Kentucky is a strange and mythical place for me: deceptively close to where I live, and this bizarre place north of the Mason-Dixon line that still wants to feel very southern. It has a few cities in it, but none of them are the type of places that are past their use by date like in neighboring Ohio. In fact, when I close my eyes and imagine Kentucky I think of bourbon, horses and Squirrel Bait.
Squirrel Bait are long gone, leaving behind a few t-shirts, a strange family tree of bands and even an attorney, the horses are still in Kentucky and Bourbon is just bourbon for me. A delight.
I discovered bourbon through helping polish off a bottle of Maker’s Mark sometime in 1999 or 2000. I remember that because for about five years after the sight or smell of brown liquor made my gag reflex return. I look upon that night the way someone might remember fighting at Khe Sanh, Langdok, or at Hill 364. I left part of myself in a toilet bowl at a friend’s apartment that night. And on the floor of my bedroom. And in my bed.
But a few years later I managed to re-introduce bourbon to my life, and it’s been a rather fun guest. I’ve had more good times than bad ones and the stories that it’s help me cultivate have been less traumatic than the Maker’s Mark evening way back then.
When travelling for a freelance writing job to Cincinnati a few years ago, I discovered the Bourbon Trail and was instantly intrigued by the idea of learning more about bourbon, but time and circumstances prevented me from taking this trip.
Then for Christmas this year my wife surprised me with a great trip: a lovely weekend in Kentucky visiting as many Bourbon Distilleries as we could. I was excited for the chance to get away and devote some time to learning about something that I’d devoted so much time and energy to loving.
What follows is a recap of my weekend adventure.
It started on Friday. My wife and I began our drive to Kentucky and all of the strange, soaked-in-a-freshly-charred-oak-barrel charm that it held.
Two of my favorite travel-related things are the ability to eat absolute garbage and the myriad of completely silly roadside attractions that you find along your route. When a roadside sign promising a monument to Col. Sanders in Corbin, Kentucky popped up along the side of I-75, I knew that I had to visit.
What I found was pretty fun, in a way that was only slightly tinged with irony. The sight, called the Sanders Café, was a replica of a restaurant/roadside hotel operated by the Colonel in the 1930s and 40s. Stuck onto the side of the facility was a fully-operational KFC restaurant. I figured that this was the best chance I’d have of seeing a piece of fast food history as well as eating one of Kentucky’s native dishes: Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The place was charming in a weird way. It showed me, a tourist en route to another location, how other tourists might have traveled in pre-World War II days. It showcased the marketing skills of the Colonel and the development of the Kentucky Fried Chicken empire. Plus there were all sorts of trinkets and collectibles featuring the image of Col. Sanders lovingly donated to the museum by collectors all over the world. The very notion that there were so many items featuring Harland Sanders that a subculture of collectors has risen up is incredibly fascinating to me, and speaks to the power of the chicken he created. I wonder what they are called? In my head I imagine that they are known as “The Colonel’s Poultry Posse” or something like that. If they aren’t called that, I would like to donate that name to KFC aficionados.
Another interesting bit of trivia that I learned from visiting the Sanders Cafe was that his second location wasn’t in Kentucky at all. Instead, the Colonel decided to build his next hotel and cafe in my hometown, Asheville NC. Seeing this was another of the neat little things about where I come from. I know that Asheville prides itself on being the Zooey Deschanel of small southern towns, but learning that the footprints of a global chicken powerhouse are nearby the places where I grew up is sort of neat.
After arriving in Lexington, our first stop on our Bourbon Sojourn was to a tiny craft distiller called Barrel House Distillery. This company is still in their infancy, started a few years ago by a couple of buddies wanting to get in on the bourbon boom that is currently happening in Kentucky. While their motivation may sound shameless and crass, the company’s employees, product and presentation is anything but that.
We were lead on a tour of the tiny distillery by Peter, one of the owners of the company. The distillation, bottling, aging and retail shop of Barrel House Distillery all took place within a warehouse space slightly larger than an average two car garage. But in touring this small area I learned more about bourbon making than I had ever really known, and even more about the company and their philosophy. Nothing about this tour felt like typical salesmanship, instead it felt very punk rock and DIY-influenced. It was friends wanting to do something that they loved on their own terms. We talked about bourbons we loved, and even found out that their bourbon isn’t ready to be bottled yet.
Instead, Barrel House had great selections of craft vodka, dark rum (aged in bourbon barrels!), moonshine and a dark moonshine that was aged in a bourbon barrel. I loved their product and I’m really excited to try the bourbon that these guys create.
After a long day’s drive, one distillery was all we really had time to visit on Friday. After a nice dinner, we settled into the hotel for some relaxation, as well as a chance to sample some of the bourbons that they hotel lounge had to offer.
