They come by it honestly. With the stillness of the countryside, the calm thrum of horse hooves in open air, the slow weight of the air; it’s all more than enough to make one dream and dream big. It’s languid and slow, and requires some pause to appreciate all that is to offer, here. But, it is undeniable. The Kentucky countryside is something you drink in and savor, as much – and for as long – as you can. It’s little wonder that this region would produce something that reflects these sentiments so well.
After a trip to the bluegrass state to tour the Four Roses Distillery and experience the Lexington and Louisville areas, we came back with memories to last a lifetime and an indelible impression of the region’s cuisine, history, hospitality, art, and culture. The impression a visit to the region leaves is that, whether you take yours neat, on the rocks, in a Mint Julep, or in any other way, Kentucky needs no deeper metaphor for how delightful and rich it can be to stay, play, dine, and drink in the twin gems of Lexington and Louisville, than to compare any stay there to a fine dram of bourbon.
In The Glass – First Impressions
Landing in Lexington is not the same as landing in any other airport. There’s a unique liquor store on the concourse, catering to only one order – bourbon. The standards of Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, Blanton’s, and Willett are well stocked, but they appear in myriad forms. Cask strength, single barrel and special ages of nearly all of them appear alongside an exhaustive selection of bourbons not seen outside the state lines. They carry more bourbons than nearly every purveyor in Texas, and you’ve still not set foot outside the airport. It announces, from the very start, that this is a place that takes pride in its most prized product. The airport and the hospitality that comes from every face you see invite every guest to stop, take a load off, and stay more than a while.
The moment you set foot outside the airport, it becomes clear why one might do such a thing. Bluegrass airport sits nestled in the middle of endless views of horse farms. Far as the eye can see in any direction, the tell-tale white fencing and open fields of Keeneland’s Race Course and Farm, as well as neighboring farms with similarly long histories and staggering legacies, is on brilliant display. The beauty of this state only gets more apparent on the ride into Lexington proper, as the rolling hills, ever-present farms, and occasional streams give way to a most enchanting downtown, that looks like it was carved from a Thornton Wilder play. The historic courthouse in the middle of town stands in stately fashion, amid soaring spires from neighboring churches, and in defiance of a few corporate skyscrapers.
Expect The Unexpected – Staying at 21C
When one considers the pillars of the art world, or the metropolitan hubs that come to mind are clear. Whether it’s Paris, London, Milan, New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, the last thought one might have regarding the influence art has had on a city’s culture is of Kentucky. But, set foot into the 21C Hotel (whether in Lexington or Louisville), and you haven’t teleported to one of those capitals of the art world, you’re just in the fever dream of lifelong art appreciators, who want to share fine art from all around the globe with the heart of America. Maintaining eight ‘museum hotels’ throughout the plain states, 21C defies comparison. Imagine a Michelin star restaurant, complete with white linen tablecloths and elite service worthy of New York’s martini set, only place it in Boerne’s storied town square. Consider the world’s most exclusive wine seller setting up shop in Luckenbach, and you might get the idea.
The Lexington installation boasts a lobby, the majority of which is open and staffed like the Waldorf for 24 hours of the day. Half of the ground floor what you’d expect of a modern boutique hotel, complete with fine dining and an impossibly well stocked bar, courtesy of a destination restaurant in its own right, known as Lockbox. Bearing in mind that this is the core of Bourbon country, Lockbox’s bar has over 60 of the region’s finest bourbons on offer, and some of those are incredibly rare. The food at Lockbox, like those old storied hotels in New York or Paris, rates far beyond the typical fare of a hotel restaurant, and it’s a great way to wait out a layover or a pause in the day with some warm olives, a smooth pour of bourbon and some crispy brussels sprouts – which were singularly phenomenal, with their addition of blue cheese.
But, despite the shine of Lockbox, the star of the ground floor has to be the other half and more that is inhabited by the 21C’s real treasure – a collection of thoughtfully curated modern art that challenges and fascinates visitors and guests of the hotel, alike. 21C Lexington bills itself as a ‘museum hotel,’ but perhaps only because that is the only way to merge the two concepts. Consider your favorite modern art museum – the Kimball in the Metroplex, the Menil Collection in Houston, or any of the modern art installations in Marfa – and then spend some days and nights inhabiting those spaces. Indeed, the art on display is stirring, from a dinner table that pits two screens facing one another as the video on each plays an oft-distracted diner to cascading printed fabrics that collect in a confluence like a storm cloud to the stunning stylized portraiture of Kehinde Wiley.
