Wednesday, November 02, 2016

43 Hours in Kentucky

Last year was a big one for us, since Cooper and I both turned 40, along with tons of our friends. This year, as it turns out,  has been nearly as big. Most recently, we helped our friend Jeff celebrate with a bang - a bourbon-tasting trip to Kentucky.

The crew included Jeff and his wife Christine, Alicia and Mike, Cooper and me and Kyle (Mary had to work, as did Bill).
Our tour guides very graciously took this photo for us.
As it turns out, Kentucky is a pretty easy trip from Baltimore. The flight from BWI to Louisville is just over an hour and, since it's a regular Southwest run, there are lots of choices and it's not very expensive.

After doing some research, Christine booked us at a cool bed and breakfast called Bourbon Manor, in Bardstown, a small town right in the thick of bourbon country. Mike,  Alicia, Jeff and Christine headed down on Thursday; Cooper and Kyle and I joined them Friday. And we all set off together on an epic adventure.

Friday: From Baltimore to Bardstown

Kyle & his bloody and Kyle with Cooper at the airport; Harrison-Smith pork rolls, Busch Light bottles
and live music at Old Talbott Tavern

Because I am a slightly crazy person when it comes to travel plans, Cooper and Kyle and I arrived at the airport on Friday with, oh, two hours to spare. We killed most of that time at Obrycki's, which really does have a nice house beer and a gorgeous bloody.

One short flight, plus a couple of Kyle's free Southwest drink coupons later, we landed in Kentucky, where Kyle picked up his hilariously red, enormous Ford F-150 rental and we got on the road.

Bardstown, where we were staying, is about 40 minutes from the airport, but we took a slight detour to Shelbyville, to stop by Walnut Grove Farm, where Kyle's uncle's lives.

It was our first time meeting his uncle and he was fantastic - funny and super welcoming. He hosts weddings on the farm and while we were there, he was getting ready for festivities taking place the next day. It's a gorgeous spot and so relaxing. (Especially relaxing during our visit, since he was plying us with beers.)

Back on the road, we made our way to Bourbon Manor, which was more charming than we could've guessed. Pretty, 19th century-inspired rooms, personable hosts, really, really good breakfasts - it had everything we could've asked for, including a bar, called The Bunghole, right on the premises. Also, ghosts. In Bardstown, everything is haunted.

For dinner, we headed into town, to Harrison-Smith House, where we had one of the best meals I've had all year. I feel like I say that a lot, but I mean it. The menu is short, focused and pig-heavy in a creative way. The drinks were solid, as was the wine list, and the sausage roll, which was kind of like a porky egg roll, was absolutely amazing.

Also, our waiter, Richard, was awesome. A total professional who read our table so well. Even with an average waiter, it would've been a memorable meal, but his excellent service pushed it over the top.

After dinner, we wandered over to the Old Talbott Tavern, where we were greeted by live music and $1.50 Busch Light bottles - a combination that Cooper finds hard to resist. We spent a couple hours dancing and drinking and generally having a blast, before going back to The Bunghole and closing it down with a few more drinks. If the weekend had ended right there, it still would've been a winner.

But it didn't.

Saturday: Bourbon and Beer

On Saturday morning, we were up and at 'em early...and some of us were moving a little slowly (Cooper). But we had things to do. Christine had hired a tour company, Kentucky Wine Tours, to take us on a tour of bourbon country.

Normally, one of our stops would've been Jim Beam, but as it turns out, the staff went on strike at midnight on Friday. So we didn't get to see that very big distillery, but we didn't miss it. Instead, we hit a couple other places: Maker's Mark, Limestone Branch, Heaven Hill (just for the gift shop) and Willett.

Our first stop was Maker's Mark, which is beautiful...and very busy. If you're going, try to get there just when it opens, otherwise, you risk waiting for a while for an open tour. (They run a lot of tours throughout the day...but they also get a lot of visitors.)

The grounds, the process, the barrels, the the Chihuly ceiling and Cooper and Alicia enjoying some togetherness
Our tour guide at Maker's was young, but really good. He knew what he was talking about and he was funny and personable. It's a gorgeous place and though it's a big company, it didn't feel at all impersonal. We got to see the bourbon made and where it's packaged, labelled and dipped in wax. It's all right there.

The tour ended with a tasting and I have to be honest, bourbon at 10 am is rough when you're 40 and hungover. But you know what's not rough? The Dale Chihuly ceiling that leads into the Maker's gift shop. It's gorgeous.

