Luckily, the TrailDirt crew had an urgent errand to run that brought us to the Bluegrass state for a very short stay, and we decided we couldn’t leave the state and its unbridled spirit without hitting its most important, most valuable, and most defining trail: The Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It was February 15th, 2013, the day of the big asteroid fly-by, and already some space rock exploded over a city in Russia somewhere with amazing camera captures of the thing streaking by and the subsequent boom and sounds of breaking glass. The big one was due to fly-by the closest to Earth at 2:25 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Yep, a giant meteor might cause the world to end and we’re going to the country to drink bourbon with close family; I wouldn’t have it any other way. The family that drinks together…has a good time, anyway.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail was dreamed up by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, and some well-known names in alcohol are stops along the way–Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey. I am somewhat concerned with the size of “tastes” that I will be receiving. I wonder if I can make my way through this adventure and maintain my dignity.
Clearly, the Bourbon Trail is a blatant marketing device to increase tourism to the state when the Kentucky Derby isn’t happening. It’s not a bad idea, either. Like the wineries of Sonoma and Napa Counties in California, the distilleries of Kentucky have a certain draw for a certain kind of traveler. Unlike California wine country, some of these distilleries have been in operation for over a century. They make a beloved and popular product, and they want to show you how it’s done. How nice.
The distillery I am most interested in is not on the official bourbon trail list–it’s Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, the state’s capitol. We decide to hit Frankfort at the very end of our ramble. I hope I can make it.
At the suggestion of the family, the first place we go is Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. With its surprising California-style architecture and cheery yellow and red colors, Four Roses appears on the side of a country road like a dream. The drive there is along twisting two-lane back roads littered with decaying barns, boarded up old homes, some newer, bland brick houses, and mobile homes as well. It is a dreary, gray winter day. I am anxious to get inside the visitor center and check out the goods.
The visitor center gift shop and tasting room areas are lovely. Its earthy tones, old-style nods like bead board, natural rock details, black down lights, wrought iron flourishes and gorgeous floor displays make not buying anything rather difficult. My hat is off to the designers, architects, and marketing geniuses that put together this area at Four Roses. I feel like I could be somewhere in New Orleans in an old building, or perhaps downtown Louisville along old Whiskey Row, blocks from the Ohio River. We opt to participate in a group tasting of the goods and forgo the tour. I examine the point of purchase stuff on the main counter by the register and pick up some box matches and temporary tattoos. What a cool idea, temporary tattoos. They bear the Four Roses official logo of–what else–Four Roses.
Tasting bourbon at 11:30 in the morning is heady stuff. Although we are given what appears to be two tablespoons of three different kinds of bourbon, the buzz is on. Yikes. I peruse the gift shop area and talk with a guy setting up a video camera in the corner. He is with the marketing firm representing Four Roses, and they are planning on making a mini-site attached to the Four Roses web site for users to submit videos of their own, making toasts with Four Roses bourbons. Clever. I congratulate the man on his firm’s fine marketing efforts, as the entire theme and feel of all things Four Roses is cohesive, and working in harmony to attract and keep customers. He says thanks. The liquid courage is helpful when striking up conversations with total strangers that are clearly sober. After the family buys a super-fine single barrel fifth, a ball cap, and some cuter matches packaged in a barrel-like box, we head out the door for our next stop.
“Hey look at the cool tattoos I picked up,” I exclaim as I dig around in my purse and produce the two items. “These were next to those cute barrel matches.”
My brother-in-law gets serious with me. “Those weren’t free,” he says. “I think they were 30 cents each.”
“What? I never saw a sign or anything…I can’t believe it!” I exclaim. Crap. I never saw a sign–and I hadn’t even had anything to drink at that point. We are already down the road a way. Thank goodness family spent a good $75.00–maybe more–in the gift shop.
At the other end of Lawrenceburg lies Wild Turkey Distillery. Old. Venerable. Beloved. Louisville-native Hunter S. Thompson‘s favorite brand. Wild Turkey’s gift shop and tasting room is in a diminutive historic farm house. They have enough tee shirts and bottles of their wares crammed into an approximately 500 square foot area that used to be somebody’s living room and bedroom. A coffee maker is in the hallway where they have set up some complimentary hot coffee and hot apple cider–it is a nice touch and just perfect on a cold winter day. I pour a cider.
The tasting room is in the back of the house, most likely where the old kitchen used to be. I belly up to the bar, which has an odd design with a flat, raised wooden rail around the edge, and attempt to set down my hot cider. It spills everywhere. I apologize profusely as I have just sullied a customer guest list with the names and emails of probably the last 1,000 people at the tasting bar. I feel like a creep, but the man pouring says not to worry, it happens all the time. I haven’t even tasted anything at Wild Turkey yet–and spillage has already occurred. The man pouring proceeds to give me a very small taste (I understand his concern) of Wild Turkey Rye and it is wonderful, probably my favorite taste of the day. It would have been awesome with the hot cider if I had any left.
We leave and drive out, passing by Wild Turkey’s sprawling campus of resting barns for its bourbon barrels and the large factory where the mash is cooked. They have guard shacks. Probably a good idea, considering all the Hunter S. Thompson fans out there that may be trying to break in and grab a barrel (which would be really, really hard to do). My sister-in-law starts laughing at me after hearing the spill story. My brother-in-law chimes in, claiming the bar’s outer rail was ergonomically unsound and prone to accidents. What a day, already. We begin the short drive to Frankfort just after 1 p.m.
