Green patches of the immense quilt that is Kentucky begin to reveal their details as we descend toward the Louisville airport. Fields of new grain, tobacco, and stands of countless trees seem to rejoice in their role in the state’s economy. More state pride vies for retail attention along the airport concourse – a café and bar named for a whiskey, a whiskey display in a free-standing kiosk, a life-size replica of a thoroughbred horse and rider at a clothing nook, and a store featuring Louisville Slugger baseball bats and related merchandise.
My roadtrip is now about to start. To many, Kentucky is synonymous with whiskey, and whiskey from Kentucky is called Bourbon. I’m on my way to Bourbon country, a bit south of Louisville, in the area east of Bardstown, along the Bluegrass Parkway.
This is my first visit to Bardstown, and the car’s air conditioning feels great against the 90+ degrees and high humidity as I start on the 40 mile drive to my B&B. Interstate 65 is flanked by dozens of species of beautiful trees, including oak, maple, sycamore, poplar, and birch – all amazing to see through the eyes of a Southern Californian. I can only imagine what the state looks like in autumn!
I leave I-65 at SR 245, following the large sign “Kentucky Bourbon Trail”. The Jim Beam Distillery pops up on the left and 32 miles from the Louisville airport a sign announces “Welcome to Historic Bardstown, Founded 1780”. Under graceful deciduous canopies, the drive past stately Federal style homes of dark brick, crisp white columns and well-tended lawns sets a tone to be remembered. I arrive at the Beautiful Dreamer B&B, am warmly greeted by Proprietors Dan and Lynell Ginter, and again give thanks for air conditioning.
The Beautiful Dreamer is directly across the street from My Old Kentucky Home State Park. The B&B’s name is taken from the well-known Foster poem and song. Antiques abound, and my favorite is a chamber pot underneath the four poster bed. There are four rooms available, with varying degrees of luxury, including in-room Jacuzzis.
Dinner at Kurtz Restaurant, next door to the B & B, is spectacular! For starters, a Maker’s Mark mint julep, with the beautiful mint sprig picked from the garden outside the back door. Kurtz has been serving home made, Southern style food for 73 years. Ownership of Kurtz is a family affair - I have the pleasure of being served by Patrick Dick, grandson of the second generation owner. Patrick’s mom is third generation and current manager. I decide that each item will be at Patrick’s recommendation. Kurtz cole slaw, followed by skillet fried chicken, and Kentucky country ham, served with green beans and spiced beets, are all local favorites and are beyond delicious. A Bourbon soaked bread pudding is the natural end of a fantastic sampling of Southern cuisine.
An evening drive around Bardstown is enchanting. The air has cooled from hot to balmy, folks stroll along the streets, and fireflies (lightning bugs) are everywhere, punctuating the twilight with magical dots of light. The occasional deer and turtle along the roadside remind me of the closeness of nature to this urban setting. The main thoroughfare is called 3rd Street and one section is known locally as Distillers Row. Currently, Fred Noe, Master Distiller and 8th generation of Jim Beam lives there. Over the years, families associated with Early Times, Ridgemont Reserve, Maker’s Mark, and many of the other distilleries in the area have lived on, or very near, “The Row”.
The Civil War Museum’s recreation of Old Bardstown Village is nestled in a quiet corner of downtown. It reminds me of Old Williamsburg. Before returning to the B&B, I stop by the state park’s amphitheater and peek in on a performance of The Stephen Foster Story. The sets and costumes take us back to the 1850s, when Foster was writing such American classics as “Old Susanna”, “Camptown Races”, “Beautiful Dreamer”, and, of course, “My Old Kentucky Home”. The photo below shows the actual inspiration for the song.
Lynell’s delicious and generous breakfast spread nourishes me for my pilgrimage to Maker’s Mark Distillery. The twisty 17 mile drive to the hamlet of Loretto, some on very narrow roads, winds through tobacco fields and explosions of roadside flowers. A lucky guess (one of the joys of road tripping) puts me on the final leg of the drive – the road sign for Maker’s Mark Road has once again been stolen!
Four hours at the distillery fly by as I see first hand how my “go to” Bourbon is made by passionate and accomplished men and women. The most memorable part of my visit is watching the bubbling action in the fermentation tanks that yeast causes, after it is added to a watery grain mixture. These 10,000 gallon tanks are called “fermenters” and are
about 17 feet tall. Eight of the fermenters are about 100 years old and are made of cypress wood. Others are made of stainless steel. Another highlight is seeing the barrels of whisky aging in the tall rack warehouses. The trade term for building is “rick house”. Maker’s Mark is the only distillery to rotate their barrels of aging whiskey during the long years of maturation. After spending several years near the top of the rick house, enduring the heat of Kentucky summers, the barrels are rotated to lower levels, where maturation occurs at a slower pace. This process contributes to Maker’s Mark’s consistency and complexity of aromas and flavors.
No visit to this distillery is complete without buying a bottle and hand-dipping it into the iconic red sealing wax. The bottle I dipped now rests in my office, as a reminder of my time at this remarkable distillery.
I return to the Louisville airport via “the back way”, past the Four Roses, Heaven Hill, and Jim Beam distilleries, making the 50 mile trip in about an hour and a half.