Kentucky: Why the Bluegrass State is more than just horses and bourbon
As we all pay more attention to what we are eating and drinking, flavour tourism is growing, particularly in the world of drinks. Visits to mezcal makers in Mexico, cognac chateaus in France, and now bourbon distilleries in Kentucky are on the up.
If the idea of a well-made Old Fashioned, Mint Julep or simple measure of neat whiskey fills you with joy, then a trip to Kentucky is a must. The natural starting point for most is Louisville, one of the state’s major cities and home to the well-connected Muhammad Ali airport, named after arguably the city’s most famous son.
Located on the north-western boarder of the state, it is unmissable for it’s urban bourbon trail. Louisville is easily reached by multiple internal flights, or is a simple two-and-half hour drive from Nashville, Tennessee, to where you can fly direct with British Airways.
As you can imagine, the focus of attention in Louisville is Bourbon Row in the centre of the city, where there are lots of options for visitors looking for local libations. Over in Old Louisville, known for its streets of magnificent Victorian mansions, you’ll find trendy up-and-coming spots to visit.
One such place, Trouble bar is a proudly women-owned business started by Nicole Stipp and Kaitlyn Owens. Opened in 2019 they want to challenge the typical demographic of bourbon drinkers, offering tasting flights and delicious seasonal cocktails. More than just a bar it has become a very important hub for the local community to meet, share a drink and provide support for one another.
The equestrian epicentre of Kentucky is Lexington, nestled in the middle of the state, a little over an hour’s drive west from Louisville. After you have driven past the rolling green hills with white picket fences and galloping thoroughbreds you can enjoy fine dining at the chic, design-led 21C Hotel, sip local ale on the ‘Brew-grass’ beer trail, or head to the vintage arcade bars located in the historic Distillery District. Lexington is also home to the first African American owned bourbon recognised by the State of Kentucky in modern times, showing that the bourbon world is really turning a corner.
Lexington is also the ideal spot from which to explore Bardstown, officially the ‘Bourbon Capital of the World’, an hour drive away. Declared as the most beautiful small town in America, Bardstown hosts the Kentucky Bourbon Festival every September.
For local contemporary food and cocktails head just out of town to the impressive, modernist Bardstown Bourbon Company, a new distillery that has built itself around offering excellent experiences for visitors. For good ole’fashioned southern hospitably head to Harrison-Smith House for specialities such as heirloom tomato pie or banana pudding.
An unexpected surprise, and perfect way to end your tour of Kentucky is a stay in Covington. On the northern border of the state, just across the river from the bustling metropolitan city of Cincinnati, Ohio. Covington is the ‘Brooklyn’ to the Cincinnati’s ‘Manhattan’, showcasing a plethora of breweries, hipster coffee shops and natural wine outlets. Across the river, Cincinnati is packed with street murals, trams and farmers markets.
In Covington, a major highlight has to be the hidden gem that is Revival Vintage Spirits, a small bottle shop and bar run by local legend Brad ‘Dusty’ Bonds. Dusty is committed to rooting out old and rare spirits, opening them and selling them by the measure, making such rarities as pre-prohibition bourbon accessible to the masses; buckle up because you are in for the tasting of your life!
Bourbon vs single malt Scotch …. What’s the difference?
Two white wines in a glass may look very similar but of course a buttery oaked Chardonnay is galaxies away from a flinty Picpoul. Two similar liquids, yet completely different in taste profile, and the two amber coloured spirits of single malt Scotch and bourbon are no different.
Like all good drinks both start with a natural base ingredients; in the case of single malt, 100% barley, but with bourbons is usually a mix of grains but no less than 51% corn must be used. Corn is why bourbon usually tastes sweeter and creamier than Scotch. The remainder is usually wheat and rye. Wheat gives a smooth, sippable mouth feel whilst the rye (popular in the Madmen days of the ‘50s and ‘60s) gives a spicy kick. Scotch can be smoky due to barley being malted over peat fires, whereas this is not normally a characteristic you find in a bottle of the Bluegrass state’s finest.
Scotch whisky, after being distilled, is rested in pre-used oak barrels sometimes seasoned with sherry giving rich, fruitcake notes. Bourbon must be matured in new oak barrels, which, along with the much warmer climate in Kentucky, means it matures very quickly. Typically a bourbon is aged for 7-10 years as opposed to Scotch which can many decades before it is fully ready to drink.