Brad's 40th Bourbon Bash
All bourbon is whiskey, not all whiskey is bourbon. One of the many facts thrown at us while tasting and touring our way through the Bluegrass State of Kentucky. In the month leading up to Brad’s 40th Bourbon Bash we had “Bourbon Fridays” so I could prepare my palette and reduce the terrible face I made whenever I took a sip. It paid off. As did the surprise vodka tasting at Buffalo Trace Distillery (vodka for the win!) – a National Historic Landmark, and one of six Kentucky distilleries which remained open during prohibition. Days spent touring buildings over 200 years old, timeless tradition, and the abundant scent of sour bourbon mash were only one part of our bluegrass experience.
These are our favorite memories…
All The Bourbon
And all the facts. Bourbon has to be 51% corn – and then usually a combination of barley mixed with rye or wheat. Bourbon can have no additives, except water. Bourbon must be aged in a new (typically white) oak barrel, charred on the inside. Kentucky Straight Bourbon means it aged in the barrel for at least two years.
Maker’s Mark Distillery won our vote for the best tour. The interactive features of the experience set it apart. We were able to dip our fingers in the huge fermentation tanks of mash, or “distiller’s beer” to taste the mixture of what eventually becomes bourbon. Hard to believe Maker’s still hand prints all labels, but we saw the process in action (designer nerd-out moment) and were even able to take souvenir labels hot-off-the-press. Our visit ended with Brad hand-dipping his own bottle of Marker’s White – only available at the distillery.
Our vote for best tasting goes to Woodford Reserve Distillery. The high-end experience was reminiscent of time spent wine tasting in Napa Valley. Seated at a large U-shaped table in a rustic-chic room, surrounded by floor to ceiling windows overlooking the distillery, we followed their three-sip tasting journey. They believe the third sip really offers the flavor – with all possibilities presented on a flavor wheel for each guest. Paired with a Woodford Reserve Bourbon Ball the taste of the bourbon sweetened for me, and spiced for Brad.
"Keep your friends close and your bourbon closer."
-Old Kentucky Proverb
The most perfect sun-shiny day of our trip included a behind-the-scenes walking tour of Churchill Downs. It was probably the only time we will see the best view of the racetrack from Millionaire’s Row 6, or have an up close and personal look at the legendary Twin Spires from The Stakes Room Balcony – the preferred Derby Day spot of the Queen of England. It turns out, Seattle Slew – the Derby winner in 1977 (Brad’s birth-year) – was a triple crown winner.
Home Of The Slugger
You can smell the sawdust from the street. Louisville Slugger produces about 2 million bats a year – 3,000 bats a day – in its factory downtown. Marked by the Big Bat out front, the Museum & Factory is a piece of baseball history mixed with modern technology. MLB player profiles are housed in a CNC (computer numerical control) machine and can be produced at the touch of a button. Players request an average of 120 bats per season specific to their preferred look and feel. Holding a Derek Jeter game-used bat was surely a highlight of the trip for me.
No different than most trips, we sought out the best restaurants in town. Night one set the bar high with dinner at 610 Magnolia. Unassuming and quaint, it is marked by a signature yellow door and owned by James Beard Award finalist and Top Chef contestant, Edward Lee. We enjoyed the four-course tasting menu and wine pairing. The dishes, such as Cauliflower and Camembert Soup with endive, mustard, and smoked char row, served with a fresh pretzel croissant, were a delicious mix of southern cuisine with Asian flair.
Just as we started, we ended on a high note. To our delight, Middle Fork Kitchen Bar – located in the beyond cool, Distillery District of Lexington – was hosting one of their “Sunday Suppers” during our trip. We feasted on family-style mounds of whole roasted beets with goat cheese, almonds, and kale, creamy polenta with sundried tomatoes, red roasted potatoes with zucchini succotash, and lamb leg served with tzatziki, chimichurri, and lemon herb sauces for dipping – hello, food coma.
When I first started planning, I was surprised by how much art lives in Kentucky. I discovered 21c Museum Hotel and jumped on the opportunity to stay there. The rubber ducky in our shower immediately won me over. But several contemporary art galleries open 24-hours, the interactive wall, Text Rain, for playing while waiting for the elevator, and an award-winning restaurant, Proof on Main, sourced by its own farm and featuring more rotating exhibitions, weren’t too shabby either. The hotel is landmarked by its signature Red Penguins and is one block from the Ohio River.
Before our drive from Louisville to Lexington, we put a check on our bucket-list. Thanks to Flame Run, we closely experienced the heat of the craft and blew our own glass. Our job was simple…blow gently, blow harder, stop blowing…but the work of the artist and the result was astounding. What started as a little blob of clear, melted glass rolled in colored glass “sprinkles” turned into two beautifully-shaped blue (Brads) and purple (mine) speckled bourbon glasses – our most treasured keepsake.
But wait, more facts…
Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, but it does have to be made in the United States. Ninety-five percent of it is made in the Bluegrass State anyway, where the pure limestone water makes it top-notch. I still prefer my bourbon with an oversized (mostly melted) ice cube, but at least I no longer cringe at the first sip.
On his birthday, I asked Brad how old he actually feels? His answer – 33. Maybe we will relive the trip in seven years…cheers to bourbon and bluegrass!
Read last month's blog post on the making of Brad's 40th Bourbon Bash.