In a ritual performed for nearly a dozen years, a somewhat otherworldly phenomenon occurs in Nelson County each fall, as spirits draw more than 30,000 people from more than 28 states and 10 foreign countries to the city of Bardstown.
What kind of powerful spirit holds such allure?
Kentucky bourbon, of course.
Bardstown, known as the Bourbon Capital of the World, has been a source of the potent amber-colored drink since 1776, and today, 65 percent of the world’s bourbon is made in the Bardstown area. Where better to celebrate the history of bourbon?
First begun in 1991 as a one-night bourbon tasting and dinner event, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, (800) 638-4877 or e-mail email@example.com, is scheduled September 17-21 this year. The festival has swelled to five full days packed with more than 30 events and attractions for the whole family, including cooking demonstrations with bourbon-based recipes, historic tours, live music, arts and crafts, a Bourbon Q Cook-Off, Kentucky Bourbon Breakfast, Master Distillers Auction, and more. A full 2003 schedule is available at
To discover the ins and outs of the industry, take a free tour of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, (502) 348-2999, Spalding Hall, 114 N. Fifth Street, which is also home to the Bardstown Historical Museum.
A crowd favorite for years, the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. September 20, pits brawny distillery workers against one another to quickly maneuver 500-pound bourbon barrels.
The Bourbon, Cigars and Jazz event, held 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, September 19, in the Great Room and Rotunda at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, borrows a Bourbon Street theme with Cajun food, premium cigars, and jazz music. Reservations are required, $70 per person, (800) 638-4877.
During the spine-tingling Spirits in the Night historic walking tour in downtown Bardstown, listen if you dare to locals tell historic yet ghostly tidbits from the city’s past. Tours will be held 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. and again 8 to 9 p.m. on September 19 and 20, at a cost of $10 per person, with advance tickets available at the festival office, 107 E. Stephen Foster Avenue.
And don’t forget the posh, black-tie event that started it all—The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting and Gala, 6:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. September 20 at JIDECO Hall, 901 Withrow Court. Reservations are required, (800) 638-4877, tickets $135 each. Festival Executive Director Pamela Gover says 220 attended the gala’s inaugural event in 1991, but now 1,200 enthusiasts come to sample the state’s finest bourbons, accompanied by a gourmet meal and dancing.
Many of the events, like the family fun area with games and activities, hands-on bourbon-themed events and demonstrations, Music on the Lawn, and Extreme Adventure rock wall climbing and military adventure simulator, are free to the public and will be held September 19-21 on the lawn at Spalding Hall, 114 N. Fifth Street.
Though in the early 1800s there were more than 26 distilleries in the area, only nine distilleries now remain in the state, and about half are in the Bardstown area. With the festival and other events held throughout the year, Bardstown, www.visitbardstown.com, proudly honors its bourbon birthright.
Only a generation ago, “Somebody in every family somehow worked in the bourbon industry,” Gover says. “Bardstown was grown on bourbon!”
Dagwood’s, 204 N. Third St., (502) 348-4029, offers Elijah Craig New York Strip steak, Very Old Barton chicken and rice, and bourbon chocolate cheesecake.
Kurtz Restaurant, 418 Stephen Foster Ave., (502) 348-8964, serves up ice cream with chocolate bourbon sauce and biscuit pudding with bourbon sauce.
Old Talbot Tavern, 107 W. Stephen Foster Ave., (800)-4TAVERN, offers Kentucky bourbon rib-eye on its dinner menu, and bread pudding with bourbon sauce for dessert.
Rooms tend to fill up fast for Kentucky Bourbon Festival week, organizers say, so make your reservations early. Some local lodging options include:
•Comfort Inn, 984 Frost Ave., (502) 349-9400
•Hampton Inn, 985 Chambers Blvd., (800) HAMPTON
•Jailer’s Inn, 111 W. Stephen Foster Ave., Bardstown, (800) 948-5551
•Arbor Rose, 209 E. Stephen Foster Ave., (888) 828-3330
My Old Kentucky Home State Park, U.S. 150, Bardstown, (502) 348-3502, contains the famous mansion that was the inspiration for the famous Stephen Foster song, My Old Kentucky Home. The park features golfing, camping, picnic and playground facilities, as well as Stephen Foster: The Musical outdoor drama in the J. Dan Talbott Amphitheatre, Drama Drive off U.S. 150, reservations (800) 626-1563 or visit www.stephenfoster.com. Shows nightly at 8:30 p.m., except Mondays, and a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee shown in an indoor theater from June 7 through August 23 this year.
