Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, is famous for lots of things we love: bourbon, fried chicken, horses and banjo-plucking bluegrass so naturally we were thrilled about dropping by. After the tranquility of Amish country in Ohio, Bardstown was similarly laidback. Perhaps because it’s the Bourbon Capital of the World. Kentucky cooks up 95% of the world’s bourbon, most of which flows from seven distilleries in central Kentucky: a 225-mile loop between the booze-makers which has become known as the Bourbon Trail. From small, family-owned distilleries to world-famous Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, bourbon infuses this part of America and we felt it only right that we sampled some.
We drove to Loretto through luscious green rolling hills and then spent a couple of hours touring the Maker’s Mark distillery. Here we found out that Maker’s Mark is aged for around six years, being bottled and marketed when the company’s tasters agree that it is ready. We wandered around the peaceful tidy grounds and heard about how Maker’s Mark is one of the few distillers to rotate the barrels from the upper to the lower levels of the aging warehouses during the aging process to even out the differences in temperature during the process. We were able to taste Makers Mark at different stages of the aging process to see the difference it makes to the bourbon. Josh found this a little tricky as it was pretty early morning and he is our only designated-driver, although Hannah was in HEAVEN. As anyone who’s seen a bottle of Maker’s Mark knows, it is sold in squarish bottles which are sealed with red wax. T. William Samuels’ wife, Marjorie “Margie” Samuels, gave the whisky its name, drew its label, and thought up the wax dipping that gives the bottle its distinctive look. We enjoyed buying and dipping our own bottles of Maker’s Mark in the unique red wax at the end of the tour (who doesn’t love a gimmick?!) although Hannah’s bottle looked dramatically less professional than Josh’s. Maybe it was the extra Maker’s Mark she drank during the tasting-session?
For dinner in Bardstown we dropped by Old Talbott Tavern – a historic tavern built in 1779 and visited in the 19th century by future presidents Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Abraham Lincoln. Here we engaged in a spot of bourbon tasting (when in Bardstown eh?), sipped some potent bourbon cocktails and soaked it all up with a mean plate of delectable fried chicken before staggering home. Home for the night was, well, interesting. We laid our heads in the thick-walled Jailer’s Inn, the county lockup from 1819 until 1987; and today a guest house. Amongst the renovated, charming guest-rooms one jail-cell remains which guests can spend the night in. Well, we just had to. Bare walls, bars on the window, a clunking door, bunks used by prisoners… and a water-bed: it was bizarre spending a night in an old jail cell. The Travel Channel ranked the place as one of the ten most haunted places in the United States. We didn’t see any ghosts that night. But then we had drunk a LOT of bourbon.
It was sad to leave Bardstown after only one night and only one distillery and it’s certainly somewhere you could while away many happy, tipsy days. But the open road was calling, as ever, and we headed out to Kentucky’s multimillion-dollar Creation Museum, an interactive tour through a biblical interpretation of history. We dread to think what Richard Dawkins would make of this place – where there is a walk-through Noah’s Ark, animatronic dinosaurs (creationists believe they coexisted with humans) and all manner of dubious “evidence” disputing evolution and the like – but it was an experience like no other. And the pleasant grounds are home to zonkeys (zebra-donkey hybrids) in the petting zoo which were fun too.
After an enjoyable zonkey-stroking session, not a phrase I get to use enough, we headed to Louisville – which I’m still not sure is pronounced Looeyville or Louahvul or Luhvul – the largest city in Kentucky. We strolled about until we were stopped in our tracks by a 120ft baseball bat. A world famous Louisville Slugger baseball bat – made in Kentucky and holder of the Guinness World Record for the largest bat – which we just about managed to photograph without restoring to the gimmicky-messing-about-with-perspective-photos-where you pretend you’re being swatted by said bat. As the factory tour and museum will tell you Hillerich & Bradsby Co have been making famous baseball bat here since 1884 and the admission fee included a hall of baseball memorabilia such as Babe Ruth’s bat, a batting cage and a free mini slugger. It was lots of fun and interesting no matter how much you know or don’t know about baseball.
Carrying our mini-Sluggers we then popped over to the Muhammad Ali Centre – a museum dedicated to the city’s most famous native. The tour included a stirring film on Ali’s life and video projections of his most famous fights, as well as exhibits about the racial segregation and humanitarian issues which impacted his life so profoundly: providing us with a rounded impression of an extraordinary man. And then onto the Rocking Horse Manor, a totally restored 1888 Richardsonian Romanesque mansion, where we spent the night in a cute little room full of pink chintz, cross-stitched cushions and original stained glass. The mansion was like stepping back in time and felt very English, with the most charming hosts you could ask for and an exquisite, generous home-cooked breakfasts. Dinner – naturally – involved more bourbon and then stacks of barbecue at Doc Crow’s before we had a craft beer night-cap at the BBC – the Bluegrass Brewing Company. It was a thoroughly gorgeous way to spend the day and a clearly fine and fun city with plenty of museums and bars to explore.
Kentucky is certainly somewhere we’d love to return to – if only to stop at every distillery on the Bourbon Trail – so fingers crossed we’ll head back to the Bluegrass state before too long.
Rate the state:
Good for: BOURBON! Great food, historic towns, and errr bourbon!
Bad for: It’s not all that cosmopolitan and if you really hate bourbon it may not be the state for you.