It used to be frowned upon, but now Kentucky is celebrating its famous drink, not least at its annual bourbon festival. Dominic Roskrow signs up
Kentucky is a mass of contradictions. A southern state to anyone north of the Ohio River but a northern state for the folk in Tennessee and Texas, it is in a geographical no man’s land.
On one hand it’s a study in southern hospitality and politeness, a white Republican territory largely unimpressed with the Obama revolution, and a fully paid-up member of the Bible Belt fraternity. On the other, it celebrates America’s vices with a liberalism rarely witnessed elsewhere. It’s home to the horse racing industry, was a leading producer of tobacco, and when that industry was destroyed it’s said that it turned to marijuana production instead. And, perhaps most famously, it gave the world one of the least nutritious culinary indulgences with its deep fried chicken.
Then of course there’s the whiskey – powerful, firey bourbon that has existed uneasily alongside the fundamentalists and traditionalists that make up the majority in the state. But that relationship is changing. At long last Kentucky is not only acknowledging that it is home to one of the world’s truly great drinks, but is actively celebrating it. You don’t have to spend long here to realise that while Kentucky might be in a geographical no man’s land, the people themselves know exactly where they are from. This is a state where they eat grits for breakfast, and biscuits and gravy for lunch; a state of country and bluegrass music up in the Appalachian mountains and of suited, goatee-bearded gentlemen and perfectly coiffured ladies taking lunch in town.
In summer Kentucky is a heady mix of green fields, neat white fencing, and chestnut thoroughbreds galloping under scorching sun and blue skies. Littered across the lush landscape are some of the world’s prettiest and best distilleries.
The entry point to Kentucky is Louisville, a large city and birthplace of Muhammed Ali. The Seelbach Hotel was the setting for a wedding scene in The Great Gatsby and Al Capone was a regular there. It is said that the Old-Fashioned cocktail was invented at the Pendennis Club in the city. The Mint Julep’s roots lie here, too, and it is home to Churchill Downs, the racetrack which hosts the world-famous Kentucky Derby.
Tour the stills
Kentucky offers those interested in bourbon two options: the Urban Bourbon Trail (see box, p95), a city-centre tour of eight bourbon-influenced restaurants and bars; and the bourbon trail itself, with eight distilleries open to the public.
There is something to recommend all of them, but no whiskey tourist should miss a trip to Heaven Hill (www.heaven-hill.com; +1 502 337 1000), home to great bourbon names such as Elijah Craig and Evan Williams. The distillery lies on the edge of the historic town of Bardstown, America’s bourbon capital and home to the Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum and the state’s anthem My Old Kentucky Home, both giving a wonderful insight in to old and historical Kentucky.
Heaven Hill itself has a fully interactive visitor centre and is a great introduction to bourbon and how it’s made. The tour, which includes the racking warehouses, is informative and entertaining, and ends with a sample or two in the centre’s special barrel-shaped tasting room.
For those wanting to step up to the next knowledge level, Buffalo Trace (www.buffalotrace.com; +1 502 696 5926) in Franklin County is worth a visit. It occupies a sprawling site and some of bourbon’s greatest names – George T Stagg, Eagle Rare, William Larue Weller and the Van Winkle range of aged bourbons – come from here. The distillery itself is fascinating, with odd murals, a unique experimental still and artefacts from bourbon’s past. Ring ahead and book the Hard Hat Tour, which takes you in to parts of a distillery that you’re unlikely to see again.
Meanwhile, it’s a toss up between Maker’s Mark in Loretto (www.makersmark.com; +1 270 865 2881) and Woodford Reserve in Versailles (www.woodfordreserve.com; +1 859 879 1812) for the unofficial title of prettiest distillery in Kentucky. Both are small and intimate, set in picturesque environments, and both make wonderful but very different styles of bourbon.
Woodford lies in horse-racing territory, so you might like to tie in a stud farm visit – but be prepared for a shock: thoroughbred breeding is a violent, x-rated business which is not for the faint-hearted. Maker’s Mark opened a new visitor centre and bar in 2008 and now you can end your tour by dipping your own bottle in the famous Maker’s red wax. The distillery is now owned by Beam Global but its figurehead is still Bill Samuels, son of the founder. He’s an eccentric genius, and you’ll find examples of his individuality at every turn.
Despite its high-profile song, its procession of famous sons and daughters, from presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to actors George Clooney and Johnny Depp and singers Loretta Lynn and Wynonna Judd, and the fame of its chicken and whiskey, Kentucky remains one of America’s best-kept secrets when it comes to tourist destinations. A contrary place indeed.
Written by Dominic Roskrow