Bardstown bills itself as the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” but the earliest known mention of the spirit actually came from a little town in eastern Kentucky- not as a reference to the whiskey itself, but its geographic origin.
“The term ‘Bourbon Whiskey’ was first advertised by the Stout and Adams commission merchants of Maysville, Kentucky in 1821,” explains John Pogue, a sixth-generation distiller at the locally based Old Pogue Distillery.
Established in 1787 as Limestone Landing and part of the Virginia territory’s Bourbon County, Maysville (pop. 8,700) makes a bespoke base for the hometown distilling operation. Old Pogue holds Distilled Spirits Plant-KY-3, the third distilling license ever distributed in Kentucky, trailing only Heaven Hill, Bernheim, and J.G. Mattingly, and still produces its bourbon using a family recipe that’s more than a century old.
The original facility, founded in 1876, was sited directly on the banks to allow for easy access to transportation via river and railroad, falling into the hands of notorious gangster George Remus during the 1920s before later becoming abandoned in the 1960s and ultimately burning down in 1973. Quite literally rising from the ashes, the fifth- and sixth-generation Pogues teamed up to rebuild in the 1990s, determined to bring the family business back to life.
“Mostly, bourbon production was an ill-advised investment at the time, but my family really just approached the venture as a hobby; we were fully prepared to lose the capital for the sake of seeing each other more often,” Pogue describes. “We were lucky the world found premium bourbon very palatable in the early 2000s.”
The current production facility now sits just a little further up the hill from what’s left of its predecessor, along with the beautifully restored 1845 family home-turned-visitor center (a designated National Historic Landmark). The whole property boasts gorgeous east-facing river views over the Simon Kenton Memorial Bridge into Ohio just across the water.
Part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour and Northern Kentucky’s B-Line trail, Old Pogue turns out just 200 53-gallon barrels a year for distribution in Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, and New York, making products rather hard to find.
The 91-proof flagship, Old Pogue Master’s Select bourbon (70% corn, 20% rye, 10% malted barley), offers a sweet nose of hard candy and honeysuckle, mellowing into apple, caramel, and fruit before fading into a long, silky finish. Smooth, balanced flavors flow throughout the sip. The 100-proof, malt-forward, Old Maysville Club rye ($65) likewise impresses with spicy, earthy notes and a full-bodied mouthfeel. Single barrels like the Port of Kentucky are also worth sampling if you’re lucky enough to get the opportunity.
The distillery offers tours from Thursdays through Sundays by appointment only. The location is a little tricky to get to, with a steep approach that’ll make you wonder if you’re even in the right place and a footbridge path over an old stone dam- persevere. The payoff is worth it. Want to learn more? Cruise into Maysville proper to check out the Old Pogue Experience at the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center, a complementary curated exhibition of photos, artifacts, and other memorabilia that traces the history of the family and the distillery through the decades.
If John Pogue’s ancestors could see the whole operation now, he thinks they’d be suitably impressed.
“They’d probably be curious about the electrical devices and all the technology, then trying to understand the global marketplace and the current scale of the whiskey industry,” he laughs. “Hard to say really what a person from 1876 would think about 2023. We certainly enjoy modern medicine; in 1876, whiskey often was the medicine.”