Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Vacationing in Horse Country: Beer, Bourbon, and Barrels

Yesterday I talked about how vacation friendly Lexington, Kentucky is for both horse lovers and their long suffering spouses. Today, I'm going to talk about one of the most popular attractions around Lexington for both groups: The Bourbon Trail.

Bourbon whiskey is native to Kentucky, and reigns as king there. Many bourbon lovers will refuse to drink a bourbon made outside of Kentucky, on principle. They swear it isn't as good. As a non-bourbon drinker, I have a hard time telling the difference. However, I have to recommend the tours of the distilleries on The Bourbon Trail, even for non bourbon lovers!

Town Branch Distillery | Horse Lover's Rating **** | Non-Equine Rating **** | Cost: $7 per person (Make sure to ask about the military discount! We ended up getting free tours for military members, not sure if that was just because it was Veteran's Day Weekend.) | Time Spent: 2 hours
While all the distilleries were very pretty. The distillery room at Town Branch was especially eye-catching.
Town Branch Distillery is probably the easiest distillery to visit, as it is located right in the middle of the city of Lexington. Owned by Alltech, a feed company and big sponsor of the Kentucky Horse Park and horse events, the distillery is unique in also being a craft brewery. The beer they are known for, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel, is one of my favorites. So, I was especially excited to visit.

The tour starts off with a little video explaining how Alltech got its start in grain and feed production, and turned that start into a side hobby crafting alcohol. That part was probably the only boring part of the tour. I wish they'd let the guides talk about the history instead. Our guide was fabulous, and I'm sure he could have been more entertaining than the video.
The gorgeous horse-head of the Alltech logo is always a welcome sight!
First stop on the tour was to the brewery section. There wasn't a whole lot to see here, just big steel vats bubbling away and the overwhelming smell of bready-yeast. Our guide was good at explaining the different paths the beer and whiskey would take from this point forward. He also talked about how the barrels used to aging bourbon can only be used once for bourbon, and how this led to their development of bourbon barrel aged ale. Apparently, when they get the used barrels from the bourbon distilling section they usually have some bourbon left in them. He said that sometimes that amount can be almost a whole barrel. That's why Bourbon Barrel Ale is way more alcoholic than their regular Kentucky Ale. Interesting! (And delicious!)
Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout -- My new favorite!
At this point, we were allowed to taste some of the beer. Due to the large selection of whiskey and beer offered by Alltech, their tour tastings are done by ticket. On your tour ticket are four tear-away tickets. Visitors have to choose what they want to "spend" their tickets on. There are four varieties of beer to taste, and four varieties of whiskey. I chose an even split, 2 beers and 2 whiskeys.
After tasting beer, we headed off to the picturesque distillery room, complete with historic copper pots. From what I understand, Woodford Reserve and Town Branch are members of the few distilleries that still use copper stills. The tour guide here was excellent at explaining how the distillation process happens within the stills, and how the low proof alcohol that is put in turns into high proof "White Dog," or moonshine.

After the whole explanation was done, we got on with the whiskey tasting. Here is where Town Branch really blew me away. In addition to their whiskey offerings, they have a coffee liqueur made from their whiskey. It's similar to Baileys Irish Cream, but without the cream. The tour guide made a cocktail with this delicious liqueur by adding hot water and floating cold heavy cream on top.
Toasting to a successful afternoon at the distillery with a "Bluegrass Sundown"
This cocktail was amazing, and totally worth saving a tasting ticket for! I highly recommend this! If you're lucky, the tour guides make a full sized cocktail that can be had for two tickets. If that's what you want, I'd recommend saving your tickets and hanging out close to the guide. That went fast!
Like most places in Lexington, the Town Branch Distillery has a painted horse decorating their distillery room. A horse with a hop flower painted on its head. I approve!
My suggestion? Even if you're just in town for a horse show, get out to Town Branch on your down time and enjoy a couple of hours and some great craft beer and liqueur!

Woodford Reserve | Horse Lover's Rating **** | Non-Equine Rating **** | Cost $10 per person (Military discount was substantial here, too. And valid in the gift shop.) | Time Spent: 2 hours
The drive to Woodford Reserve is through some of the most gorgeous horse country I have ever seen. I'd heard it described, and the descriptions didn't do it justice. Any horse lover is going to drool all over their car on the way there. I highly suggest you make the non-farm-lusting person with you drive, so you can suction cup yourself to the window and enjoy it to the fullest.

Woodford is a bit more corporate than Town Branch, which you notice from the moment you walk into their visitor center. Still, everything is polished and gorgeous. They really have their eye set on making visitors feel welcome and important. We browsed their gift shop (full of some unique things!) and signed up for a tour.

Their tours fill up quickly, so you might have to wait for yours to start. We ordered lunch from their patio café to pass the time. Unfortunately, we might have overestimated the amount of time it would take to get our food, eat it and get to the tour. You can picture me hilariously slurping down soup in a hurry in order to make it. Only water bottles are allowed on the tour, so we were trying our best to finish everything up before heading out!

