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Kentucky’s bourbon economy 

Ask anyone not born and raised here what Kentucky’s claim to fame is, and undoubtedly the answer will include horses, a certain fried chicken and bourbon. There is no denying the influence bourbon has had on the local economy. 

Bardstown, known as the Bourbon Capital of the World, has felt the results of this tourism boom more than any other locale. Louisville author Steve Coomes; with Kim Huston, president of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency; and Mike Mangeot, Kentucky’s tourism commissioner, explore the effects of such growth in their book, The Rebirth of Bourbon: Building a Tourism Economy in Small-Town USA

For decades, the distilling industry in Bardstown was simply a way of life. The pay was better than many other employers, and for some, it was a family legacy, with generations before working in the same distillery. “There was nothing special about being a distiller,” says Fred Booker Noe III, a seventh-generation master distiller at James B. Beam Distilling Company since 2007. “Bourbon’s popularity wasn’t off the hook like it is now, so we didn’t enjoy any celebrity status. Growing up in Bardstown was about the same for me as it was any other kid,” Noe says in the book. 

When the bourbon market saw an uptick in the early 90s, this changed, as pride in the bourbon industry increased. With the origination of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in 1992, an event that enabled enthusiasts to meet their favorite distillers and sample their spirits, the momentum picked up. The festival has grown to a three-day event, plus added event days, pulling in around 10,000 visitors annually to the town of 13,000. 

Bourbon fever intensified with the creation of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999. The ability to visit a number of distilleries along a short route through the Bluegrass region draws visitors seeking the full experience: learning how whiskey is made, following it through the distillation process, tasting the outcome, and purchasing bottles of bourbon and souvenirs to take home. By 2018, visits to the Bourbon Trail had reached a whopping 1.4 million. 

Such positive growth has pushed Bardstown officials to consider tourism as a new driver of the economy, resulting in plans for additional hotels, restaurants and parking. Mangeot, for one, is impressed with the effort: “It shows what happens when people work collectively on a common cause to achieve outcomes that benefit their community.” 

September Kentucky Bourbon Festival 

The Rebirth of Bourbon: Building a Tourism Economy in Small-Town USA, Emerald Publishing, $32.99, is available through local booksellers. 

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is held annually during the third week of September. For event information and to purchase tickets online, visit

Fast bourbon facts: 

Nearly one-third of the 9.1 million barrels of whiskey aging in Kentucky are in Bardstown and Nelson County. 

Bourbon cannot be distilled higher than 160 proof, barreled higher than 125 proof, and bottled lower than 80 proof; and must be aged at least two years to be declared straight bourbon. Source: 

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