Louisville :: Must Be Something in the Water

If I love anything about Kentucky, it’s how linked its traditions – Kentucky bourbon and champion thoroughbred horses – are to the land itself.

Neither could happen without the rich rolling hills Kentucky sits on.

Because those hills are rich with limestone and natural upwelling springs. The limestone naturally filters the water and enriches it with calcium, making for some exceptional horses, exceptional bourbon, and rich strong blue grass.

There’s a lot of respect for that land and what it produces in the outskirts of Lexington, where the largest horse farms lie. That results in a down-to-earth relationship that accompanies a work ethic that is both intense but also sits back on the porch to pay its due respect to the pulse of Kentucky life.

Karen and I set out one day to pay respect to whatever it is in the Kentucky water that produces great horses and great bourbon by visiting Adena Springs, a champion stud farm, and Buffalo Trace, one of Kentucky’s best bourbon distilleries. 

There are no major roads leading out to Kentucky’s horse farms from Louisville. To get there, you drop off the main highway and wind your way through the small historic towns of Paris and Versailles {pronounced “Ver-sails” because of course it is}, out into the rolling hills.

As you go, you watch the landscape change. The gentle forest land between Louisville and Lexington gives way first to cut cliffs of limestone and then to large, open, rolling blue-green fields dotted with the black fences characteristic of thoroughbred farms. This is Kentucky bluegrass country.

They say there’s nothing like it in the world, but that’s not altogether true. Those of you who have been wandering abroad in the blue fields and white cliffs of Ireland will feel as at home here as the Scots-Irish settlers did a couple hundred years ago, when they first came to the bluegrass. These fields felt like home to them, so they settled down to raise horses, brew whiskey, and make lives for themselves.

Still, as they discovered, while the land here holds heavy notes of Ireland in its song, there is a little bit of ornery twang that is altogether Kentucky, and that invites horses to grow bigger, whiskey to brew stronger, and everything to get a little bit more bold and intense than it was in the old country.

You can see it in the people and the horses both, as we did when we visited Adena Springs, a champion stud farm, and got a look at the stallions and a little bit of their daily lives. 

Bill, our guide for the morning and the lead handler for the horses, told us that the life of a stud stallion was no picnic. They retired from racing, but they were still, well, expected to work. “During the breeding season,” he said, which lasts from mid-February to mid-July, “these boys will usually have one or two girlfriends a day. Sometimes some of them will get three.”

And these aren’t just any “girlfriends.” These are champion mares specially selected for breeding to these beautiful stallions. There’s an application process with credentials that must be reviewed carefully before a mare is selected for breeding.

Even then, there are a lot of precautions the handlers must go through to ensure that a feisty mare doesn’t do any damage to herself or to the multi-million-dollar stallion. One good kick and the champion bloodline of a winning stallion is done.

Couldn’t they just take care of things artificially. “No,” Bill says, “because of the pedigree. It all has to be live cover. If it’s artificial, even though you have credentials and certificates, you just don’t have that guarantee that your foal is a little Awesome Again or a little Ghostzapper. And we want to be able to sign that stallion certificate in good faith.”

This isn’t a rule unique to Adena Springs, but with the number of champions, Derby winners, and Horse of the Year winners and contenders they’ve produced, it’s something they take very seriously.

You get an unbelievable sense of power, being around them and watching them move, that gives you a whole new respect for the race and the sport – and for the comparatively tiny jockeys who climb on their backs.

Seeing the horses, you understand that it is a relationship of trust that they must build – otherwise, if it comes down to anyone being in charge, it’s the horse.

We loved our chance to see Adena Springs, its beautiful stallions, and to hear a little bit about their lives before, during, and after their racing careers. Meeting Awesome Again, Ghostzapper, and Mucho Macho Man was a definite treat – and who doesn’t love those names?

After meeting these fine fellows, we set off for Buffalo Trace to learn about Kentucky’s other great production – bourbon.

As I mentioned earlier, the story of Kentucky is, in many ways, the story of the Scots-Irish.

The Scots-Irish, or the Ulster Scots, were dissenters from Scotland transplanted to northern Ireland to stand between the British and the Irish. Instead, they made friends with the Irish and adopted many of their traditions as well, including thumbing their noses at the British.

The British retaliated by moving them to the American frontier, where they were supposed to stand between the Native American tribes and the British settlers along the coast.

They did a fair amount of fighting, but their descendants in Kentucky will remark that it was pretty cheerfully and pretty equally with everybody, and they spent more of their time acting as middle-men and negotiators, and bought peace through paying out the fine horses they raised and the fine whiskey they brewed.

They used that whiskey for everything. Gifts. Currency. They traded it for horses and to pay off debts. It became the coin of the land – and then in the 1790s, the new American government tried to tax it. Small wonder the Whiskey Rebellion broke out. Washington hauled off with 13,000 troops to put down the rebellion.