I’m not a taster. You know, those folks who have their beers and wines and are sniffing and chewing the drink, claiming to pick up nodes of stuff that isn’t in the ingredients? I’ve always considered that sort of behavior the height of snobbishness. But you can’t help to take on some of those behaviors while learning about how bourbon is made. You want to savor the taste and not shoot the drink like a frat boy in his early twenties. I’m devoting time and money into learning about how something is made, so I might as well respect the people who are creating it by actually tasting their wares.
Maybe this is the natural evolution of me moving beyond my primal-scream therapy drinking of my early twenties, or a goodbye to my tragically-drunk-and-flawed-writer bullshit that I tried to cop in my early thirties, but it’s a calmer and much more cerebral-feeling way of drinking that I haven’t really had yet. Either way, it’s sort of a fun game to play. I’m still not one of those this has nodes of blah blah blah people yet, but I’m starting to develop a taste for better bourbons.
Yes, I’m aware that I am slowly morphing into someone that I hate.
Our only full day of touring the bourbon-y wonderland of Kentucky started at Buffalo Trace Distillery. After receiving such a small and intimate tour at Barrel House the previous day, I was sort of left out in the cold by the Buffalo Trace tour. I’m well-aware that a three-person operation is vastly different than a distillery that employs 350 people.
We began by meeting in the gift shop and assembling our tour group. There were about 20 or so people on this tour, including a few tiny children. From there we met our tour guide, who gave us the standard “this is the history of the place” spiel before we walked on the grounds of the distillery.
The tour was short, a quick walk outside to showcase some of the older buildings on the ground and a very cheesy video that highlighted both the history of Buffalo Trace and a few close-up shots of a wind-burned old dude with a salt-and-pepper mustache dressed in his best pioneer getup. We walked through the old buildings and even glimpsed a bottle of 23 year-old Pappy Van Winkle, which is the Holy Grail for bourbon drinkers. People gasped at the sight, and an aura seemed to glow around it, which was either just the bad lighting in the display case or my brain telling me this is as close as you’ll ever get to the stuff.
After that walk-through, we settled back in the gift shop for a quick tasting of Buffalo Trace’s wares. I sampled the regular Buffalo Trace bourbon, and a newer rye whiskey that the company was making (the name of which escapes me). I found both to be nice, but the 10:30 AM drinking time was a little rough for me.
Buffalo Trace was a nice introduction to the larger distilleries that I’d see later in the day, but still a bit off-putting compared to the welcoming vibe of Barrel House the day before.
After a half hour drive we arrived in downtown Louisville and to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. I’ll admit that I’m rather ignorant of the ins and outs of horse racing, but it feels like every other sport in that it is mostly ruled by gambling and the players in the race are relatively interchangeable vanity items that exist solely to be exploited by horribly wealthy people who I probably would hate on principle. But at the same time, horse racing has an extra bit of cruelty because the athlete is an animal who, if it is lucky enough to win, receives a blanket of roses and the ability to sleep with a lot of other horses for money.
I feel like now is the time where a much-more polished writer would go into great detail about horse racing, its culture and history to tell the reader and quite possibly their self if this hypothesis is true. There would be a lot of research and possibly a moment of moral clarity where the writer’s thoughts were either validated or turned away, but I’m not that sort of writer. Not today. Instead I’ll say that I’m a huge hypocrite, simply because I recognize the horrible things that I suspect in horse racing, but at the same time I think that it can be a very aesthetically-pleasing sport.
We toured the track, saw the grandstand and gazed upon a rather large collection of hats. We learned the history of the Kentucky Derby and saw the markers that showed the names of each winner. We even watched Secretariat’s victory on a television.
Churchill Downs is a beautiful place that manages to not be made ugly by a lot of the morally-dubious feelings that I have about the sport it helps prop up.
The next stop on our trip was the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont. Clermont is as seemingly out-of-nowhere as I got in Kentucky. A tiny exit off of the interstate, and down a row of homes with colorful signs up such as “Bourbon Destroys Lives and Property” and a flash of signs on the side of the road accusing someone of being a meth dealer and being cruel to animals, lays the Jim Beam facility. I don’t really want to know what’s going on with the alleged meth-dealing-animal-mistreating individual, but I can see why a facility this large might build up some local animosity.
Despite the efforts of the distillery to be good neighbors, the Beam place felt like you were in an exceptionally large industrial section of the city, rather than a large factory nestled among the rolling hills of Kentucky.
