Location: Bardstown, Kentucky
Major Labels: 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Very Old Barton
Distillery Method: Continuous Distillation Columns
The Barton Distillery just outside of Bardstown, Kentucky is not well known, even among bourbon fans. This is due to its lack of marketing, reliance on contract distilling and bottling for other brands and labels, and perhaps its association with lower shelf labels such as Ten High. In fact, dozens of bourbons, whiskeys, gins, vodkas, and other distilled spirits have at one time or another been either distilled or bottled at the distillery location. This is quite evident when you walk through the shipping warehouse and bottling building. However, there is nothing that prevents Barton from producing a solid bourbon and its popularity among Kentuckians (historically the most popular bourbon in the state) is proof that it does produce a very smooth and flavorful bourbon. The top products are sold as 1792 Ridgemont Reserve and Very Old Barton. The 1792 Ridgemont Reserve is aged at least 8 years and the Very Old Barton is aged for either 4 or 6 years. The 1792 Ridgemont Reserve is a more recent product and is an obvious attempt to create a new “premium” label. Although the price is much lower than better-known premium brands, this is every bit a premium bourbon, as why shouldn’t it be, given that it is produced in one of the original Kentucky distilleries, using limestone fed spring water and aged on site in new oak barrels stored in old-style, multi-story rickhouses.
The distillery was originally established as the Mattingly and Moore Distillery and was later known as the Tom Moore Distillery. It took on its current name when Oscar Getz bought it in 1944. It promptly burned down the next year but was back in business the following year. The plant is now owned by the Sazerac Company, owners of the Buffalo Trace distillery and makers of Van Winkle, Blantons, Ancient Age, Eagle Rare, and W. L. Weller, among other brands.
The distillery y opened to public tours just a couple of years ago. The lack of public access for decades meant that this distillery was not on the Kentucky distillery tours which kept the brand and location a well-kept secret. It was a warm summer day when we took the tour. The tour includes a visit inside the closest rick house where there are several barrels set aside for special tastings. These old rickhouses are huge affairs. Smelling that musty, warm, and yet damp air is a great way to understand the heart and soul of whiskey-making. Also, when you see all of those oak beams and barrels full of high-proof whiskey you can understand why rickhouse fires are a constant worry in Kentucky. The Barton style of rickhouse is not completely unique in Kentucky. But these are indeed mammoth affairs, built six to ten stories high and made of large oak beams clad in corrugated metal. The grain dumping area and grinding facilities are next on the tour.
Visitors are allowed to step inside the door to the distillery columns. There are two older columns along with a newer column. These are large-scale industrial columns that display a serious industrial feel. This is not a quaint distillery with copper pot stills. This distillery is usually a busy place, though things were shut down when we were there. The tour includes a visit to the bottling plant and the warehouse. The warehouse is amazingly large and the plethora of brands and labels suggests that the business model includes a fair amount of contract work.
The tour ends in the tasting room, which is in its own separate building. I believe that this building once housed the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey, which is now in downtown Bardstown. Both the Very Old Barton and the 1792 Ridgemont Reserve bourbons were poured.
The 1792 has a fairly uniform aroma, with strong vanilla and a hint of spices. It definitely opens up in the glass. Tipping it back the oak is the next aroma. In the mouth it has a wonderful smoothness that is quite unmatched by more pedestrian bourbons but there is some definite hot spice mixed in there as well, perhaps a byproduct of the higher rye content. This is not an especially “sweet” bourbon. The smoothness on the swallow and the spiciness on the tongue is definitely unusual in a bourbon.
The VOB, like its slightly older brother, the 1792, has a more uniform aroma, with vanilla and caramel being the main components. It tends toward a distinctly oaky aroma as it sits in the glass. It is also smooth on the swallow and yet spicy on the tongue. Some writers call this the “Barton Bite.” It is not as smooth as the 1792, but it is still smoother than most bourbons.
Additional Thoughts: I have a theory about the Barton distillery. Most of the other Kentucky distilleries (Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, and Makers) are very successful and a large proportion of their product is going to end up in their standard and premium lines. The Barton distillery, on the other hand, produces serious amounts of plastic-bottled bottom shelf bourbons and whiskies. What does this mean for their standard and premium labels? It means that those bottles come from parts of rickhouses that through experience have produced better whiskey. Its just a theory as I don’t have the numbers to back it up. But when you think about it, there is some logic behind the theory. This also means that if the 1792 or VOB takes off then the distillery has the ability to significantly expand production of both labels.
Charles K. Cowdery, “Bourbon Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey” 2004
Mark H. Waymack and James F. Harris, “The Book of Classic American Whiskeys” 1995