We spent our time in Lexington doing two quintessential Kentucky things – visiting Thoroughbred horse farms and touring Bourbon distilleries. I booked an afternoon horse farm tour out of Lexington, and I wanted to have lunch at a well-reviewed place in the country. Since we really aren’t Bourbon fans (hmmm…I should say weren’t because we are now!) I chose to tour the Four Roses distillery because it geographically fit with my other plans. After wolfing down a so-so breakfast, we took the half hour drive (again, through beautiful country on a beautiful sunny day!) out to Four Roses.
I read beforehand that Four Roses was a respected brand back in the day, but fell into disrepute when it was bought out by a large beverage conglomerate. Kirin Brewing bought the brand a few years ago and is rebuilding Four Roses as a kind of “craft bourbon”. The historic facility is done in an old Spanish style, which is a bit of an architectural anomaly in KY!
We had a great tour with Leila and learned a ton about bourbon distilling. Bourbon is a type of whiskey that is made with at least 51% corn, aged a minimum of 2 years in a new, charred oak barrel, and it’s the only spirit “native” to the US. KY became the center for Bourbon distilling because it’s a great place to grow corn, the cold winters and hot summers are perfect for aging the whiskey, and the rivers run with pure, clean, limestone-filtered water. Bourbon is made by cooking a “mash” of corn and whatever other grains are being used (wheat, rye, malted barley), cooling it, adding yeast and letting it ferment in large vats. Fermentation creates alcohol and carbon dioxide, and you could see the vats literally “boiling” with all the CO2 being released. And it smelled yummy!
The mash is then filtered and distilled, and that distillate is then re-distilled. Some of the fermented grain they filter off is used to flavor the next batch of mash, but most is given to farmers as pig food, which supposedly pigs love! Don’t freak, there’s almost no alcohol in it.
The resulting clear alcohol is placed in new, charred oak barrels and aged at least two years – the charred barrel imparts bourbon’s characteristic caramel color and rich flavor. The barrels age in huge, often multistory warehouses, and where a barrel is located in the warehouse affects its taste (higher up in the warehouse = hotter = ages faster and stronger; lower in the warehouse = cooler = more nuanced flavor). Bourbon masters then taste and blend various barrels to get their signature flavor profile, which is why a bottle of Four Roses 81 or Wild Turkey 101 will taste the same year after year. Any particularly fabulous barrels are bottled unmixed as “single barrel” Bourbons. Or a small amount of exceptional barrels may be mixed together to create what is called “small batch” Bourbon. Single barrel and small batch Bourbons are like wine in that they will have different flavor nuances from year to year and bottle to bottle. Since Four Roses is a small distillery, they tinker a lot with flavor using several different types of yeasts in their mashes, and I have to say I was very impressed in the tasting room.
If you go on any of these Bourbon tours on what is called the Bourbon Trail in KY, be prepared to drink a lot of Bourbon, or share your glass with a friend. They give you VERY generous samples and expect you to finish it before they give you the next one! Everything we sampled at Four Roses was smooth, sweet and amazingly delicious. Who knew Bourbon could be anything but gag inducing!?
After thanking Leila for the informative, interesting tour and buying a few bottles in the gift shop, we headed off through the country to our lunch spot, Wallace Station Deli. It was a gorgeous day so we took advantage of the large patio out back to enjoy our lunch al fresco. This place is popular and packs out fast, so I was glad we got there by 11:30.
We took another half hour drive to the Embassy Suites in Lexington where we were to be picked up for our afternoon horse farm tour. I chose Thoroughbred Heritage Horse Farm Tours because they had stellar reviews on Trip Advisor, and we were not disappointed. Our guide, Tim, is a horse trainer who “moonlights” as a tour guide, and he was funny, friendly and extremely knowledgeable. In four short hours we learned way more than we could ever have imagined about Thoroughbred racing, breeding and training! Tim first took us to Winstar where we met some of their prized stallions and learned about breeding. Fun fact: every single Thoroughbred horse is the product of a “live, natural cover” (that’s fancy speak for horse sexy times) – artificial insemination is never allowed. These stallions are living the life! They live in palatial stables, and every day during breeding season (Valentines Day through July 4th) they are “visited” by up to three mares a day! I know exactly what every dude on the tour was thinking, including mine!
Next Tim took us to the famous racing facility Keeneland where several annual horse auctions take place and “horse movies” such as Secretariat and Seabiscuit were filmed.
After touring through some gorgeous countryside viewing several different farms, we made our last stop at McPeek Racing’s Magdalena Farm where we got to meet some adorable Thoroughbred foals.
After our amazing horse tour we had an hour or so to kill before supper time, so we headed to the State Botanical Garden at UK in Lexington. By now it had grown a bit hot, so we kinda booked it through there, but if you have some time to kill in Lexington and like plants, this is a great place for a walk or a picnic.
Some friends who went to UK recommended a place for dinner which must have radically changed since they last ate there. Bourbon and Toulouse was not only the worst meal we had in KY, but I think one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant, period. The bread came pre-soaked in margarine (eww!) the etouffee looked and tasted disgusting, the chili was dessert sweet (huh?) and while the gumbo had great flavor, it was 90% gravy/10% misc stuff. So, yeah, can’t recommend that place.
We spent one last nite at the Rose Hill Inn, and after another so-so breakfast visited one last spot before heading home. The Wild Turkey distillery was fairly close, and I’m glad we took the time to tour the place.
Jonathan gave us an excellent tour, and I have to say for two places that produce the same product, the Wild Turkey and Four Roses facilities couldn’t have been more different. First, Wild Turkey produces in one week what Four Roses produces in a year! Second, Four Roses ages all their barrels on one level to minimize differences in the taste, barrel to barrel, while Wild Turkey racks their barrels all over the place in huge, multistory warehouses, and then does a lot of blending to standardize the taste. The scale of the place was amazing. Their Still Master, Jimmy Russell, is a legend in the Bourbon community, and he was actually there that day, just rocking on the front porch of the visitors’ center. Jonathan told us Jimmy’s palate is so sensitive that he can actually tell from eating a Bourbon candy which brand and year of Bourbon was used to make it!
After my experience at Four Roses, I was eager to hit the tasting room at the end of the tour. I was surprised at how very different Wild Turkey’s Bourbons tasted from Four Roses, but then again, they use very different methods. We didn’t like anything we tried (mega mega hoochie!) except their luscious liquor, American Honey. Oh boy. That is some delicious stuff. All the most wonderful notes of Bourbon blended with citrus and honey. Some of our fellow tour mates told us they store theirs in the freezer so it stays thick and use it on pancakes. Um kay! Don’t think I’m ready for boozy breakfasts… : ) With a bottle of American Honey in hand we hit the road and bid KY adieu. What a beautiful, beautiful state with tons of fun, interesting things to do. Definitely worth the trip!