In late October I was lucky enough to tick another item off my bucket list. I’ve always wanted to go to Kentucky. I love bourbon, fried chicken, smokehouse BBQ and country music. A trip to the deep south was always on the cards, I’m just glad I finally got to tick it off. I was sent out courtesy of Buffalo Trace Bourbon and they took me for a wonderful, action packed tour of Kentucky and Chicago over a jet lagged, booze fuelled 4 days.
After two flights and about 13-14 hours of travelling we arrived at our hotel in Louisville. The first night was introductions, and plenty of them with a group of thirty, and sampling the best bourbon bar in town. We went to the Silver Dollar which had an extremely impressive backbar of American whiskies. I didn’t get an exact count but it was probably over a hundred. There were a lot of rare breeds and some whiskies that were bottled specially for silver dollar from the many local distilleries.
I got to try a specially bottled 17 year old W.L Weller and 23 year old Pappy Van Winkle. It was a treat. The night involved a lot of drinking. I lost count of how many shots of whiskey and boilermaker combos I had. We ended up in another bar playing table football with some locals until about 4am. Needless to say I was a little worse for wear in the morning from a soul destroying combo of hangover and jet lag. The pulled pork I had for dinner might have found it’s way onto the pavement on the way to the distillery the next day. But I powered on.
We got to the distillery in Frankfort after about an hour on a bus. The distillery is almost like a small town. Everything is painted in that Buffalo hue of green. There are umpteen warehouses, a still house, bottling houses, a gift shop, a sampling bar, a lodge, etc, all surrounded by the luscious green Kentucky countryside and the flow of the Kentucky river. We saddled up to the lodge for some lunch and unfortunately my stomach wasn’t quite ready to dive into the delicious fried buffet on offer. The food looked and smelled amazing and I was gutted not to be able to dig in.
Shortly after lunch we went for the tour around the distillery, the scale and history is immense. It’s a truly amazing place and a must visit for any whiskey fans out there. We were then sat down for a whiskey masterclass with master distiller Harlen Wheatley. The level of regret I had for the previous night’s festivities was in full swing now and I couldn’t try any of the lovely whiskies on offer. But Harlan’s insights into his products were fascinating. The level of care, knowledge and experimentation involved at the distillery between himself and master blender Drew Mayville is a key reason why Buffalo Trace is one of the industry leaders in it’s category.
We picked up some goodies from the gift shop and then settled in at the bar for one of the trip’s main events. Four of the group were bartenders who won their respective regionals for the Buffalo Trace cocktail competition back in the UK. They had been set a challenge for the final to see who would take home the Grand Final title. They had 20 minutes to go into a local supermarket and buy ingredients for a drink they would make at the distillery celebrating a piece of Americana. The winning drink came from Lee Jones from Smokestack in Leeds who created a simple but excellent two ingredient cocktail combining Buffalo with a Peach & Cinnamon shrub in a twist on a classic Julep. I’ve known Lee from comps for a few years now and I’m glad to have spent some time with him on the trip and I was really happy that he took home the title. It’s always nice to see the North pick up another victory.
We headed back to the hotel to freshen up (a power nap in my case) and then headed out to Doc Crows for dinner. It was proper Kentucky BBQ. Succulent ribs, gumbo, crackling, fried chicken, pecan pie and key lime pie. It was simply presented but packed full of flavour. The perfect night cap before a long sleep to recover from jet lag and the world’s worst hangover.
The next day we were off to the Keeneland Races. Suited up, we were given a VIP tour of the track and it’s wonderful history. The track is over 80 years old which is relatively young by Kentucky racing standards. We were taken upstairs to the suites and gorged ourselves on some tasty roast and umpteen bottles of American Riesling. Luck wasn’t exactly on my side at the track as it wasn’t with most of the group. So we pooled our money together for one last bet. We drew the number 4 out of a hat and placed our kitty on it to win the last race outright. Lagging behind on the final stretch, we were all cursing “Minister’s Strike”s name. But out of the blue he picked up steam and strode ahead in the final furling winning us a cheeky $1300 and a lavish night out in Chicago.
Upon landing in Chicago we went to Zed 451. A kind of south american-asian fusion restaurant that resembled a high-end Tropeiro. We dined on some of the best meat cuts i’ve ever had and again plenty more bourbon and wine. The desserts were also great. Oreo Cheesecake Lollipops are something that needs to find it’s way home to Rub. Well fed, we set off for Three Dots & a Dash to spend some winnings. It’s one of the premiere tiki bars in the world and regularly makes lists of the best bars. The decor was amazing and the drinks had some fun garnishes. We appreciate a good garnish here at Rub. Finally after the group knocked back several sharing cocktails we headed off to the Kingston Mines. A blues bar that offered some late night entertainment.
Our final day allowed us to run around Chicago for some last minute shopping and take part in a segway tour of the city. I have to say, as stupid as segways look, it was so much fun. I kind of want one to travel into work now. They’re addictive. Finally after a whirlwind trip of whiskey, meat and sightseeing, we packed up our bags and headed to the airport. Back at Heathrow, we said our goodbyes and set off home. Thanks to Buffalo Trace for letting me tick off a big ticket item from my bucket list. If you’re interested in all things American Whiskey then you should pop by our bars for just a drink sometime. We have a great selection to choose from as well as loads of whiskey cocktails.