The flight from Newark to Louisville began with a two-hour delay, yet despite the turbulent flight path, my seven family members and I landed smoothly in the heart of Bourbon Country.
I had confirmation from Airbnb for the house I rented in Paris and a list of restaurants and points of interest that we hoped to visit along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. I packed a copy of Gear Patrol’s “9 Bottles of Bourbon You Can Only Find in Kentucky.” We were on a mission to find the elusive nine and wanted to bring home a few bottles to sip and savor long after the trip was over.
I printed the map from https://kybourbontrail.com/, which had the names and addresses of 16 major bourbon distilleries spread across the Louisville-Lexington area. I marked the location of other small distillers not on this map, hoping to have time to visit at least one of them.
After landing, the first stop was Mark’s Feed Store restaurant, at 1514 Bardstown Road. Locally famous for “the best barbecue in Louisville,” we ordered a full slab of ribs with coleslaw and red skin potato salad. They listed the potato salad as Mark’s favorite on the menu. We also ordered barbecued chicken and brisket sliders.
A plentiful serving of ribs was succulent, slathered with the house barbecue sauce, sweet and tangy, and the meat fell off the bone. The coleslaw was average, but the redskin potato salad, complete with petite peas, was delicious. Mark’s barbecued chicken was excellent, and the brisket sliders were terrific.
We stopped at Woodford Reserve in Versailles to tour, but they sold out every time slot. That’s why the distilleries recommend making reservations ahead of time, especially on the weekends and holidays.
We bought a few bottles of the Woodford Reserve Distillery Series, one of the nine bourbons on our search. Next, we had a few drinks at the outdoor bar; the traditional Kentucky Mule had bourbon, Woodford Reserve orange bitters, ginger ale, fresh lime juice, and an orange twist. The bartender served the drink in a traditional “copper” Mint Julep cup. Finally, it was time to head to our accommodations in Paris.
Welcome Hall, a 5-bedroom 1880s farmhouse on 55 acres, was set back off a busy road. The property is a working thoroughbred farm, and the surroundings are tranquil and very private. The expansive front porch overlooked fenced-in fields of horses and cows; some mares were frolicking with their foals while other male horses were in separate fields grazing, quick to come for a nuzzle and snack.
The farm was complete with a dog called “Blue,” appropriately named for his one blue eye, and a lone sheep with no name, afraid of everyone who approached. Also on site was a cat called “Charlie Chaplin,” a leftover from the previous owner, but his name’s origin was a mystery.
Elise, our host, recommended the Blue Isle Home-Style restaurant in Winchester for dinner, a local favorite famous for its fried catfish and fried chicken. Their food was prepared just like their name said, home-style. The chicken was unsurpassed by any I had ever tasted with a thin and crispy breading and not greasy. The catfish was prepared like the chicken, which was delightful. Portions were ample, and the prices were reasonable.
We stopped at Liquor Barn on North Broadway in Lexington and found 6-year-old green label Heaven Hill, $13.98 for the 1.75 liters. So far, we found two of the nine on Gear Patrol’s list.
Back at the farm, with no city lights to block the view, bourbon over ice was the perfect accompaniment to star-gazing.
At 6 a.m., the east-facing front porch, still standing with its original posts and gingerbread cut-outs, was bombarded by the sounds of morning. Horses neighed, cows mooed, and the lone sheep bleated to let the farmhands know it was time for breakfast. A cardinal, the Kentucky state bird, was happily chirping, and the sound of tractors working in the fields made the stay on the farm special.
We arrived ahead of the crowds for a tour of Buffalo Trace, a National Historic Landmark in Frankfort’s capital city. Buffalo Trace isn’t listed on the official Bourbon Trail map because they are not on the board of distillers. But that hasn’t stopped them from being “the world’s most award-winning Distillery,” according to their brochure. In addition, there’s no charge for tours, unlike the distilleries listed on the official Bourbon Trail map.
Buffalo Trace offers six distinctive tours; we chose the National Historic Landmark Tour, which focuses on the buildings, architecture, and history. There’s also the Ghost Tour, which claims to take you to haunted areas of the distillery.
Our tour guide was Freddie Johnson, a local celebrity inducted into the 2018 Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. He was featured in the 2018 documentary “Neat: The Story of Bourbon.“
Johnson is a 3rd generation employee; his grandfather worked over 52 years at this location that is now Buffalo Trace, and his father spent decades there. His grandfather is the only person who’s handled every one-millionth barrel rolled out of the warehouse.
Johnson, with his electric smile and famous wit, shouted, “Let’s make some noise,” walking the group in and out of old brick warehouses, blackened by what’s known as Angel’s Share fungus. He said Angel’s Share is the bourbon that evaporates over time while the liquor ages in the barrels. During prohibition, this black fungus was a sign that something was still going on illegally at many distilleries.