The tour here puts you on a bus to go up and down the hill of the property, and you are given individual headsets to hear your guide. The tours are only about 20 people, and kids are allowed on them. The distillery is rather loud in places, and a bit bigger than Town Branch, so the headsets were appreciated.
A glimpse into the beauty that is Woodford Reserve's property. Their iconic wooden barrels, gorgeous old buildings, and unique triple copper still really stand out as you tour the property.
My favorite part of Woodford was the old aging and distilling buildings. These buildings are from before prohibition, and we were told they are the oldest distillery buildings still in use in the United States. Super cool! The architecture (art/architecture nerd alert!) is classic, and some of the historic details are amazingly well preserved (the shutters, for instance!). The buildings lend a historic air to the whole tour, and really give you a neat feeling.

The guide at Woodford did a great job explaining Woodford's unique take on bourbon distillation, namely how they tweak the process to bring out certain flavors. That part is pretty cool. As a person who has made her own liqueurs, I know that the process of leaching flavors into alcohol is pretty complex. Woodford takes that complexity to a completely different level. They are meticulous about their process and their aging. They do not age for a certain time, but instead a certain taste. This way they ensure that all their bottles have the same distinctive flavor profile. Complicated!!

The one major component the guide discussed was water. He mentioned how the limestone rock in the Lexington area creates a special water table. The water has no iron content, which can make water taste metallic. Instead, it is high in calcium and magnesium, which tastes sweet. He mentioned that this is why so many thoroughbred breeders are located in Kentucky. They take advantage of the calcium rich grass to help give their baby racehorses the edge. I have to say, the bottle of Woodford Reserve well water I had was pretty delicious!
The grain mash at Woodford. This is where the yeast creates the alcohol that is later distilled to a higher proof in the copper stills. Looks like something out of the Middle Ages, right?
Another interesting tidbit we learned on both tours is that these distilleries both give away their spent grain to local cattle farmers. Apparently there is still some alcohol in the grain when they give it away, and the cows can get quite drunk. Anyone out there seen any drunk cows?

Once through with the tour, we were bussed back up to the visitor center and ushered into their special tasting room. This was set up gorgeously just for us. Each place setting was meticulously poured and arranged.
My tasting place setting. This gorgeous set up was accompanied by a copper ice bucket, which I used quite a bit to water down my whiskey. Sorry bourbon fans!
Like I mentioned before, I am not much of a whiskey aficionado, so this part of the tour wasn't really my favorite. However, I have to say that the "double oaked" whiskey was pretty good. Still, the highlight of the whole tour is that bourbon ball. We ended up buying some of those in the gift shop, and they were totally worth it. I highly recommend getting your hands on good bourbon balls some time soon!

The verdict? Get thee to a distillery! These two trips were real highlights for us. If we had more time, we would have tried to make it to Buffalo Trace, another stop on the Bourbon Trail. Even with only two stops, I'm happy we went!

Have any of you been on the Bourbon Trail? Do you like bourbon? Is bourbon quintessentially linked to horses in your mind too?

15 comments:

  1. This sounds SUPER fun! I'm going to have to convince Johnny that Lexington is a perfect honeymoon destination. (Which shouldn't be too hard.)

    I toured the distillery at Jack Daniel's in Lynchburg, TN a few years ago and thought it was a fascinating process.

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    1. Cool! I found out that Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels are apparently owned by the same parent company. I wonder if there are any similarities in their tour process...

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  2. We made it to almost all the sites on the Bourbon Trail while living there - my husband is the bourbon drinker in our family! I loved all the tours though - esp Town Branch since I became a fan of their beers. Last Fall, Alltech at KHP hosted an event that was fabulous! Each person got 10 tickets for $10 and all samples were 1 ticket each - there were about 10 craft breweries there with 2-3 types of beer at each station and the bar had all the local bourbons to sample. Needless to say, I was a mellow woman by the time we left!

    Great post and pics of your vacation! Makes me a bit 'homesick'!

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    1. Whoa! That sounds like an amazing event! I'd be pretty mellowed out by the end of the night, too!

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    1. For sure! Come on out and we'll hit up the other distilleries! :)

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  4. yep, sounds good to me... coffee liqueur? check and check!

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    1. That coffee liqueur was AMAZING. I cannot understate this! :)

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  5. I really liked the Woodford Reserve when I was at the Derby. This sounds like an awesome vacation! I do love bourbon....

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    1. You should go! Maybe hit up the Keeneland sale, you know, for professional reasons. ;)

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  6. I gave up alcohol when i was 21 so i could buy & keep Kika. NBD as the legal drinking age in Europe is 18, I had my fair share of hangovers by 21 to recognise drinking as the easiest cut from my life to incorporate a horse ;-)
    However those distillery tours look & sound fantastic, the pictures are amazing. Especially the composite pic with the barrels from the second tour ♡

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    1. Even for non-drinkers, the tours were super cool. I love learning about the process and seeing the historic bits! I actually cut out a lot of drinking to afford horse shows. There's no way I could afford showing if I didn't stop going out with friends.

      I remember going to Germany at 14 and getting served beer and whiskey without any question. It was so surreal!

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    2. Yep I say legal drinking age is 18, I think so long as an adult was with you you could technically drink alcohol from 16 (but not spirits). I think it is a good idea in theory as it encourages .ore responsible drinking than the binge drinking i came across at uni. However negative downside is people then start drinking even younger. I remember a school trip to Pompeii when I was 13 or 14 and the boys were able to buy Limoncello - so of course we all had to have a taste...

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  7. This is a great post!! Thank you for sharing! I have been to KY a few times over the past years but still haven't tried any of the bourbon trail!

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    1. Ah! You must go! I can't believe we used to live in Cincinnati, and never made a trip of it before!

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