An essential stop on the Bardstown/Kentucky Bourbon Trail is right at the traffic circle in the center of town, at 107 W. Stephen Foster Avenue: The Old Talbott Tavern, still open for business just as it has been since day one, when it operated as a stagecoach stop. And since day one was back in 1779, the Tavern has been called the oldest western stagecoach stop in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s been called by a few other names in its long history — the Bardstown Hotel, Chapman’s House, the Shady Bower Hotel, the Newman House, the Old Stone Tavern — and it was once owned by Tom Beam (Jim’s brother), and also by Tom Moore of Tom Moore Distillery fame (now known as the Barton Distillery).
The Tavern has been in the local Kelley family hands for more than a half-century now, and according to John Kelley, it has extended into a third generation of the clan. Kelley began there as a dishwasher at age 14 for $1 an hour.
A Brief Interruption
It’s not quite accurate to say the Talbott has never closed, since it suffered a devastating fire in 1998. But the old brick and even older thick stone walls remained standing, and after a 20-month restoration, the old stand was open for business again. (Currently, due to COVID-19, the restaurant is permitted to operate at 50% capacity.) And people came, said Kelley, for the same three reasons: “The history, the Southern food, and the bourbon.”
There may be a fourth reason — ghost stories. So many historical figures have passed through the Old Tavern that many say it is haunted by them. Three future Presidents stayed at the inn — Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Abraham Lincoln. Daniel Boone slept here, as did John James Audubon, Henry Clay, and Stephen Foster, before his visit to Federal Hill in Bardstown where he may have written “My Old Kentucky Home.” General George S. Patton was a frequent dining guest while stationed at Fort Knox, about 40 miles away, and there’s a plaque denoting his favorite table.
Whether you’ll run into their spirits or not, we can’t say, but the former guests do have displays dedicated to them and rooms named after them. There’s also a room named after the Jesse James. Legend has it that James had sampled a little too much local product one evening while staying at the inn, and when he awoke in the middle of the night, he thought he saw birds moving in the trees of a mural on the wall. Out came his pistol, and to this day, the bullet holes are still in the wall.
How Many Choices?
We know what we would suggest when you grab a bar stool in the Tavern’s Bourbon Bar, said to be the oldest such in the world. That might save you a long time deciding, since between bourbons and other whiskies there are over 300 selections, an agreeable problem that surely didn’t exist in 1779.
Another suggestion might be to order the five-shot bourbon sampler, while enjoying the live music on the weekends.
As It Should Be
John Kelley is now an attorney, as is his son, an occupational span that extends into five Kelley generations. He confesses that his brother, Jim, is the Kelley overseeing the Tavern’s day-to-day operations: “I mostly just go over for a drink now and again.”