Editor’s Note: Bardstown Bourbon Company covered my travel expenses related to this distillery visit. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this article.
Bardstown, Kentucky is traditionally seen as the heart of bourbon country in this whiskey making state. It is a place awash in bourbon distilling, history and tourism opportunities for those coming here to taste brown spirit. It is not necessarily a place one might see a start up style operation take root given the long tail historical considerations of the area, but it’s here that, a number of years back, Bardstown Bourbon Company set up shop amongst 100 acres of active farmland on the outskirts of the city.
Bardstown Bourbon Company broke ground on its then planned $25 million “destination experience” back in mid-2015. It has grown exponentially since then, opening up a distillery, state of the art restaurant, aging warehouses and more. Bardstown Bourbon is lead by David Mandell, a CEO with a wide range of leadership skills, and Steve Nally, an esteemed master distiller who has been in the industry for over four decades. The two of them, working alongside what’s easily arguable is a best of breed team across multiple disciplines, have built up what has quickly become a cornerstone of the local community, and the bourbon industry, as well.
To date Bardstown Bourbon has had just a smattering of public whiskey releases. It is busy making its own product, however, while at the same time running a robust program doing spirit for other brands and labels. To learn more about what is going on here, we recently visited Bardstown Bourbon and, after an extensive tour and preview of some of the interesting projects they are working on, interviewed Mandell. Note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Whiskey Wash (TWW): So we are here with David Mandell of Bardstown Bourbon. David what is your role here?
David Mandell: I’m the president and the CEO and one of the founders of the company.
TWW: Okay. So, let’s go back a number of years. Bardstown Bourbon came about as a result of what?
Mandell: Bardstown Bourbon Company came about in 2013, and it started as an idea for another project with myself, our chairman, two of our other founders, and Steve Nally our master distiller. And it started as one concept and very quickly, as we got out here, as we were introduced to the community here, it became something else. And over a period of time it evolved into what we are today, which is a celebration of the entire craft of making whiskey and bourbon.
TWW: What was your thought process in doing something that would buck certain trends and the traditional bourbon industry?
Mandell: It evolved and as we got out here, as we saw the land, as we made decisions to buy a hundred acres here, and the ideas began to come together as a Napa Valley destination experience, and then the concepts around the collaborative distilling program, where we make complete custom whiskey for other great brands, and so each thing kind of built on the next and the vision began to come together, and even over the last year since the opening of Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar, which is our restaurant and bar here in the distillery, which is obviously a very unique experience.
TWW: Three words I’ve heard throughout [our tour] are collaboration, respect, and innovation. Talk a little bit about each of those.
Mandell: I’d add transparency to that, but let me talk about each one of them because you know what you have really touched on are some of the key tenets of our mission, our vision and our values.
Collaboration is something that is core to us and so collaboration is a concept of working together to make great products and to make things better, and so we very much believe in that. You see that in our collaborative distilling program. You know, where we work with some of the best brands in the world to produce their custom whiskey from start to finish. We have collaboration in our restaurant, where we have a program with the State Department [that let’s us ] bring in culinary students from all over the world, and they’re working with us, and their making great and exceptional food, and working with our beverage team.
Innovation [and respect], where we are respecting tradition and the art of bourbon making, but we’re also pushing the envelope, whether it [be] in trying and testing lots of different things, [or] whether it is some of the things that we’re doing on the distilling side, all the way to giving our beverage team full reign to create innovative products. And so you see the innovation across the board. I’d say a lot of innovation’s coming out of our collaborative distilling program too, where you’ve got some of the best brands and companies working side by side with us in the distillery to make their products, but we’re also actually doing innovation for them. So they’ll come to us.
[With] transparency you see not only in the architecture of the building. In our philosophy, transparency to us really means showing you exactly what is taking place. No made up stories. No mythical legends. Here’s how it’s done. Here’s how it’s made. Let’s tell the story. Let’s show it to you. You see that in our process. You see that in the way that we approach the market, and it’s something that we build into the culture with our employees too. So it’s very important for us.
TWW: Part of your story here is this focus on producing whiskey for other people. You also have your own brand that you produce whiskey for. Do those two flagpoles conflict with one another?
Mandell: No. I say very much they work hand in hand and I’ll tell you why. [With] the production that we have done in the collaborative distilling program for others, [it] has given us the ability to create a level of sophistication and technical capability that we turn around and we put into our own products. We’re taking everything that we have done in our collaborative distilling program, all of that knowledge, all of that credibility, and we’re putting it into our own products. So I would say there’s this great synergy between the two and that drives us. It pushes us, and the result of that is a lot of what you’re gonna see come out of this place too under our own brand.
TWW: [It seems] that everyone has a voice here in what goes on here to some extent. Why is that important to you in a whiskey distillery?
Mandell: It’s extremely important because the people that we are having produce our products work with us on that level of creativity to create new things. If they don’t have a voice, then that’s not gonna show up in the product. Where you’re creating a culture of innovation and creativity, the only way you get there is through good communication, by people working together within the company.
We have a lot more freedom because we have a very wide and broad brand [that’ts] about being all about the community of whiskey and making great whiskey and this team, and so we’re respecting tradition and art. We’re also pushing the boundaries.
TWW: So collaboration program, restaurant, cocktail bar, gift shop that sells whiskey from a range of brands. A lot of these things push the envelope for what we know as Kentucky bourbon tourism. Why do that?