We arrive in Frankfort at about 1:30 p.m. The family is getting restless and hungry. We enter the beautiful grounds at Buffalo Trace and drive in a little way. This is the place where we decided to take a tour, and the next one leaves at two; the last tour of the day is at three. Although I am up for moving along with the Bourbon Trail, family demands food, and we hit Jim’s Seafood right on the Kentucky River, just five minutes from the distillery. I have clam chowder and a half-dozen oysters on the half shell. It is delicious and I feel fortified for the rest of the afternoon’s adventures. Jim’s Seafood is a small town, down-home kind of place. They have some prime real estate right along the Kentucky River, and in the summer they have a great area with picnic tables set up outdoors. I want to return and eat by the river in nicer weather, no doubt.
The historic Buffalo Trace Distillery is home to many well-known and heirloom brands of bourbon, including its namesake bourbon, Weller, Blanton’s, 1792, Ancient Age, Kentucky Tavern, and Pappy Van Winkle–one of the best bourbons I have ever tasted in my life. Its picturesque grounds lie right on the banks of the Kentucky River, and its large stone and masonry resting warehouses are beautiful examples of historic commercial architecture. The distillery was one of four distilleries that were kept open during prohibition, surviving on a federal contract to make “medicinal” spirits. The visitor center has reproduced some of the packaging from this time, and it is uncanny how “medicinal” bourbon and “medicinal” marijuana seem to share similar story lines.
I wanted to come to this distillery for culinary reasons. Back when we lived in Louisville, I came across a package of Buffalo Trace pancake mix made from some of the grain mash that is also used to make the bourbon. They were the best pancakes I ever tasted in my life and I had not come across another package of the mix anywhere else in the United States. I needed those pancakes, damn it, and I was determined to not miss this distillery during my quick Kentucky visit. I made a great choice, as the grounds were historic, spectacular in their setting, architecturally pleasing, and apparently haunted, as the mansion built on the high hill by Colonel Blanton claims to retain his spirit. I was told he passed away on a chair on his porch, taking in the stunning views of the river and the distillery buildings. What a way to go. Buffalo Trace now offers a haunted tour of the grounds as part of their tour offerings. We opted for the overview tour called the “Trace Tour.”
Pancake Mix & Absinthe
My sister-in-law and I poked around in the visitor center and gift shop until the next tour departed. She pulled out her booklets/passports for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and noticed that Buffalo Trace is not on the official trail roster. She asked an employee why they are not on the trail. He answered honestly, explaining that the Kentucky Distillers’ Association sponsors political lobbying efforts that are at cross-purposes with Buffalo Trace and its business. We nod in understanding. Being in Frankfort at the state’s capitol, it seems that Buffalo Trace reps could just walk over to the state house and talk to the people they wanted. Did they need to join the Kentucky Distillers’ Association? No, not really. They are owned by the Sazerac Company, a New Orleans-based corporation that also has been instrumental in the rebirth of Absinthe, an herb-based spirit that is legendary in the annals of excessive drinking and creative genius. Perfect. I picked the best distillery for last–that wasn’t even on the official Bourbon Trail–and it was all due to my mad craving for bourbon flour pancakes.
As a winter storm snowed and rained on Buffalo Trace, we were inside on the tour. During the tour we watched a short video about how the buffalo used to roam through the area and cross the Kentucky River where the distillery was built. We looked in on some barrels resting in a warehouse, and stopped in the bottling plant while a batch of single barrel Blanton’s was bottled, corked, wax-sealed, labeled, bagged, and boxed. I am fourth from the last in line as I pass the corking station. The corker turns to me and the other three people and says, “Here. Last in line. Don’t say anything. Here.” He shoves something hard and cold into my hand. I open my fingers to see a distinctive Blanton’s stopper cork with the horse and jockey metal topper. There are eight different horse and jockey toppers for each of the letters in the name Blanton’s. I scored number eight, the “s,” with the horse and jockey triumphantly winning the Kentucky Derby. Best. Freebee. Ever. Thanks corking station dude.
We exited the historic buildings at Buffalo Trace with the clouds gone, the sun shining, and a cleanness to the air that allowed the cooking corn mash to waft happily along the river valley. I was considering homesteading there at Buffalo Trace, and who wouldn’t? If I lived in Kentucky or New Orleans again, I would apply for a job at Buffalo Trace and Sazerac immediately. What a cool company. I grabbed several bags of the pancake mix in the gift store, along with a box of bourbon-infused chocolates and two bottles of “White Dog,” the raw whiskey that goes into the barrels for four years and comes out Buffalo Trace bourbon. It is super-strong; great care should be taken with it.
We began the drive back to the in-law’s country home, fighting rush hour traffic from Frankfort into the Louisville area. My brother-in-law turned down a country road and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset drive through the hills of old Kentucky. The Bourbon Trail had been on my list for years, and I was contented and happy with how the day went. I was surprised that I had managed to maintain myself and was still standing. Overall, the tastings were so small that that’s exactly what they were, a taste. This wouldn’t go over in wine country, but in bourbon country you can’t mess with portion size or you’ll never leave a distillery and head to the next place. You’ll be asleep in your car–or worse, passed out somewhere on the grounds. Not good. I was relieved that the tastings were what they were–and that a giant meteorite had missed hitting the earth at about 2:25 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
At least I would have been in one of the most beautiful places in Kentucky, drinking the best bourbon in the world.
I had a great time along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. To find out more, click here.
To visit Buffalo Trace, click here and choose the “Visit Us” link.
Enjoy the fruits of Kentucky responsibly.