The curation of modern art doesn’t stop at the gift shop, however, and the rooms are a modern (with nods to the mid-century modernists) dream. Amid the church spires and with a view of the courthouse that neighbors 21C, the rooms and amenities strike a minimalist note that is somehow precisely in place and never lacking on luxury. This is refined luxury, amid a storied cityscape, and though one might expect a clash of cultures, the respect that the hotel pays to the history and heritage of the area makes 21C an ideal fit for the rich heritage of Kentucky. And their 60 different bourbon offerings – a seemingly dismissible observation in any other review – is further evidence of that fact.
You see, they all come by it honestly.
Savoring The First ‘Sip’ – Dining in Lexington
Walk into any bar in the Lexington/Louisville region and ask for just bourbon, and you might encounter one of two reactions. The first reaction might be one of simple clarification, prompting the responder to ask, “what brand?” The second reaction, which is far more likely, is that they might just take you to school, right there and then. Bourbon is far more than a libation in this region, and if it hasn’t been made clear from the airport description or the focus on it at the hotel, it’s in the area dining that it becomes obvious just how foundational the tradition is to the cities, the region, the state, and its people. As an illustration of that very nature, this area was formally known as Old Bourbon County, a designation that spanned over three dozen of Kentucky’s current counties, collectively marking all of the individual counties that have developed since as belonging to bourbon.
It’s no wonder, then, that at a place called OBC Kitchen, outside the downtown area in Landsdowne, a similar dynamic applies. Set into a narrow space that is a bit of a shotgun house in design, the entry does not belie just how big an influence bourbon has, here. Until, that is, one looks at the back left wall. From top to bottom, and covering multiple wall panels, each larger than any three men, is a list of the bourbons they carry at OBC. They’re proud of everything produced in the greater county, and, considering the consolidation of Bourbon County itself, they’ve reduced their offerings to just the essential 175, give or take some seasonal and special release availability.
Of course, there are fine dining twists on standard pub fare – the fried oysters come atop a bright carpaccio, and the jar of bacon, a clinic of subtle flavors added to a well-known mainstay, is not to be missed – but the star of the show is the clear caramel liquor that gets put on brilliant display under rose lighting. It is in the luxurious Glencairn glassware that a door into the past of the region opens, at long last. OBC Kitchen carries Four Roses Single Barrel variants, you see. They aren’t readily available outside the state, despite the fact that one expression has been sent into national circulation. They are exclusive to the region, as well as to individual establishments. And while a meal or two and some local attractions await when spending a long weekend in the Lexington and Louisville region, once the journey through the infinite flavors and complexities of a single distillery with as great a history as Four Roses begins, it proves difficult to divide attention between those landmarks and the overwhelming appreciation for this regions proudest heritage.
The same heritage is on ready display at Dudley’s on Short, a Southern Cuisine destination restaurant, if ever there were one. Bourbon is plentiful here, naturally, but there are fundamental Southern hospitality elements in play that steal the show. A roaming tray of various breads and spreads is never far from reach, and the antique flatware and china will convince any diner that they are not patrons in a restaurant, but guests in a home. And if the attention to every hospitality detail is not convincing, then the Local Chicken, which immediately brings the finest home cooking to mind (our seasonal version conjured chicken and dumplings immediately), despite exotic ingredient additions, will win the day. A s’more that is turned inside-out plays with the foundational concept, and, no matter how elevated the execution, still manages to make one consider that they are a child, being cared for and fed by a loving family.
Everything in Lexington sends a message of comfort, history, and home, it seems. Dining at the Blue Heron Steakhouse takes the message to its logical conclusion, as the dining establishment is a converted house, with fireplace for the winter and coat hooks on walls to make one’s self comfortable. The tables practically invite people to dine with close friends or family and to make the evening last, full of shared laughter, shared stories, and shared dishes. Needless to say, steak is the order of business for the Blue Heron, and, in the heart of beef country, they honor the protein. But it’s the service that distinguishes the region, and Blue Heron is further evidence that the Southern virtue of hosting all guests like they were family is alive and well.
