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A Trip on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail

I have been a bourbon drinker since I was a J-school student at the University of Tennessee. Something about the hills, and football . . . . but the love of bourbon stayed with me ever since.  Through the last few years, I developed a heightened interest in visiting some of Kentucky’s many distilleries. Finally, with the urging of some good friends, we made it happen.

Eight friends, four days, six distilleries, great food and a lot of laughs later, we headed home.

First stop – Buffalo Trace.  The largest property not on the nine-site official Bourbon Trail, Buffalo Trace has deep roots in the community that go back more than 200 years.  During the Trace Tour, our third-generation guide, Freddie, kept us entertained while imparting details of the company’s colorful history, as well as facts about the much-sought-after Pappy Van Winkle bourbon now produced here, (they acquired the Van Winkle business in 1972). This is a huge distillery and when their current expansion is finished they will have 1 million 53-gallon barrels in storage warehouses (known as Rickhouses in the distillery world).

One of Blanton’s popular bottle stoppers.

On the National Registry of Historic Places, this is one of the only free distillery tours, and runs every hour on the hour. A highlight this day was seeing the by-hand bottling of Blanton’s Single Barrel. I learned about the differences between wheat and rye bourbons and am pretty sure I prefer the wheat.  We loved Freddie’s folksy stories and enjoyed learning how to identify a few of the smells and differences between the White Dog Mash (which is really legal moonshine) and their more refined products. We clapped and rubbed hands filled with the clear White Dog, smelling how it changed.  Ultimately it proved to be a good skin softener. The group favorite at the tasting was the Bourbon Cream Liqueur handcrafted from small batches of Buffalo Trace Bourbon. Delicious, and even better when mixed with root beer. We can’t wait to try it in a root beer float.

Buffalo Trace is located in Frankfort, about 30 minutes from Lexington and the 21C museum hotel, our home for the night. At the hotel, we enjoyed a bourbon flight in the Lockbox bar, under the direction of the hotel’s very capable, bourbon steward.  I tasted a few new to me and picked the Wellers 90 (a Buffalo Trace product) as the best of the group. Bourbons can be ordered in a .5, 1.5 or 3 ounce pour, and the assortment, organized by the distillery, was impressive.  No Pappy Van Winkle, however, at any price.

Bourbon flight at the Lockbox bar at 21C.

 Favorite Fact: Buffalo Trace kept operating during Prohibition, for “medicinal” purposes.  With a doctor’s prescription, you could get a pint every 10 days.

Buffalo Trace:

Bourbon Trail:

Where to Stay on a First-Class Kentucky Bourbon Tour

IMG_2163September is National Bourbon Heritage Month and so it is only fitting for this week’s post to celebrate that great Kentucky whiskey:

Our whirlwind Bourbon Tour involved 3 other couples, a rented van, and a lot of details, but it was worth every second of the planning. We had great weather and in just four summer days drove through beautiful horse country, ate incredible meals, and tasted some mighty fine bourbon. Our travels took us from Buffalo Trace (home of Blanton’s and the famous Papy Van Winkle), to Woodford Reserve (official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby), Makers Mark, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam (where my favorites Basil Hayden and Knob Creek are distilled), and last, but not least to the Craft Distillery, Willetts.

 21c Museum Hotel | Lexington, Kentucky

Bourbon flight at the Lockbox Bar at 21C.

Corner room, 23c Museum Hotel, LexingtonThe 21c Museum Hotel is a great hotel with a contemporary vibe and a focus on historic preservation and art; what a winning combo. And yes, there is an art museum. This is one of several art museum/hotels in renovated sites by this innovative company. I loved the rooms in this repurposed historic bank building. I particularly enjoyed the fun the designers had with color and art. Bright colors were used as accents in the rooms and public spaces, and photography by one of the owners was beautifully featured in the room.