Because it was Jeff's birthday, our tour guides gave him a gift: his own bottle of Maker's, which he got to dip in wax in the gift shop. It was pretty cool all around...though the part that was most entertaining for us was how totally unimpressed the wax-dipping lady looked by Jeff's antics.

Jeff, in a photo by Christine
After Maker's, our tour guides surprised us with a trip to Limestone Branch, which is the (legit) distillery that was on Moonshiners. While there, we tasted some really good moonshine (for real) and were given a tour by the most engaging, entertaining man ever. He was fantastic. So fun and so full of knowledge.

One of the things we learned is that a lot of the people who distill bourbon are related in one way or another. There are a whole lot of Beams down there and in many cases, the master distiller position at a company is passed down from father to son or daughter (mostly son). It's as much an art as it is a science to create bourbons that are both tasty and consistent and there's no replacing the value of apprenticing with your dad.

We also heard a lot more about the water quality than I was expecting. Comparing this trip to our whiskey adventures last summer in Ireland was interesting. Since there are strict laws regulating how bourbon is aged (new oak barrels, charred on the inside), there's more emphasis on the water and, in some places, the mash vs. the Irish emphasis on the barrel's history and the distilling process itself.

Limestone Branch is a small place, but full of great stories that go back for generations. If you have the chance, go there.

An old whiskey sign at Limestone Branch, view of their grounds, and an Ale 8 One with lunch
After Limestone Branch, we headed back to Maker's, for lunch at Toll Gate Cafe, a little spot on the Maker's campus that makes excellent sandwiches...and just so happens to be run by the brother of the owner of the Harrison-Smith House.

We then did a quick drive by Heaven Hill Distilling, which makes a couple big brands of bourbon, including Evan Williams and Elijah Craig. Our timing was off, so we didn't stay for a tour, but we did make the most of our time at their gift shop, which was more like a museum than a simple store.

As we drove between the distilleries, our guide, Gary, gave us some instruction on the finer points of the bourbon business. Pointing out the rickhouses - the places where the bourbon barrels are placed to age - he talked to us about construction and location and insurance.

That sounds boring, but it wasn't. The big structures, which are often painted black because they end up covered in black mold anyway, are built far from the distilleries themselves and far enough apart from one another that if there's a fire, they won't all go up in flames.

Because bourbon is so highly flammable, fires to happen, and they can very quickly take out a lot of product. And because of that, the aging bourbon is impossible to insure. So if you have a fire, you're stuck.

After Heaven Hill, we made our way to our final distillery of the day, Willett. This was a special request from Jeff, who loves the stuff and so does Kyle's dad. So, apparently, do a lot of bartenders.

The brand hasn't been around for a super long time, though the family behind it has been distilling for generations. And, as we discovered during our tour, given by a fun girl named Evelyn, the family has roots in Maryland. Though they've been in Kentucky for many generations, they were originally from Prince George's County.

Willett is cool overall, but the highlight is the still, which is a proprietary genie bottle shape
(which is also the shape of their bottles)

It was a fun tour and Cooper finally started to emerge from his hangover haze, just as Kyle started to slip into a bourbon-induced buzz that kept building for the rest of the night. It was...entertaining.

The tours were over and we were back at the B&B before 4...and then back off, having a drink at The Bunghole before heading to the Bardstown Craft Beer Fest. We walked from the inn - it wasn't too far - and strolled around town, ducking into a few shops before heading to the festival itself.

Once we got there, we were pleasantly surprised by a ton of craft beers, some not-so-craft beers (Carlsberg?), the Hogslop String Band, and a couple very good food trucks. Plus, a boatload of friendly people. AND there was square dancing at one point, which I did not participate in, but Mike, Alicia and Kyle did. Believe me when I say it was memorable. About 20 minutes too long, but memorable.
Tons of craft beers, Cooper at The Bunghole, the band, a kickass BBQ truck
While at the festival, we got to talking with a couple manning one of the food booths, a place selling chili. Turns out, the lady there is the mom of the people who own Toll Gate Cafe and Harrison Smith and she used to work at Limestone Branch and was the distiller behind some of our favorites there.

It's a small town.

But a really nice one.

After the festival, we headed back to the Old Talbott Inn for a couple more Busch Lights and a little more live music before finally throwing in the towel and calling for a cab to carry us back to the B&B. (One downside of Bardstown: no Uber.)

Sunday morning, we were up and out very early and we were back in Baltimore by 11. A quick trip, definitely, but one that was so much fun. I knew we'd have a good time - we always do - but I wasn't expecting to be so thoroughly charmed by the town, its people and its restaurants and bars.

I'd go back in a heartbeat.

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