Appreciating The Finer Notes – Visiting the Four Roses Distillery
It all begins simply. The production of a decent spirit starts with the fermentation of a grain through the combination with water, yeast, time, and, to listen to nearly anyone at the Four Roses Distillery, art. Nestled away from the big city’s busy roadways and somewhat cramped surroundings, the distillery itself stands out from the Kentucky landscape not only because of its obvious beauty, with roses (naturally) and perennial flowers dotting the distillery grounds, but because of the somewhat out-of-place Spanish villa architecture. Underneath the curved traditional Spanish roof tiles, however, there is something both equally traditional and yet thoroughly modern happening.
The time-honored process of making bourbon at Four Roses – which has been happening under their watch since 1888 – begins with one of two mashbills, which dictate how much of malted barley, rye, and corn are in each mix. One, mashbill B, has significantly more rye than the more standard mashbill E. By law, bourbon has to have over 51% corn in their base mashbill, and with 60% and 75%, respectively, mashbills B and E more than meet the Kentucky standard. The difference between the two is in the rye. With more spice and a higher peak amid the drink, the rye makes a significant difference in the flavor of the final products.
As stated, it begins simply. But, there is another variable that is added to the formula, and the specific details are a secret kept extraordinarily well within the company. The specific yeast used to ferment those grain mixes matters greatly to processing the flavors of the two base mashbills. The distillery has developed five different strains of yeast for the task, monitored by a lab on site at the distillery that would make many college chemistry programs envious. With their two foundations and five different yeasts to ferry them from grain to greatness, Four Roses has ten different recipes that produce ten very different bourbon expressions.
If it all seems too much like chemistry to describe, it is because the process is that complex and that precise. Still, once the ten different recipes are crafted, the science all but ends and the true art begins. Al Young, the most gracious and hospitable host one can imagine, is intimately familiar with the artistry that goes into the creation, having been the Distillery Manager and a pillar of former Master Distiller Jim Rutledge, as well as countless other duties over the course of an over 50-year career with Four Roses, Young wrote the book on Four Roses history – literally. He’s the most congenial representative on site, having transitioned to Senior Brand Manager, and it isn’t uncommon for him to speak of the items in the more tour-centric areas of the distillery with the reverence and awe that each item deserves, from the prescribed bottles that were distributed during prohibition (in Kentucky, it is said that during that era, more prescriptions were issued than there were residents to seek ’treatment’) to the canned, pre-mixed bourbon and coke bottles. Young is a romantic, and manages, through the various periods of bourbon’s waxing and waning popularity, to maintain his regard for Four Roses. He wasn’t there when the legend of the distillery was born in the 1800s, but he tells every story about the distillery and its product with a profound fondness.
The romance of the distillery is a part of its foundation, too. As Young tells it, a young man by the name of Paul Jones, Jr., was taken by a woman’s beauty and sought an answer to his proposal, which he asked the beautiful woman to express a “yes” non-verbally. Rather, he asked her to wear a corsage made of roses if she agreed. She wore four in her arrangement, later that evening; and Mr. Jones was never the same. Romantic that he was, he named his bourbon after that enchanting encounter.
Mr. Young can fill a day with stories, but eventually, as with all great tales, they inspire a thirst for a languid drink. It is then that current Master Distiller, Brent Elliott, brings his creativity to a visit, and serves as the bridge between the science and the art form, incorporating tradition and heritage into every new bottle of Four Roses Bourbon. And, in his lab, the possibilities are endless. Not only is every recipe crafted, stored and cataloged in his unimaginable bourbon library, but different ages of each recipe are also in the inventory. By mixing percentages of each of the 10 options, he arrives, by experience and taste, at the combinations that will result in a final product line. Offering four expressions – Four Roses, Four Roses Small Batch, Four Roses Single Barrel, and the Kentucky-specific Single Barrel recipes, Elliott may have the most enviable job in all of the United States. He lives to taste, mix, and make great bourbon, and to teach others everything there is to know about appreciating what goes into a glass. And, in his chemistry playground, the bourbon library, there is much to appreciate. The tour of the bourbon library isn’t available to everyone, but if one should be so lucky, there are liquid treasures to behold (and, occasionally, to sample) that are simply beyond imagination. The infinite variables in ingredients, recipe, time, balance, and mixing become irrefutably clear; and no one who visits the distillery could possibly take the process for granted ever again. There is history, romance, science, and art in those bottles, after all.