The room was comfortable, bed great, shower excellent. We had no trouble getting feather pillows. Our corner room was on a high floor and the views of the city were terrific. I arranged the trip for a group of friends and we enjoyed the bourbon package. Breakfast was excellent and our bourbon flight was a lot of fun, with a super bourbon steward. Valet was efficient and the staff was very friendly. The only hitch was check-in which was very slow and disorganized, a contrast to everything else about the hotel and our stay.

The Brown Hotel | Louisville, Kentucky

Entrance to The Brown Hotel, LouisvilleThe Brown Hotel was a real step back into another era. We loved the hotel’s colorful history. We were traveling with a group of friends and enjoyed the Club Level service – it proved very convenient, and was more than adequate for breakfast and afternoon wine, beer, (no hard liquor) soft drinks and snacks.

Chef's Table at The Brown Hotel, LouisvilleOur Chef’s Table dinner in the kitchen of the English Grill was a wonderful and memorable occasion. Under the direction of English Grill Manager (and Sommelier/Bourbon Steward extraordinaire) Troy Ritchie and Chef Dustin Willett, we enjoyed a first-class event. I had worked with Troy in advance to put together the details and he was delightful, creative, and very easy to work with. Read the rest of this entry

The Final Tasting. Our Last Day in Bourbon Country.


Not all distilleries are huge with recognizable names.  The bourbon industry has exploded in recent years and there are dozens of new products on the market, from both established distilleries and a few new kids on the block. Be sure to check out the businesses known as Craft Distilleries.  In 2012, the Bourbon Trail launched a Craft Tour. Craft doesn’t necessarily mean new but is more size-related.  Family owned and run Willett, for example, is more than 80 years old and is one of 13 distilleries featured in the craft passport. And remember, not all distilleries are included in the official trail – for instance, Buffalo Trace.

Every property had its unique features and personality and although the basic principles for distilling are the same – grind the grains – cook the mash – ferment and strain the product – store in charred white oak barrels – and age for at least 2 years.  Jim, our tour guide at Willett wins the award for the best guide with hard facts.  He really explained the details of the cooking process.  It was a fitting conclusion to our series of tours and at least one in our group felt they were now ready to distill their own.

Located in Bardstown, known as “Bourbon Capital of the World”, Willett is undergoing a renovation to their visitor’s center as well as an addition that will include two bed and breakfast-style facilities and some lakeside cabins. The Willet tour ($12) also featured a look at their gleaming copper pot still, the inspiration for their beautiful bottle design.

In this Rickhouse, they were also curing hams for a James Beard-nominated chef with restaurants in Nashville and Charleston, putting that Angel’s Share to good use. So logical, I will have to make it a point to try some one day soon.

We have sampled many bourbons new to us and have learned how to study the color, identify the smells (gotta smell it with your mouth open), how it tastes on different parts of the tongue, and the “finish” after you swallow.

In the final analysis, as one guide said, “the best bourbon is the one you like.”

Favorite Facts: I have two here. Bourbon is taxed annually, from the first year it is in the barrel.  To prevent the “burn” that some bourbons produce after you swallow (and which distillers call a “Kentucky Hug”) don’t inhale – it is actually caused by the fumes you breathe as opposed to the liquor you drink.  


Bourbon Trail:

Craft Tour:


Let Me Count the Distilleries . . . Day 3: More Bourbon.

There are at least 33 distilleries in Kentucky, responsible for 95% of the bourbon produced in the U.S. And, bourbon can only be produced in the U.S. and must be 51% corn, stored at a maximum of 62.5% alcohol (125 proof).

Today we take in three more distilleries and tastings with a Mint Julep Tour. Our terrific guide Wendy and driver Don showed us more of the beautiful Kentucky countryside and filled us in on a bit of the history and happenings in Louisville as well as the fast-growing distillery industry.