Mandell: They push it well beyond the bounds of what we know and so it’s interesting because the [Kentucky] legislature has obviously seen where things are headed. They gave all of us the flexibility and the freedom to do exactly what we are doing and we are embracing every aspect of it. Why do all that? Because we’re creating a destination experience here on the Bourbon Trail that is catering to not only to the community of people in Bardstown, but the more than one-million people coming through the Bourbon Trail that want to learn about bourbon and whiskey.
It’s about when they come to us. It’s about education. It’s about experience. It’s about fun. So when you look at when people are coming through, they’re making choices about where they want to go. So we want to be that one choice where we’re different than the others. You’re going here. You’re going there and then you’re coming here. Why are you coming here? It’s unique. It’s fresh. You’re getting a different perspective. You’re getting a phenomenal culinary experience and then, guess what? At the end of the day you might not want to have bourbon all day long and with your meal. You might want a great glass of wine with a fabulous steak and guess what? That’s okay.
TWW: One of the things about Bardstown Bourbon Co. that makes it relatively unique in the world of Kentucky is your collaboration project, where you guys are doing distillation, barrel aging, et cetera for other brands. Talk a little bit about that program.
Mandell: So it’s interesting because we do complete custom whiskey production in an exclusive program. In order to be in our program, you have to have a great brand, you’ve gotta have been in the industry, your brand has to fit with our values, it’s gotta be about quality, and so with that concept we have effectively sold out the distillery for the next five years in terms of capacity.
Our customers are able to work with us to produce every aspect of their product from start to finish, so from the mash-build, and the grains, and where the grains come from to the process, to the set points and the vapor temperature, to the barrel, to the yeast. Every aspect is custom and can be adjusted and so you can only do that effectively and provide great customer service with a limited number. And so we have a handful of great brands we produce for. Some of them we talk about. Some of them are confidential.
TWW: You mentioned earlier about being years sold out in the collaborative program. What does that mean?
Mandell: in a collaborative distilling program, you can have a contract with us for example, to do production for you for so many barrels a year, for so many years into the future, and so that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about brands that are in our program, that are under contract with us to produce custom whiskey for them for years to come.
TWW: What’s it you think that these brands, these individuals, these other whiskey outlets see in you guys that makes them feel comfortable doing this collaborative program?
Mandell: I think they see a lot in us. They see a tremendous amount of expertise. They see a team that is second to none in terms of making whiskey and bourbon. They see a level of transparency in the kind of data that they can get from us. The ability to work side by side. All of these things are very attractive to them.
TWW: Whether it’s the food and beverage program or the distillation team, you guys seem to have gone out and recruited best of breed. Why?
Mandell: At the end of the day we can have the best shiny equipment, a beautiful restaurant [and] great bar, but if the people aren’t the best people across the board, none of it means anything. We recruit the best talent so that we can have the best company and we can make all of these innovative products and we can provide the level of hospitality and customer service to our customers and we can produce the best products in our own brands. At the end of the day, it all comes from the people. It is the people. It is the team and how it functions together and that’s why we invest so heavily there.
TWW: In the tech world there’s a term called disruption. How are you disrupting the whiskey industry?
Mandell: I think we’re disruptive in a couple of senses, in a couple of ways. On the collaborative distilling side, we’ve effectively created a new model in the industry. So this complete custom whiskey production program disrupted the traditional contract production process. Those people say “do you guys do contract production?” We day, “No, we don’t.” And then, “Why not?”
Because the traditional contract process was very different. You got what you got. You’re selling excess capacity or you’re a big industrial facility. You can only choose from certain things. You have very little transparency. That’s how it was. We came in and we completely disrupted that market.
Are we disruptive on the other side? Yes, in a sense. Just adding the kind of hospitality, the restaurant and the bar into this visitor’s experience, is setting a bar [for] other distilleries on the Bourbon Trail to look at and say, “should we be adding that? Should we be adding these other components to the experience?”
And then as we come forward with the brands, I think the way we are presenting the brands, the collaborative series approach, it’s disruptive in a way but it’s also adding to the community.
TWW: You’ve brought in a certain level of change to the industry in Bardstown which many consider to be the heart of Kentucky bourbon county. Why here?
Mandell: It’s the bourbon capitol of the world and I think at the end of the day [that] if you can create the kind of company that we’re creating with a focus on celebrating the entire community of whiskey and bourbon, what better place to be than here? And when we came here the leadership of this community, from the mayor at the time to the county judge-executive to our head of economic development, they brought us in. They introduced us to the community and we very much forged a great working relationship with them and we have been working with them ever since, and so on that end it was about the people too.
TWW: What’s the five year plan for Bardstown?
Mandell: To continue growing. The next major focus is in a couple of areas. We have our distilling operation under way and that’s moving smoothly. Our restaurant and bar is open. We’re building our visitor’s experience and all of this is a platform for our brands that we’re going to be bringing to market, and so over the next several years you’re going to see the introduction of our brands regionally, and as we branch out across the country, you’ll also see we are moving towards the development of a hotel on the property as well. [That will help in] completing the destination experience.
TWW: What distinguishes Bardstown Bourbon in this crowded marketplace at the end of the day?
Mandell: At the end of the day, I think the thing that distinguishes us the most from everybody else is that what is in that bottle is the manifestation of everything that is taking place here. So we have produced, and are producing, great whiskey and bourbon for other amazing brands. We have taken all that knowledge, and we have taken the teams that we have built here in the culinary and the beverage side, and we are producing and using that knowledge in producing some of the finest products out there.
Nino Kilgore-Marchetti is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Whiskey Wash, an award winning whiskey lifestyle website dedicated to informing and entertaining consumers about whisk(e)y on a global level. As a whisk(e)y journalist, expert and judge he has written about the subject extensively, been interviewed in various media outlets and...