My Old Kentucky Dinner Train offers a scenic, two-hour train trip with fine dining, 602 N. Third Street, (502) 348-7500 for information, or (502) 348-7300 for reservations.
Shannon Leonard-Boone is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.
Any southern road trip down US 45 in western Kentucky should include a stop in the quaint town of Mayfield, called the “Pearl of the Purchase,” located in Graves County in the Purchase Area near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. The southwestern Kentucky town offers unique sights and activities of interest to visitors, whether their cup of tea is history, architecture, antiques, art, or just an old-fashioned good time.
In Mayfield, even the visitor center is an architectural sight to discover as the visitor center and Mayfield Tourism Commission are housed in the historic Edana Locus House at 201 East College Street, (270) 247-6101. Millionaire banker Ed Gardner built the 14-room house in 1928 that sits on seven acres.
Another site of historical architectural interest in Mayfield that now serves a more modern purpose is the renovated Ice House located at 120 North Eighth Street. The old Ice House now houses the Western Kentucky Museum, with exhibits relating to the tobacco industry in the area and Mayfield/Graves County Art Guild. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. CST. For more information, contact the museum at (270) 247-6971.
Not relating to historic architecture, but an educational stop just the same, is the Kaler Bottoms Public Wildlife Area between KY 131 and KY 408, and Tim Owen Road. The 1,837-acre area of cypress swamps is home to several waterfowl, deer, raccoons, squirrels, turkeys, swamp rabbits, great blue heron rookery, and black vultures. The site is owned by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. For visitor information call (502) 564-4336.
Perhaps the biggest social event of the year for the area is the annual Fancy Farm Picnic, held about 10 miles northwest of Mayfield in nearby Fancy Farm. Held the first Saturday in August at St. Jerome Church on KY 80W, the picnic is in the Guiness Book of Records as the World’s Largest Picnic.
The picnic grew from a family reunion in the 1830s. After taking a hiatus for the Civil War, the Fancy Farm Picnic resumed in 1880 and grew to the world record proportions it boasts today. The number of attendees has grown to require 18,000 pounds of pork and mutton, 1,400 pounds of chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs, and 400 pounds each of potato salad and coleslaw every year. Be sure to save room for dessert, because the ladies of the community contribute several homemade pies and cakes. More than 10,000 people attend, with activities beginning at 10 a.m. and running until 11 p.m.
The picnic is a total community effort and an annual fund-raiser for the parish. No outside vendors participate in the festivities, although many Kentucky politicians make the Fancy Farm Picnic a stop on their campaign trail. During election years, several state office seekers, including gubernatorial candidates, take advantage of the opportunity to present their campaign platform in person. It’s an opportunity worth taking according to old state folklore, which holds that politicians who don’t speak at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic don’t get elected.
“I’m not sure whether most politicians believe this is true, but a lot of them show up anyway,” Bob Spalding, Fancy Farm Picnic’s long-time chairman and director, says.
Mayfield Area Information
•Visitors who want to plan their trip in advance can get information by calling Mayfield’s visitor center at (270) 247-6101, or go online to www.mayfieldchamber.com.
•Other helpful Web sites for the area include www.kytourism.com (type in your topic of interest in the search box), http://mayfieldky.topcities.com, and www.thinkwestkentucky.com.
•Heritage Days Festival, the third Saturday in September, will be held September 20, at the Mayfield courthouse square. The festival celebrates the area’s heritage and folk art.
•Wooldridge Monuments at Maplewood Cemetery is a very unusual site to behold while visiting Mayfield. It’s known as a “strange procession that never moves.” The so-called procession is made up of 18 life-size statues at the tomb of Henry G. Wooldridge, who commissioned them prior to his death in 1899. For more information, go on the Web to http://mayfieldky.topcities.com, click on “cemeteries” and then on “tour.”
•Fancy Farm Picnic will be held August 2, on the grounds of Fancy Farm Elementary School, next to St. Jerome Church, 10 a.m. until midnight, (270) 623-8181 for more information.
•Murray State University, in nearby Murray, is home to the Wrather West Kentucky Museum, which highlights various aspects of the region’s history. For information, call (270) 762-4771 or go online to www. murraystate.edu/info/wrather/wrather.htm.
•Hazel, just seven miles south of Murray on US 641, is the small community that, like Mayfield, is known for its several quaint antique shops.
•Benton, just a few miles east from Mayfield via the Purchase Parkway, has a lot to offer the outdoors enthusiast. Near Kentucky Lake, Benton is the location for at least five campgrounds and 13 marinas.
Amanda Vincent is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.