell, Ezra Brooks and David Nicholson Reserve.
Whatever your bourbon of choice, you'll find rivers of it in Bardstown. Most visitors return home not only with a collection of souvenir bourbon glasses, but a deeper appreciation for the unique culture of this corner of the Commonwealth.
Tracey Teo is an Indiana-based travel writer.