Hangin' with the Colonel in Bardstown, KY

Bourbon and Southern charm a-plenty.

A bourbon tasting in Bardstown's historic Chapeze House with the Colonel(s).
  • A bourbon tasting in Bardstown's historic Chapeze House with the Colonel(s).

One of the most recognizable advertising logos in the world is Col. Harlan Sanders for KFC. This is pretty much the extent of what most people know about the Kentucky Colonels, though some have an idea involving mint juleps and the Kentucky Derby being vaguely connected.

Kentucky Colonels – the first one was named in 1813 – are named by the Governor of Kentucky for their service to the Commonwealth. The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels is an important charitable organization in Kentucky, distributing more than 5,000 grants to worthy causes. And yes, they do like to throw a party at Derby, as it’s called by locals.

A Colonel among Colonels is Bardstown’s Col. Michael Masters. He is known as “The Host of Kentucky.” Col. Masters – a bon vivant going back decades – admits he is a character, and indeed he is. He’s kind of the Southern version of Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World.”

Masters descends from the first settlers of Bardstown and of the Commonwealth, including Daniel Boone’s family. His many projects – including cookbooks, storybooks, Kentucky travel guides and corporate motivational speaking – bring acclaim to Kentucky’s hospitality, traditions and bourbon. He’s made appearances on the Food Network with Paula Deen and on the Travel Channel with Mark DeCarlo. His wife, Margaret Sue, is appropriately called “The Hostess of Kentucky.” She's very accomplished in her own right, both as a restorer of historic mansions and as a cook.

The nearest major airport to Bardstown is Louisville International Airport, about a 45-minute drive.

Col. Masters owns private cottages/bed & breakfasts where you’re the only guest, so feel free to wear whatever around the place. They’re large enough for 2-3 people and are reserved for adults only. Breakfast is continental (including the Colonel’s famous Southern pecan coffee) and left in the refrigerator so that you have the ultimate privacy. The cottages are within easy walking distance of the historic district, shops and Chapeze House. Comfy details you’ll find include almond-scented linens, kitchenware, a huge bathroom with candles and two-person jacuzzi, polished hardwood floors with Oriental rugs, multiple bedrooms and very high Southern ceilings.

Colonel Masters hosts private bourbon tastings at the historic Chapeze House. He teaches guests how to evaluate bourbons after they select a special flight to drink. The Colonel’s personal collection includes some of the rarest bourbons on the planet and private bottlings. He also hosts cigar revues on the veranda.

When you’re ready for something more substantial, spend the day with the Colonel and Margaret Sue at a cooking class. Choose from different menus to concentrate on, such as a Kentucky Derby breakfast, Kentucky sauces or Kentucky desserts.

The Colonel can also arrange cocktail parties with Kentucky delicacies or a grand Kentucky dinner. Colonel Masters will take great care of you.

As he puts it, “It’s a Southern thing, I don’t leave anyone hanging… Just remember, the drinking lamp is lit at six o’clock.” When I’ve asked him about what goes on at some of these shindigs, he says, “Colonel [yeah, I’m one too], I keep my counsel.” Apparently, what happens in Bardstown stays in Bardstown.

When you’re ready to check out the neighborhood and beyond, historic Bardstown has Southern charm and retains vestiges of its frontier heritage. It’s the bourbon distillery capital of the world. The area is home to several important religious centers, including the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral – the first Catholic cathedral west of the Alleghenies – and the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist abbey with a public visitor’s center and gift shop featuring its world-famous bourbon fruitcakes.

In nearby Loretto, see bourbon being made on the lovely historic grounds of Maker’s Mark. With tours seven days a week, you can red-wax dip your own commemorative bottle.

Take your memories home: Nelson County is one of Kentucky’s few wet counties. There’s a small, but well-stocked liquor store in town with rare vintage bourbons.

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