Day 1.

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.

I had confirmation from Airbnb for the house I rented in Paris, as well as a list of restaurants and points of interest that we hoped to visit. 

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 I had a copy of Gear Patrol’s“9 Bottles of Bourbon You Can Only Find in Kentucky.”  We were determined to hunt down the elusive 9 and bring home a few bottles to sip and savor long after the trip was over.  

I had a map from https://kybourbontrail.com/, which had the names and addresses of 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.  

The first stop after landing was Marks Feed Store restaurant located 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, which was listed as a Mark’s favorite on the menu. We also ordered barbecued chicken and the brisket sliders.

The ribs were succulent, slathered with the house barbecue sauce which was sweet and tangy, and the meat fell off the bone. The coleslaw was average, but the red skin potato salad, complete with petite peas, was delicious. The barbecued chicken was excellent and the brisket sliders as well.

We stopped at Woodford Reserve in Versailles to take a tour but everything was booked. 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 bourbons on our search. 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 and was served in the traditional “copper” Mint Julep cup. It was time to head to our accommodations in Paris.

Welcome Hall, a 5-bedroom 1880’s farmhouse on 55 acres, is a working thoroughbred farm. Set back off a busy road, the setting was 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. There was a cat called “Charlie Chaplin,” a leftover from the previous owner but the origin of his name was a mystery. 

Elise, our host, recommended the Blue Isle Home-Style restaurant in Winchester for dinner, a local favorite famous for their fried catfish and fried chicken. The food was prepared just like their name said, home-style. The chicken, with a thin and crispy breading and not greasy, was unsurpassed by any I had ever tasted. Some in the group had the catfish which was prepared like the chicken and it was delightful. Portions were ample and the prices were extremely 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 liter. 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.

Day 2. 

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 the capitol city of Frankfort. There’s no charge for tours there. 

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 who was one of four persons inducted in the 2018 Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. He also was featured in the 2018 documentary “Neat: The Story of Bourbon.”

Johnson is a 3rdgeneration employee; Johnson’s grandfather worked more than 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. The Angel’s Share is the bourbon that evaporates over time while the liquor ages in the barrels, Johnson said. During Prohibition, this black fungus was a sign that something was still going on illegally at many distilleries, he said. 

Johnson said that one of the original buildings on site is the oldest continuing distillery in the U.S., operating since the early 1700’s. 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 said.

 Johnson also explained how Buffalo Trace got its name. Buffalos would start their migration through Kentucky to the plains and would knock down the grass and make trails (the trace).

We toured a warehouse that held 24,000 barrels, filled with a variety of spirits manufactured by Buffalo Trace, including the Van Winkle Collection, Blanton’s Single Barrel and Sazerac Rye. We saw a live assembly line where bottles of bourbon were being corked and sealed for eventual sale; surprisingly, all work was being done by people, not machines.

At the end of the tour, Freddie gave us a lesson on how to properly drink bourbon in the tasting room (you’ll have to 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 19thcentury. We decided on Serafini, located across from the Old State Capital.  The restaurant serves Italian and southern food.  Serafini is proud to support local farmers and producer, which was evident by the quality and freshness of the food. 

I tried The Hot Brown, a sandwich that was invented in the 1920’s 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. 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 for the tour and to 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. The tour included 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 also 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 similar to Maker’s Mark, and the other group got a chance to taste and purchase the Single Barrel.  By now we had four bourbons on Gear Patrol’s list.

Afterwards, 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 as well as an extensive selection of rare and vintage bourbons.

For appetizers we ordered the Maker’s Mark Shrimp, which were wrapped in bacon and covered with Maker’s barbecue sauce. 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. The broiled Walleye Pike was extremely palatable and I couldn’t resist ordering another Hot Brown. The Hot Brown was worth the calories. 

The day ended on the front porch of Welcome Hall, a few bottles of the elusive 9 opened, several glasses of bourbon empty by bedtime.

Day 3.

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 either breeders checking out the studs or mares arriving in heat, so we were extremely 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. Indyand 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 he was inspected by the breeder, we all sensed from his stature that he knew he was special.

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 an amazing 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 on the menu. We ordered the fried catfish, the Kentucky Combination which was thin sliced country ham and swiss, and also ordered the Kentucky Boy, which was 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 comes from local Weisenberger Mill, in operation since 1865. The brownies and the cookies were extraordinary.

We headed to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, location of the International Museum of the Horse and the world’s only park dedicated to horses and man. Horse-drawn tours and equine special events are held throughout the year. The museum, an affiliated of the Smithsonian, explains the importance of the horse from ancient times though 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., a Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour® member distillery and the first distillery in Bourbon County since 1919. Located in a non-descript three story red brick building, the husband and wife team of Andrew and Larissa Buchanan dreamed about starting a “craft” distillery. Today they produce bourbon as well as “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 accelerate the aging process of their liquors, going for the taste of the grain, 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 extremely 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 night. 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.

Day 4. 

No trip to Kentucky would be complete without a visit to Churchill Downs, even if it wasn’t derby weekend; horse racing is available all year round. The grounds of Churchill Downs are spectacularly maintained with flowers. Life-sized bronze statues of famous horses such as Barbaro and Secretariat are on display. We tasted our first mint julep, which was refreshing on a hot, muggy day in Louisville.

We took the self-guided tour of the Kentucky Derby Museum, where there are exhibits focusing on the traditions and history of the famous race as well at highlighting horses, jockeys, trainers and owners from the 145 years of history since the famous race began.

This 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 who our picks were in the second and third race because they all lost. 

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. The city was featured on “Top Chef,” where several local restaurants and eateries were explored.

Lilly’s Bistro, a farm-to-table restaurant owned by Top Chef guest judge Kathy Cary, was our choice for lunch. 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 extremely enjoyable 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 1880’s, 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 final 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, combines the old technique of making whiskey with the unconventional thinking of 21stcentury distillers

Master distiller Lincoln Henderson, a member of The Bourbon Hall of Fame, was pulled out of retirement after 40 years of experience in the spirit industry by his son Wes. 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 their rye was finished in rum barrels, just as Wes had envisioned.  

On our last night in Kentucky, sitting in the tasting room at Angel’s Envy with views of Louisville 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.

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