Once you are on the grounds of the Jim Beam facility, you are taken aback not just by the size and the super-industrial feel just around every hill, but also by the weird biker chic thing happening there. The parking lot was ruled by a collection of white trash, screaming and swearing. As we approached the gift shop/visitor’s area to buy tickets for the tour, the same white trash sped off, squealing the tires of their Mustangs and Camaros and driving fast on their crotch-rocket motorbikes. It was a jarring change from the rather quaint experiences that we’d had at our previous stops.
Inside the gift shop was an assault on the senses: loud music, bright lights and any item that you could possibly desire with the Jim Beam name and logo on it. We walked around for a bit and then found the ticket counter. It turns out the remaining tours of the facility were sold out. We wondered around the grounds on a self-guided tour for a few minutes and then proceeded to the area to sample the Bourbons that were available.
Beam’s tasting area is as garish and brightly lit as everywhere else on the grounds. There was a man standing at the door carding visitors and handing them a key card that would allow each person two half-ounce drinks from a product of their choice. If you wanted information on something there was an iPad available with a blurb on each product, but nobody really there to talk to you about the tons of product that they had available for tasting. I sampled a bit of one of their small batch bourbons, Bookers and a bottle labeled “Experimental”. The Bookers was quite good, the experimental stuff wasn’t. My wife tried a cherry-flavored bourbon as well as a bit more of the Basil Haden’s, which she had taken a liking to back at the hotel the night before.
As soon as we were done with our samples we left the Jim Beam facility as quickly as possible. Not as loudly as the Mustangs and motorcycles, but you get the point.
We soldiered on, and by this point it was late in the day. We knew that we’d probably have enough time for one more distillery, so we chose Willett.
Willett is an interesting conundrum. The Distiller is firmly entrenched within Kentucky Bourbon history, but doesn’t produce enough product to be considered one of the bigger places. Due to this, they are still classified as a Craft Bourbon Distillery, but the place feels a bit more high end than some of the other places I’d seen driving down the road (Bullitt County and neighboring Jefferson County seem to have a distillery around each turn.
The facility was beautiful, large enough to make the production look impressive, but small enough to keep everything (save the storage and bottling, which are also both located on the grounds) under one roof. We saw bourbon being prepared, learned about Willett’s process and even scratched the two cats that roam around in the facility behind their ears.
After a great tour, we were able to sample some of Willett’s products. I made sure to try their rye, as well as a bourbon they make called Rowan’s Creek. I loved the Rowan’s Creek. So much that I bought a bottle.
I really enjoyed visiting Willett. The grounds were gorgeous and the facility had all the charm of a family business mixed with some of the scale of the larger companies.
Our touring of distilleries was over far too soon, but after a drive back to our hotel in Lexington, the tasting of bourbons continued.
Part of the experience our hotel offered us was a free flight of bourbon each evening in the hotel bar. The flights all began the same way: Maker’s Mark, followed by Woodford Reserve, then either Booker’s or Angel’s Envy (a bourbon aged in a port wine cask) and finally Basil Haden’s. I like to call it a bunch of crap and then Booker’s and Basil. The purpose of the flight was to showcase the different profiles of bourbons that the hotel carried, but all it made me want was more Basil Haden’s. So I had more.
Later on, I discovered that the hotel bar had a bottle of the ever-elusive Pappy Van Winkle 23, and asked about the price. It was $100 for a standard pour. This bourbon is world-renowned and there are websites where people post sightings of the stuff. But with that being said, I can’t imagine ever trying a shot of booze and thinking yeah, that’s worth a hundred bucks. I’m sorry, it’s just not happening.
But, the bartender turned me onto W.L. Weller 12 year-old bourbon and it was a damn fine drink. Not as easy as the Basil Hayden’s, but a pretty nice contrast.
I went to bed early that night, happy to be with my wife and happy to be in that sweet spot of drinking where you’re a little drunk, but not so drunk that you’ll have to apologize to anyone the next day.
I awoke the next day not hungover and happy of the adventure that I’d had. I came home with a little more knowledge and understanding of something that I’d enjoyed for so long. It was nice feeling excited and okay with drinking for the first time in a long time.
For a while, drinking had been something that I just didn’t do anymore. It felt childish, or something that I did when I wanted to turn the typical hustle and bustle of my brain down a notch or two. But now, a good drink feels like a good meal. I know what it takes to make a meal good, and now I know what it takes to turn down the brain and to enjoy the taste of something while I do it.
This trip was just a tiny bit of the sights, smells and tastes of Kentucky. It made me want to go back and enjoy more of it. It’s a lovely area.
I returned home with a nice bottle from the Willett Distillery and a taste for W.L. Weller 12 year-old bourbon. I also came home, recharged and reinvigorated about adventuring with my wife; seeing new things and experiencing them together. I also came home and realized that I’d turned into the sort of booze snob that I really didn’t like.
I hate booze snobs. I just do. But man, Kentucky will turn you into one really quick.