Johnson said one of the original buildings on site is the oldest continuing distillery in the U.S., operating since the early 1700s. Manufacturing at the site continued even during prohibition, with the distillery claiming the liquor was “medicinal.” But you needed a prescription to get it.
Johnson also explained how Buffalo Trace got its name. Buffalos would start their migration through Kentucky to the plains, knock down the grass, and make trails (the trace).
We toured a warehouse that held 24,000 barrels, filled with various spirits manufactured by Buffalo Trace, including the Van Winkle Collection, Blanton’s Single Barrel, and Sazerac Rye. We saw a live assembly line where bourbon bottles were being corked and sealed for eventual sale; people, not machines, did the work.
At the end of the tour, Freddie taught us how to drink bourbon properly in the tasting room (you must take the tour to learn how). After trying a shot of the 125 proof White Dog Mash 1, which is unaged whiskey, and Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream, we needed some lunch.
We headed to downtown Frankfort, a picturesque southern city, its streets lined with Italianate brick buildings dating back to the 19th century. We decided on Serafini, located across from the Old State Capitol. The restaurant serves Italian and southern food. Serafini is proud to support local farmers and producers, apparent by the food’s quality and freshness.
I tried The Hot Brown, a sandwich invented in the 1920s at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. Serafini served it open-faced on ciabatta piled high with roast turkey, pit ham, bacon, and tomato, smothered with a mornay sauce so delectable I licked the plate clean. Next, we had the fried green tomato appetizer, served with tomato jam, pimento cheese, and a balsamic reduction. We also ordered the smoked ham and cheese sandwich. Everything was flavorful.
After lunch, we split up. My group of four took the Maker’s Mark tour to find The Private Select. The other group went to Four Roses to take their tour and purchase the Single Barrel Cask Strength.
The Maker’s Mark walking tour covered distilling from the start of the process where the mash, a combination of corn, rye, and other grains are fermented, to the final bottling and labeling room, where each bottle receives its distinctive red wax seal. Tours include a visit to the barrel storage room, “The Cave,” built into the side of a mountain, which keeps the aging bourbon at a perfect 55 degrees. At the end of the tour was the tasting, which gave us a chance to sip the Private select and Maker’s White, another Kentucky exclusive.
The Four Roses offers two tours: the Distillery Tour covers the distillery and grounds and ends with a tasting. A Taste of History Tour is a guided tasting of their three award-winning bourbons. The distillery tour was like Maker’s Mark, and the other group had time to taste and purchase the Single Barrel. By now, we had four bourbons on Gear Patrol’s list.
Afterward, we headed to downtown Lexington for dinner at the Merrick Inn, a former manor house on a horse farm built before the Civil War. It is now an upscale restaurant serving traditional Kentucky food and an extensive selection of rare and vintage bourbons.
We ordered the Maker’s Mark Shrimp, wrapped in bacon and covered with Maker’s barbecue sauce for appetizers. Trick’s Wisconsin cheddar beer cheese with jalapenos had just the right amount of spiciness with a beer kick to it.
Several of us ordered the Southern Fried Chicken; Merrick’s menu said they’re famous for it. It was as good as the fried chicken served at the Blue Isle Inn. Broiled Walleye Pike was palatable, and I couldn’t resist ordering another Hot Brown. The Hot Brown was worth the calories.
Our day ended on the front porch of Welcome Hall with a few bottles of the elusive nine opened, several glasses of bourbon empty by bedtime.
After a breakfast of fresh eggs that had been laid that morning, we headed to 1300 acre Spendthrift Farm, the largest stud farm in the world. Brian Lyle, stallion sales, gave us a private tour of the breeding area and exquisitely maintained horse stalls. The usual visitors to this area are breeders checking out the studs or mares arriving in heat, so we were fortunate to be on the site since we were neither.
A breeder from Maryland was reviewing stallions that day, and we watched as the stable hands paraded the boys out for inspection. We got to see Cross-Traffic on display, a white and gray stallion whose stud fee is $25,000, and Lord Nelson, grandson of A.P. Indy and great-grandson of Seattle Slew. Lord Nelson’s fee is also $25,000.
We saw Into Mischief, one of the world’s leading sires and grandson of Seattle Slew; his stud fee is $150,000. When the breeder inspected him, we all sensed he knew he was unique from his stature.
Twenty-two-year-old Malibu Moon, another son of A.P. Indy, commands a $75,000 stud fee and is still going strong. He bred 140 mares in 2018.
