John Castro

John Castro led Winston’s for nearly three decades. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

This interview with John Castro of Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar is the last in a series of interviews with local chefs.

John Castro didn’t intend to change directions — as executive chef at Winston’s, the longtime restaurant anchor at Sullivan University, he had been in his lane for nearly three decades.

But after the restaurant’s closure left a temporary void, an entirely new opportunity came calling in the form of an onsite restaurant in Bardstown, Ky., located at the Bardstown Bourbon Company. It was a change of pace and then some. But the lane change has him cruising forward.

Castro recently was announced as executive director of culinary operations at the distillery, directly overseeing the resident restaurant, Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar. He also will lead all culinary and catering initiatives and will have a voice in product development.

During the nearly four years after the Winston’s closing, Castro made his way doing freelance jobs and consulting. One of those consulting jobs was with Bardstown Bourbon Co. — he wasn’t really even looking for a new full-time gig.

“It was pretty organic,” Castro tells Insider.

John Castro 2

Castro is excited to be part of the bourbon industry. | Courtesy of Bardstown Bourbon Co.

Asked if, following the demise of Winston’s, he considered opening his own restaurant, he says that never was a consideration. He believes the market, in Louisville and elsewhere, for new concepts is just too risky.

Or, as he put it, “volatile.”

His agreement to sign on full-time in Bardstown, which is quite a different scene from Louisville, was more about opportunity and the right fit at the right time.

“It’s more about where I am in my life right now,” he says. “I’m just in a completely different head space.”

For one, the uniqueness of the concept — an industrial distillery that also doubles as a tourist destination, with a dash of catering to local crowds — was intriguing. It wasn’t just another restaurant in direct competition with hundreds of others.

As for opportunity, he had long been interested in getting more involved with the bourbon industry. Entering by way of his culinary expertise just made sense.

The spacious dining room feels upscale, but when tour groups walk in wearing shorts and sandals, no one is out of place.

A portion of the distillery overlooks the dining room, and a bar with untold numbers of bourbon brands is opposite the distillery. A bottle and gift shop, curated with a mini bourbon museum, invites behind glass walls.

The audience is clear: people interested in bourbon, people who are purposely visiting a specific part of Kentucky — rural Bardstown. The menu reflects elegant simplicity. The ideal of “clean, simple and delicious” the restaurant embraces appeals to a chef whose family is from Meade County and has produced five professional chefs.

Think Southern-influenced dishes like shrimp and cheese grits, chicken-fried oysters, baby back ribs and cast-iron fried chicken. It’s the kind of food Castro inherently loves. And the distilling program is there to pull it all together. That’s why he thinks it fits his life currently.

“The growth potential here is greater than anything I’ve seen in the food industry in a long time,” Castro says.

It doesn’t hurt that his first impression of the place stuck with him. When he arrived at the distillery for the first time, he was immediately smitten with the concept.

“I love the idea of a crazy-modern building right in the middle of a cornfield,” he says, laughing. “When I pulled up and saw it, I said, ‘OK.’”

And while he still lives in Louisville and makes the commute, he hasn’t ruled out permanently moving to the small town south of Kentucky’s largest city: “You never know — never say never. I like Bardstown. I like the people of Bardstown.”

He was ready to change lanes, and he thinks the community is as well.

“I think we can build a really strong culinary culture here,” Castro says, “because I think Bardstown wants it.”