Taxed or not, the distillers continued to craft their whiskey.

The transition from whiskey to Bourbon is said to have happened when whiskey from Bourbon County, named for the French Bourbon Dynasty, was transported down the river to New Orleans in a special kind of charred oak casks. This whiskey was made with American corn for the mash as well.

This combination of oak and corn, ingredients local to the region, gave Bourbon whiskey a unique, rich, honeyed flavor and color unlike any other whiskey.

Around this time, Benjamin Franklin was bemoaning the American dependence on British rum for their spirits – and their payment of British taxes on the rum. If only there were an American spirit that would do the trick. Right?

The cynical side of me realizes that a lot of the trick in question was just bringing those tax dollars to the American government instead of the British, but at the same time, think about it. An immigrant traditional craft distilled spirit steeped in Kentucky hills folklore but made only with native American corn and oak, and aged in the water and air of the new country.

If you’re American and that doesn’t make you feel just a little bit patriotic, I don’t know what will.

We heard these stories and more on our trip to the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Buffalo Trace sits on the site of a massive buffalo crossing on the Kentucky River. You can still see the sandbar at the junction where they crossed, even though the thundering herds of buffalo are sadly long gone.

Buffalo Trace believes in history, and as our guide Jimmy, a cheerful retired man who decided to spend the rest of his days surrounded by the beautiful smell of honeyed bourbon in the barrel, told us, you can taste it in every sip of the finely crafted bourbon they create there.

“When you think of distillers, you probably think of some old feller on the back porch with his still,” Jimmy informed us wryly. “Crafting a Bourbon is far more than that. There’s science in it, but there’s a lot – a lot – of art.”

Jimmy took us through the brewing process of the mash – corn, rye, and other grains, along with yeast, though it has to be 51% corn at least to be considered Bourbon whiskey – and the aging.

We can see from the barrels just how much water is lost due to evaporation each year the Bourbon “sleeps,” giving the place the tremendous smell known as the “Angel’s Share.”

After the Bourbon mash is aged appropriately, all they can add to it is water. Just as it is with their fine horses, the finely-filtered calcified Kentucky water is the key to the entire mixture and further ties it to the lifeblood of Kentucky. Bourbon might be in Kentucky’s blood, but the water is in both.

We visited one of the many massive storehouses where the barrels and their whiskey are allowed to sleep – and permeate the air with a fair amount of the Angel’s Share.

Different floors are for whiskeys that age for different lengths of time – shorter Bourbons on top and longer Bourbons on the bottom, and different buildings are for different labels.

“We make seventeen different Bourbons here,” Jimmy told us as we walked through one of the floors, “and we don’t rotate them. That way, the ones at the top are allowed to feel much larger temperature changes, and the older ones, down here, feel much more subtle changes.”

“Why wouldn’t you rotate them?” someone asks.

Again, that cocked eyebrow. “Seventeen Bourbons, son. Why would you want them to all taste the same?”

We take a look through the bottling plant, where the barrels are uncorked and fed into the trademark bottles for their particular label – including the famous Pappy van Winkle. There are definitely some happy angels around this place, so we don’t linger too long. We instead make our way back into the main storehouse where the gift shop lies for a Bourbon tasting.

Jimmy serves us up a number of different options.

First, he passes around the White Dog, pure distilled bourbon right out of the barrel, that has an alarming proof rating. He advises that we just rub a little on our hands and, after a few seconds, when the alcohol has evaporated right off, that we smell them.

I tried it and my palms felt silky soft and smelled of fresh buttery popcorn. I probably smelled my hands a few too many times for public propriety after.

After he allowed a few brave souls to try the White Dog – ew – he passed around samples of different Bourbons distilled and bottled at Buffalo Trace.

I decided to try the Eagle Rare. It caught me with the promise of toffee, herbs, honey, candied almonds, and a very rich cocoa flavor.

I haven’t been converted to Bourbon drinking from my fine wines and craft beers just yet, but you’d better believe I’m dreaming up something chocolatey with a Bourbon-caramel accent for my recipe list after tasting this!

Buffalo Trace Distillery

  • Look for the Buffalo Trace Distillery gate off 421-North and Wilkinson Blvd
  • Directions here.
  • For tours, click here or go over here to see our friends at Mint Julep Tours!
  • For information, call 808-654-8471 or email giftshop@buffalotrace.com

Kentucky’s race horses and bourbon are evidence of accent du terroir like nothing else. Have you guys experienced this? If you’re bourbon fans, what’s your favorite?

About the ChefKristin

Career Army officer with a tendency toward workaholism. On the side, self taught cook, carpenter, and gardener, working to build a beautiful life for my family. Trying to tilt my balance in the right direction.

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