We began the day about an hour out of Louisville at the Makers Mark Distillery.  What a beautiful setting.  As an incredible bonus – the Dale Chihuly glass installations that will be in place until the end of October 2017. The appearance of this property was a definite favorite.  I loved the storybook-style architecture with the bright red shutters and their liquor bottle cutouts.  This site is too beautiful to miss on any bourbon tour.

At Makers, we had the chance to dip our own bottle in their famous red sealing wax, and so I did.

After lunch, we circled back to the cute town of Bardstown to stop at Heaven Hill and the Bourbon Heritage Center for a look and tasting.  Probably most famous for Elijah Craig bourbons and their new product Larceny, this property is not the distilling site, which is located in Louisville.  I was not a fan of these bourbons but did purchase some yummy Evan Williams bourbon-infused chocolate sauce.  Chocolate in any form goes very well with bourbon and each distillery has offered a delicious chocolate candy with their tasting.

Vintage Jim Beam Bottles.

At the end of the day, we hit the Jim Beam facility – distillers of my favorites – Knob Creek and Basil Hayden. This is one huge commercial enterprise and I had the opportunity to place my personal bottle of Knob Creek on the production line and seal the black wax with my thumbprint. A final touch was engraving the bottle with a commemorative message – a perfect souvenir (and one I can drink!)

It was a long, but fascinating day topped off by sharing a famous Hot Brown (turkey, toast, bacon and Mornay sauce, better than you can imagine) back at The Brown Hotel.


My bottle of Knob Creek in production.

Favorite Fact: Margie Samuels named Makers Mark, designed the bottle, logo and the red wax tradition. A master marketer, she was the wife of Bill Samuels, Sr who created the Maker’s recipe. She played a major role in the success of the company, significantly at a time when women generally had no role or place in the industry.



Mint Julep Tours:

Makers Mark:

Heaven Hill:

Jim Beam:

Bourbon Trail:

Loving the Angel’s Share: Day 2 in the World of Kentucky Bourbon



After a leisurely morning and breakfast, we piled into our van and headed out for the noon Distillery Tour ($14) at Woodford Reserve.  It’s a beautiful country drive through horse country, rolling hills and endless fences to Versailles, about half an hour from Lexington.

Another historic property with National Register designation, Woodford’s beautiful gray stone buildings reflect the personality of its Scottish founders.  Owned today by the Brown-Forman conglomerate (based in Louisville), we watched them bottle Old Forester, helping a sister-product meet demand.

Learning about the process is interesting.  I have been surprised about the smells during the cooking and fermentation process.  The closest overall is the smell of banana bread.  That was a surprise.  We tasted the sour mash today and it was not pleasant. It’s very warm by the 100-year-old cypress fermenting tanks and the mash is a bubbling, sometimes moldy-looking, a grainy, yellow stew; not appetizing.

Once in a Rickhouse, you feel as if you could become intoxicated just from the smell.  The 10% evaporation during the bourbon’s first year in the barrel (and 3-5% each year after) produces the scent, known as Angel’s Share.

The Woodford property is sophisticated and sleek with lovely grounds, leafy trees, lots of stone and dramatic triple copper pot stills. A 500-foot-long gravity-fed barrel run is still in place. After our informative tour and tasting, we enjoyed a nice lunch from Glenn’s Creek Café on the back porch before making the one-hour drive to Louisville.


In Louisville, we stayed in the elegant, historic Brown Hotel. Tonight, we enjoyed an amazing Chef’s Table dinner, in the kitchen of the English Grill.  Under the stewardship of English Grill Manager Troy Ritchie (who also wears the dual hats of Wine Sommelier and Bourbon Steward), we enjoyed the handiwork of archeologist-turned-chef Dustin Willet and server Kelly.  Troy surprised us with a visit to the rooftop for a beautiful aerial view of Louisville and a sneak peek into the Mohammed Ali Suite, chock-full of Ali memorabilia (for the uninitiated, Ali was from Louisville).  It was an amazing evening.