In the event that anyone is curious, the best and most FOMO (fear of missing out) items in Elliott’s ‘library’ are the commemorative anniversary bottles (for the 130th and 125th year celebrations of the distillery), the Al Young 50th Anniversary Bourbon (Mr. Young asked Elliott to add a 25 year old bourbon to that particular blend), and a product known as “Elliott’s Select” (a barrel strength mix from 2016 that served as a basis for future products at the time). Further, thanks to the Quality Manager at the bottling and aging facility – which is a few miles from the distillery, itself – we were treated to a preview of something the world had no idea would see the light of day. Four Roses Small Batch Select was sitting in a drawer and presented without fanfare, label, or too much explanation, and served as a profound expression of everything for which the Four Roses history and tradition stand.
It’s easy to get lost for an entire day at the Four Roses Distillery; and, for that, any visitor should consider themselves lucky.
An Exquisite Finish – Louisville Attractions
With the distillery’s location between Lexington and Louisville, it would be a shame should anyone visit Kentucky and not take in both cities. Louisville, a bigger sibling to Lexington’s charm, wears the Old Bourbon County ‘family resemblance’ on its sleeve. Charming, hospitable, and kind almost to a fault, it feels both metropolitan and intimate. There are some things a visitor must do when visiting the town, lest someone hit you over the head with a bat – and the bat that Louisville will use stands nearly 13 stories tall. The home of a baseball mainstay, the Louisville Slugger factory and museum is hard to miss, with the aforementioned calling card leaning against the red brick building. A visit inside isn’t just a tour of how wood gets lathed and honed into a major (or minor or little) leaguer’s tool of choice. It’s a trip into a time-honored tradition that is as old as memory allows. Baseball may have marked the time, but the prominence of the Louisville Slugger in America’s greatest pastime has gone unchanged for over a century. Walking into the museum is like taking a trip to a genuine field of dreams, it is so full of memorabilia and moments locked in nostalgia, dating back to the 1800s. It is history and heritage in action, with modern innovations added where necessary.
Around the corner, another marriage of the old and new is on display at Flame Run, a glass art gallery that also doubles as a glassblowing exhibition that is open for visitors to observe or participate. Guided by master craftsman, skilled in the art of glass blowing, Flame Run makes it possible for visitors to take part in the process of creating functional artwork for their own home. They specialize in making ornaments for decor, vases, challenging conversation pieces, and, of course, stemware for beverages. This being Kentucky, it should come as no surprise that one of the more popular options visitors choose, as well as one of the most fitting projects for any visit to Kentucky, is a bourbon or whiskey old fashioned glass. The process is entirely safe, and the staff supervision not only makes for an accident-free environment, but one of the more incredible keepsakes of any trip. To drink bourbon after visiting bourbon country from one’s own bourbon glass is a sublime goal, and a confluence that is difficult to achieve on any other trip.
So, too, is the Frazier Kentucky History Museum, a museum as innovative and interactive as our present day gets. Hosted within are truly breathtaking exhibits, such as the Stewart Historic Miniatures Collection – a collection of miniaturized battlegrounds, settings, and historic events that fill the mind with both curiosity and wonder, while encouraging all visitors to become a kid again. But the gem of the museum is “The Spirit of Kentucky,” a stylized presentation of Kentucky’s essential export and a vital part of the state’s heritage and history. Indeed, it is an exhibit outlining the history of bourbon, complete with interactive stations and a bourbon library that features every bottle produced in Kentucky, as well as historic bottles and collections from the long and rich history of bourbon production in the state. It describes, in intricate detail, just how intertwined the state is with the rise and fall of bourbon production, as well as just how proud a heritage that process, that production, and that unique moniker – bourbon – truly is. The museum’s installation manages to still be impressive, even after one has seen bourbon at every turn in a visit to the area. The exhibit validates a pride in craft, in ingenuity, in heritage and history, that Kentucky can proudly claim.
Without a doubt, a visit to Lexington and Louisville evinces a heritage that is beyond compare – a bond between the region around Lexington and Louisville and bourbon. It is and has always been a vibrant part of the economy and an indelible part of who the people and the cities have been, are, and will become. And, after even a brief visit, a simple fact emerges and is beyond reproach.
They really do come by it honestly.