The Bard Distillery in Graham has been officially included on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a tourist destination for people from all around the country and all over the world and a high honor in the distilling industry. The former school is being transformed into a distillery and event center, bringing people to the county as part of the official “Craft Tour”.
Traveling the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a bucket-list item for many folks. There are official field guide passports where tourists can collect stamps from each distillery they visit. The state is divided into four regions – Northern, Central, Western and Bluegrass – and when a region is completed, a challenge coin is awarded.
Once an ambitious bourbon tourist collects all four challenge coins, they receive a commemorative stave. The stave, which is a plank of wood from a bourbon barrel, is carved with spaces for each coin to be displayed.
Having a hometown distillery on this world-renowned tour is something, and there is a process to getting accepted onto the trail.
The first step is to become a member of the Kentucky Distillers Association and be a licensed distillery.
Once the distillery becomes established, they can request to be included on the trail. The association evaluates the “tourist experience” and members visit and vote to include new distilleries on the tour.
The Bard Distillery is part of the “Craft Tour”, which features 23 smaller distilleries, generally producing less than 50,000 gallons each year. Unlike the large distilleries with well-known names, these smaller distilleries offer a more intimate look at the industry.
“There’s a big range. Some [craft distilleries] only make a few gallons, some make right at 50,000 gallons,” said Tom Bard, who along with his wife Kim own and operate The Bard Distillery. The big named distilleries are in a completely different category. “They make more in an hours than some of us can make all year.”
The bourbon industry is booming in the commonwealth. A study released earlier this year, by economist Dr. Paul Coomes and funded by the Kentucky Distillers Association, says Kentucky bourbon brings in $9 billion in economic output each year and provides more than 22,000 jobs.
According to the KDA, The Kentucky Bourbon Trail brought more than 1.5 million visitors to the Bluegrass state last year, rebounding from covid-19 lows in 2020. The “Craft Tour” brought more than 600,000 visitors, an increase of 170% over 2020 numbers.
“The vast majority of our visitors to the distillery are from out of town, and out of state,” Tom said. “We’ve been drawing people off of the Western Kentucky Parkway even before we were on the trail.”
Now that the distillery is on the trail, Tom said it will bring tourists into Kentucky with the specific goal of visiting Muhlenberg County and The Bard Distillery.
The Bard Distillery was added to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail on Dec. 1, 2021, without much fanfare. This came just before a tornado ripped through Bremen on Dec. 10, 2021. Tom and Kim shifted their focus to cleanup and tornado relief and spent their days working out at the disaster site for weeks. They continue to help organize donations and do what they can for those in need.
“We basically dedicated as much time as we possibly could to help in Bremen,” Tom said. “We were able to coordinate with other distilleries who wanted to help. People from Green River Distillery in Owensboro came down and wanted to help. We were able to escort them out to where we had been working every day.”
The bourbon industry also rallied to help after the December 2021 tornadoes. A benefit auction of rare bottles, including the “Mayfield Collection” of 14 bottles recovered from Carr’s Steakhouse in downtown Mayfield which sold for more than $69,000, brought in more than $3 million. The industry has raised more than $5 million in tornado relief funds.
The Bards are active in the community, and in their bourbon industry association as well. They make trips to Frankfort and Washington, D.C. to represent bourbon makers and help lobby for legislation that helps their industry run more smoothly.
“The KDA is a wonderful guild to have. They let us know of current affairs that impact our industry,” Tom said. They also organize fundraisers and events to highlight the industry, and the Bard Distillery is active in participating in those.
The distillery already enjoys hosting visitors from all over the nation and from far-flung parts of the globe. Their guest book is filled with people who have come to Muhlenberg County for the purpose of paying them a visit. Tours are given Thursday through Sunday and tastings are offered.
This distinction of being on the Kentucky Bourbon Tour means they will be included in advertising and promotional materials from the Kentucky Bourbon Association and Kentucky Tourism, bringing even more folks to visit.