Lexington is a hard place not to love. Who doesn’t enjoy rolling pastures, winding country roads, idyllic horse farms, and historic bourbon distilleries? We knew going in we would like the area, but our visit was made even more enjoyable when old friends from D.C. flew out to join us for the weekend. Danielle and Art also joined us way back when we were imprisoned in Massachusetts. They’re kind of our traveling drinking buddies which makes sense because I met them back in college, the ‘formative drinking years.’ (I once sent them home from a party at my apartment with a plastic garbage can full of grain alcohol Kool-Aid. Some people forge lifelong friendships on the field of battle; I do it by handing out grain alcohol party favors). The point is, as much fun as it’s been for us to make new friends on the road, there’s nothing quite like hanging out with people who’ve know you longer than you’ve known your spouse.
Our trip to Lexington was also made easier by a former colleague of mine and his wife who recently traveled to Lexington and who were kind enough to share all their good intel about the area. Benjamin and Rachel gave us a complete itinerary to work with – distilleries, restaurants, and sightseeing options, for both Lexington and Louisville. They saved us a ton of time and gave us great recommendations. Thanks so much, guys!!
If Four Roses had a theme, it would be “a work in progress.” We learned that the distillery had once been highly regarded but fell out of favor when its management opted to send the company’s high quality bourbon overseas while distributing a low quality liquor in the United States. In recent years, the company has gone back to its roots and is once again producing high quality bourbons for the domestic market. As a result, the company has been steadily winning back its reputation.
The factory itself is currently undergoing major renovations, so we were unable to go inside. Instead, our tour guide showed us the grounds, explained the history of the company, and described the bourbon making process. She also explained the method by which all of these Kentucky distilleries survived Prohibition – by producing the “medicine” that so many people suddenly needed…
While we couldn’t see everything, our visit to Four Roses was still a decent introduction to the Bourbon Trail. I will say, however, if you’re visiting the area and you don’t have time to go to all four local distilleries, this is the obvious one to skip, at least until they complete their renovations.
Wild Turkey had a much bigger, newer, industrial feel to it, featuring lots of stainless steel equipment and highly automated facilities. Their tour involved taking a bus to the distillery to see the distilling process followed by a trip to one of their giant warehouses where the bourbons are aged.
Speaking of warehouses, one of the reasons most bourbon is produced in Kentucky is the region’s climate. As wooden barrels full of bourbon age in these warehouses, they are subjected to extreme heat and humidity in the summer and significant cold in the winter. When the weather is hot, the bourbon expands into the sides of the barrels. When it’s cold, the liquor contracts away from the walls. This repeated expansion and contraction causes the bourbon to take on the flavors from the barrels (the insides of which have been charred) and causes the liquid, which starts off clear, to turn brown.
The distilleries all maintain their own warehouses to handle this lengthy process, but the warehouses at Wild Turkey were the most foreboding buildings I’ve ever seen. They were like something out of a dystopian novel…
Their visitor’s center, on the other hand, was lovely and filled with natural light.
It sat high on a hilltop overlooking a beautiful valley below.
And the interior had one of the coolest walkways we’ve seen. This is the ramp that leads to the tasting room.
Buffalo Trace was our favorite experience. It’s a National Historic Landmark and has the feel of a place where things are done the same way they’ve always been done. It also helped that we had a very entertaining tour guide. That was important since this was the third time we were hearing some of the same information.
The tour was also fun because, in addition to tasting some of their bourbons, our guide let us sample the clear liquid that goes into the barrels before its aged (which is called “white dog”), as well as their Bourbon Cream liquor, which is sorda like Bailey’s Irish Cream. It was a nice way to mix things up.
Our final stop was Woodford Reserve. This place was packed and they have the whole visitor experience down to a science, which kind of made the whole thing feel a bit corporate. They had large group tours, complete with headsets so visitors could hear the tour guides, leaving every couple of minutes. However, as big and impersonal as the tour sometimes felt, it was also the one where we got closest to some of the facilities. And without question, the grounds and the buildings were the prettiest of all the distilleries.
We really enjoyed our experience with the bourbon trail in Lexington and appreciated that each tour was a bit different. The companies obviously know that most visitors go to multiple distilleries and they each do a good job of offering something slightly different to keep the tours interesting. We also appreciated that while the companies would sometimes distinguish how they did certain things, they were all friendly toward their competition. No one bad mouthed the other guy or argued that their product was superior to any other. They seem to realize there’s plenty of business to go around and the current bourbon boom is good for all.
PS: If you’re wondering why I haven’t commented on the bourbons themselves, it’s because they all taste like turpentine to me. For expert analysis on the actual tastings, you’d have to talk to Kevin (who, at this very moment, is drinking a large glass of bourbon while updating our monthly budget and muttering “how did we go through so much money last month?” (hint: Nashville and Lexington)), but generally, he liked the bourbons at Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey best.
Of course, it probably goes without saying that Lexington is gorgeous. Rolling green hills, matching fences that seem to go on for miles, bucolic horse farms….
We spent several hours one afternoon just driving the back roads, taking it all in.
But it’s not just horses that make up the animal population of Lexington. We also saw plenty of cattle. Unfortunately, the one time I stopped to take photos of some of the cows, I ran into two that did not look particularly pleased to see me. They just glared at me. Look at them…
My immediate thought was that they read my blog and had heard one too many jokes about how Vegans are crazy and BBQ is delicious.
But then I started thinking about it and was like: “They’re cows. They can’t possibly read my blog. They don’t even have wifi!!”
But then their friends came over….
And suddenly it was like a scene from West Side Story…
So, I concluded that there must be a little cow internet cafe and that’s where they read my blog.
And with that, I got the hell out of there because from what I’ve heard, cows can NOT take a joke.
Next up: Louisville and the Kentucky Derby!
Where we stayed in Lexington: Elkhorn Campground