Favorite Fact: Opera singer Lily Pons let her pet lion cub roam free in her suite at the Brown Hotel.

Woodford Reserve:

Bourbon Trail:

Searching for Noah’s Ark in Austin, TX




Between San  Antonio and Austin, major flooding problems off I-35. the interstate was closed for awhile.o

This part of Texas has been having torrential rain, tornadoes and floods.  We’ve been closely monitoring local weather as we make plans and have been lucky.  We stayed off interstates and headed towards Bandera (known as the “Cowboy City” and appropriately hosting a Memorial weekend rodeo), and then onward to Comfort.  Comfort bills itself as “An Antique Town” and I thought that might refer to the vintage of the place, but actually, I saw quite a few really enticing-looking antique shops. But, between Sunday hours and an unenthused travel partner, we had to move on.  We continued on the Texas Hill Country Trail into the quaint German town of Fredericksburg in search of some good brisket for lunch (which we did find).

Texas Hill Country.

Texas Hill Country.

This is a beautiful part of Texas, gently rolling hills, lush green fields (probably from all the recent rains), wildflowers and lots of ranches with cattle and goats, but no oil wells.  I loved seeing the names of the ranches and wish I had made note of them all along; Indian Springs, Rattlesnake, and Happy H are three that come to mind.

The area near Fredericksburg is home to much of the Texas wine country.  I know there is also at least one bourbon distillery tucked in among the wineries.

Luckenbach music fest!

Luckenbach music fest!

We just had to go by Luckenbach, made famous by the Waylon Jennings song, this day hosting a big music fest in their dance hall.  That’s pretty much the entire town, the dance hall.  The Trail continued, leading us through Johnson City, home of LBJ and finally into Austin.

The weather was cloudy but nice in Austin, and expected to turn ugly the following midday.  We seized the opportunity to see the University of Texas campus (I still prefer the other UT!), as well as explore the major areas of commerce, shops, music and restaurants.  We eventually worked our way down to the area known as SOCO (South of Congress) and had dinner.  Austin has a great reputation as a major foodie town with more than 3,000 restaurants.  We managed to dine at one I considered overpriced and overrated (even though highly recommended).

Our second day in Austin was destined to be dedicated to the mundane chore of getting laundry done (a feat seemingly beyond the ability of our hotel’s for the last four nights), reading and maybe getting to a movie.  We did manage to get a nice walk in during the morning hours, checking out the beautiful state capitol building.

Texas State Capitol.

Texas State Capitol.

It was no surprise when we entered the building we had to go through a scanner. What was a surprise is that I even had to take the Kleenex out of my pocket.  They even wanted used Kleenex . . .  but I threw that away. The female Ranger told me very sternly, “Mam, we don’t just screen for metal.”

Our movie intentions were abandoned when the weather kept getting worse.  Even as a Floridian, I’ve never experienced rain any harder or as many lightning strikes (68K+ in one hour). The newscasters here are talking about “unprecedented flooding” and we are just happy to be back in the beautiful, historic Hotel Ella, which is fortunately equipped with a nice restaurant and a bar, which we are headed to now . . . .

Hotel Ella. Ella Wooten asked the Vanderbilts who did their columns for the Biltmore in Asheville - and gave up a European vacation to pay for the.  Neiman Marcus did the original decor for $10,000.

Hotel Ella, originally completed in 1900. Ella Wooten asked the Vanderbilts who did their columns for the Biltmore in Asheville – and gave up a European vacation to pay for them. Neiman Marcus did the decor for $10,000.

Daily Trivia Questions (answers next post):

Which capitol building is taller, the US or Texas?

How high is the star at the center of the rotunda in the Texas capitol building?







Last post’s trivia answers:

What state was David Crockett from?   Tennessee

How long is the River Walk?  The downtown portion is approximately 5 miles. New extensions, however, are returning more of the river (previously straightened) to its natural bends and flow, almost doubling the length of the public access