(This is a two-part post. For part one, click here.)
If there are two things Kentucky is known for, it’s Bourbon and horses; and they sure know what they’re doing with both. After leaving the Maker’s Mark distillery (as described in Part I), we decided to stop in at famed Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held each year.
It was an impromptu suggestion, and to my lasting shame, I didn’t even know if the horses would be running then or not. Luckily for us, we were able to catch the last two races of the day.
To say the day was hot would be an understatement. And by “understatement”, I mean “damned lie”. The temperature was pushing 100º, and the humidity was nothing to sniff at either. And there we were, after having spent all day wandering around in it, eating giant omelets and drinking Bourbon. I, for one, could hardly tell left from right. How those horses were able to run is beyond me.
At Churchill Downs, there’s no admission fee, aside from the few dollars they charge for parking. You can just wander in and watch the races from wherever you please. (Obviously, the Derby is a special occasion, and such rules do not apply.) We found seats right in front of the finish line. For the Derby, I think these seats go for about one billion dollars.
We placed a friendly bet or two, but didn’t win anything. I think there may be more to the art of horse-wagering than picking based on the name you like best. After the race, they cooled the horses by drenching them with buckets of water.
Some of the horses were special enough to have men in suits dump water on them.
A short walk helps keep their post-race muscles from cramping.
The next morning, it was off to Woodford Reserve for our final distillery tour of the weekend. Woodford is less than an hour East of Louisville, close to Lexington. There are loads of horse farms in that area, easily identified due to their impeccably-painted wooden fences with rounded corners (so the horses don’t hurt themselves on anything sharp). If you go in the Spring, avoid the interstate and take Highway 60 to Lexington for the most scenic view of all the new-born foals.
Woodford has the best-kept grounds of all three distilleries we went to. The area feels polished, to be sure, but it’s not overdone. Having been on this tour before, I knew to expect a refined (if touristy) experience, and I was not disappointed. There is a shuttle van to take you down this hill, but you can take the stairs instead. You will beat the van by a lot.
Even though the buildings look like jails, they are not very menacing. The bars are there to keep people out, and barrels full of aging Bourbon in.
While our guide began his tour, a cat wandered up. Of course, no one can resist a Bourbon kitty. He stopped the tour dead.
He didn’t seem to mind, though. I think this is his job.
Inside, the buildings were surprisingly airy and light. I love these colors and the hand-lettering.
This is the outside of one of the cypress fermenting tanks. There are stairs nearby to a second floor, where you can look into it from the top.
This is the top of a fermenting tank, filled with bubbling corn mash. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
I’d never seen an empty one before. This is what they look like on the inside. I think the coils are to help regulate temperature, by running hot or cold water through the pipes, but I could be mistaken.
There were six of these giant tanks in this area. I wonder how long they use them before they have to replace the wood, and if I can have the wood when they’re done with it.
They fill the tanks from long pipes that swivel out over the tops.
In the distilling area, there are three huge copper stills imported from Scotland.
Inside the still is a mysterious fan. Nobody knows why it is there.
The distilling area is like a cathedral, with incredibly tall ceilings, stone arches, a balcony in back, even a raised dais in front to showcase the distilling process. The details are beautiful.
Down a few stairs, in the same building, new barrels fresh from the cooperage are stored out of the way.
They look a little too clean.
Some of the old barrels get turned into a decorative wall. There is a good brew pub here in Chicago that has a similar treatment around their bar. Since the brew pub came second, I think we know where they got the idea. Makers of Bourbon-barrel-aged beers are crying a little at this sight.
In the bottling area, our guide poured a glass of cask-strength Woodford into a glass held by a very lucky member of the tour.
He poured out most of this glass, to the group’s chagrin. There was an audible and involuntary gasp from every throat. The glass did get passed around for everyone to smell, as a taunt. Afterwards, while most everyone else’s backs were turned, this tiny bit was unceremoniously tossed onto the ground. I may have wept a single tear.
Back at the visitors’ center, the traditional Bourbon balls were passed out. Woodford has the best of any distillery I’ve been to. They are still not as good as the ones my Old Kentucky Grandmother makes.
And with that, we bid au revoir to Kentucky, and set out for Chicago and home, back to our city lives. I can’t speak for everyone else on the trip, but that weekend certainly did me a world of good. A little time to relax over good food with good friends, and sit with a slowly condensing glass of amber-gold Bourbon on chattering rocks… what else could you want? Luckily, thanks to liquor stores and distributors, you can enjoy most of this in your own living room; I highly recommend trying it.
Thank you for letting me take you on this little journey. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programs.