We had lunch at Windy Corner Market, built like an old country store, a restaurant that offers a fantastic selection of locally sourced meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
We all opted for the Po-Boys, a classic southern sandwich; there was a choice of ten different types on the menu. We ordered the fried catfish, the Kentucky Combination, which was thin-sliced country ham and swiss, and the Kentucky Boy, a pulled pork in a Bourbon barbecue sauce. The red skin potato salad and the coleslaw sides were delicious.
We couldn’t skip Windy Corner’s bakery; everything in the Midway Bakery is handmade. The corn and wheat flour used in their products come from the local Weisenberger Mill, in operation since 1865. The brownies and the cookies were extraordinary.
We headed to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, the location of the International Museum of the Horse, and the world’s only park dedicated to horses and man. Horse-drawn tours and special equine events are held throughout the year. An affiliate of the Smithsonian museum explains the horse’s importance from ancient times through today’s sporting activities. The horse artwork from around the world was extensive. There are life-size bronze statues around the grounds, including Man o’ War and Secretariat.
On our way back to Paris, we stopped for a late afternoon tour of Hartfield & Co., the first distillery in Bourbon County since 1919. The distillery is in an old three-story red brick building and is the dream of the husband and wife team, Andrew and Larissa Buchanan. Today they produce bourbon and “Old Tom gin,” made with wheat, rye, and malted barley and botanicals like lemongrass, coriander, and juniper. Hartfield & Co. also produces vodka and moonshine in this location.
Larissa gave us a private tour, explaining how they buy all their grains from local farmers. Larissa and her husband learned how to speed up their liquors’ aging process, going for the grain’s taste, not the alcohol content. Their bourbon comes out of the barrel at six months instead of years. They also experimented by putting coffee beans in used bourbon barrels, and this product is selling exceptionally well in local coffee shops.
The Buchanans built a party room in the back of the distillery, where you will find local artists playing music on Friday and Saturday nights. We played some pool, had a drink at the poured concrete bar the Buchanans built by hand, and then headed back to Welcome Hall for a barbecue and some spirits.
No trip to Kentucky would be complete without a visit to Churchill Downs, even if it weren’t derby weekend; horse racing is an all-year-round event. They maintain the grounds with gorgeous flowers everywhere. In addition, life-sized bronze statues of famous horses, such as Barbaro and Secretariat, are on display. We tasted our first mint julep, refreshing on a hot, muggy day in Louisville.
We took the self-guided tour of the Kentucky Derby Museum, where exhibits focus on the traditions and history of the famous race and highlight horses, jockeys, trainers, and owners from the 145 years of history since the famous race began.
This day was our first attendance at a horse race, and the results were not good. Our horse lost by an inch in the first race; no one remembered our picks in the second and third races because they did not win, place, or show.
It was time to head to downtown Louisville, where we planned to tour the Louisville Slugger factory and museum, try some local food, and take our reserved tour at Angel’s Envy. “Whiskey Row” features eight other distilleries, including Evan Williams and Jim Beam. They featured Louisville on “Top Chef;” the T.V. show explored several local restaurants and eateries during the episodes.
Lilly’s Bistro, a farm-to-table restaurant owned by Top Chef guest judge Kathy Cary, was our lunch choice. We had the Kentucky BBQ lamb, covered with Owensboro barbecue sauce (which cuts down on the gaminess), accompanied by the house-pickled slaw. The grilled pepper jack cheese on toasted brioche with Broadbent bacon was delightful, and the eggplant on grilled pita with garlic hummus and goat cheese was delectable.
The Louisville Slugger Museum and factory was a fact-filled and fun interactive experience. The factory has been making baseball bats since the 1880s when John Andrew “Bud” Hillerich made a bat in his father’s woodshop for megastar Pete Browning, whose nickname was “The Louisville Slugger.” The name stuck. Bud Hillerich patented several bat designs, and major-league players, the likes of Babe Ruth and Derek Jeter, have been swinging and hitting with their wood bats for more than a century.
The last destination of our four-day trip was the Angel’s Envy tour. It was standing room only in the reception area, and we were glad we made a reservation. The Angel’s Envy story started in the heart of Louisville and combined the old technique of making whiskey with the unconventional thinking of 21st-century distillers.
Master distiller Lincoln Henderson, a member of The Bourbon Hall of Fame, was pulled out of retirement by his son Wees because of his 40 years of experience in the spirit industry. Wes had an innovative idea – why not finish whiskeys using the second barrel technique? Angel’s Envy was born in 2010 when their aged bourbon was finished in ruby port casks and rye in rum barrels, just as Wes had envisioned.
On our last night in Kentucky, sitting in the tasting room at Angel’s Envy with Louisville’s views and several glasses of honey-colored bourbon in front of us, it was easy to remember why we came to Kentucky. We can’t wait to go back and explore more.
Available at Amazon
Elvis Presley sings Ketucky Rain