Touring Bourbon & Bluegrass Country

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Motorcycle Touring via Harley-Davidson Wide Glide

I try not to judge a book by its cover. However, when you’re a black man riding through Kentucky for the first time and a dozen or so guys ride up next to you on Harleys wearing black leather vests emblazoned with the Confederate flag on the back, three things come to mind:

A: I didn’t know it was Confederate Flag Day.
B: Man, these guys are patriotic!
C: Is my life insurance up to date?

I have just picked up my Wide Glide from Man O’War Harley-Davidson in Lexington to ride the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the Bluegrass State’s version of Napa Valley. Bourbon, named after the county in Kentucky where it originated, is an American original. From a blend of corn, water, and old-fashioned elbow grease, the locals have created this amber nectar for the last 200 years.

The Bourbon Trail is a handful of cities, towns, and hamlets in Northeast Kentucky that supply the world with 95-percent of its bourbon. Originally produced by preachers and Presidents alike, bourbon is as much a part of our collective history as apple pie. Yet, at the moment I’m not thinking about bourbon’s past, but my future.

A huge, bearded hulk of a man rides up next to me on a Harley-Davidson Ultra Glide, and yells something to me. Eyes forward! Eyes forward! Over the deafening roar of the amazing array of bikes, I can’t hear a thing, but reading his lips, “Nice bike.” I nod. Pointing to himself, he says, “Earl.” He gives me the thumbs up, and motions for me to ride with them. What’s next, locust?

We ride in group formation for the next 30 miles through some of the most beautiful country you will ever see. The lush green rolling expanse of horse ranches and the winding, oak-lined, canopied backcountry roads seemingly created just for riding. With the recent rains, the sweet, deep smell of wheat and wildflowers permeate the air. These guys are serious. I mean, how much chrome do you need? There are moments when I have to avert my eyes to not be blinded in this metallic sunrise.

The group rides into the town of Versailles, where I turn off to Woodford Reserve distillery. As we stop to fill up, Earl sees me eyeing the vests. “It’s not like that. We wear it as a remembrance of a simpler time, and a simpler way of life,” Earl assures me. “Sure, but we can agree from my standpoint, there’s more to the story,” I reply. He thinks for a moment and responds, “Fair enough.” We shake hands, and pull from the station. Earl points to my turn-off and waves. I wave and the entire group waves back. You learn something new every day.

I was nine-years old when I had my first bourbon – well, sort of. Every Christmas Eve, the family headed up the road to my Uncle Chester and Aunt Barbara Jean’s home. After dinner, the men would go into the next room, sliding closed the giant mahogany doors behind them, leaving me with the women.

God, I hated this. What were they doing in there? Why couldn’t I come with them? This time I asked, “Can I come too?” My father immediately shot a look at my mother, and with obvious disapproval she nodded yes.

The room was full of laughter, stratus clouds from my grandfather’s pipe, and glasses of eggnog spiked with a curious sweet smelling caramel colored liquid. I looked at the bottle – Old Grand Dad. They handed me a glass of eggnog (sans the spirit), but I believed I could taste it just a bit. Thus began my life-long love affair with bourbon.

I think of this moment as I listen to the passionate soliloquy from Master Distiller Chris Morris at Woodford Reserve. Gently rotating a small, amber glass of his latest concoction we discuss the art of crafting bourbon. “There are five sources of flavor,” Morris explains. “Grain, water, fermentation, distillation, and maturation, that help create our unique taste profile.”

The master distiller is to Kentucky what the tailor is to Italy. Beyond their years of experience and technical expertise there is an infectious passion as they weave their tale. The distillery is a picturesque hamlet of pre-civil war structures painstakingly restored to their original condition.

Riding through Woodford Reserve’s hand-laid limestone gates is like going back in time. While the United States was at war with England in 1812, bourbon pioneer Elijah Pepper walked the banks of Glenn’s Creek in Woodford County, searching for a location for his distillery. Strolling along that same creek today, Chris tells me, “Woodford Reserve is a complex balance of all the great flavors and aromas that make our Bourbon stand out from the other great whiskies of the world. We have the taste and character that all bourbon drinkers appreciate.”

The sweet, spicy, caramel aroma of the aging bourbon in its charred white oak barrels permeates the air more than a mile from the distillery as I ride toward it on a serpentine two-lane back road. Originally owned by Labrot & Graham, the distillery and its bourbon have evolved into an entirely new product, and I could spend the entire day talking with Chris. So many bourbons, so little time.

Also known as Bluegrass Country, The Bourbon Trail has the varying climate, landscape, and vast underground limestone water table that helps create the perfect environment for bourbon production. Checking in to my hotel at 10 p.m., I had planned on getting straight to bed.
Four hours later at Lexington’s Bluegrass Tavern, Mike The Bartender and I are getting better acquainted with some Eagle Rare 17, a little Pappy Van Winkle 20, and a Mr. George T. Stagg – all amazing bourbons produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Buffalo Trace Distillery’s expansive grounds, and red brick barrelhouses are as much a part of the landscape as the exposed limestone cliffs surrounding them. In the mid-1700s, as Lewis and Clark were moving west, they often navigated utilizing the buffalo routes called “traces‚” hence the name.

Arriving at the office, I am warmly greeted by third generation distillery worker, and unofficial mayor Freddie Johnson. Walking the archives looking through the faded black and white photos, I notice many different nationalities – Polish, English, Irish, African. “The owners believed employment here wasn’t based on anything more than your ability to do the job,” Freddie tells me. “Nothing else mattered.”

Although it may take a village, at 118 acres, Buffalo Trace is a city. The distillery is nearly self-sufficient, complete with its own hospital and employee-built clubhouse. When getting married and buying The Ring, it is said that women cry at weddings, but men cry much sooner. I can only think of one other life-changing account-draining expenditure that will invoke such an emotional response – purchasing your own barrel of Buffalo Trace.

Rivaling the price of a luxury SUV, the Buffalo Trace offers its Private Barrel Selection Program. Although their bourbon is blended from 25 to 30 barrels, you choose from one of a handful of barrels, depending on your personal taste. Once selected, your bourbon is bottled and stored, eagerly waiting for your inevitable consumption. Gluttony has its privileges.

Remember when you were a kid and you teased the dog by holding a biscuit just out of his reach? That’s how I feel visiting distilleries all day. Bourbon, bourbon everywhere, but nary a drop to drink, as drinking and riding don’t mix. The sips I have taken mean that I haven’t been able to fully enjoy the fruits of my labors.

Arriving in Louisville, I park the Harley at my hotel and head to Bourbons Bistro Restaurant, one of many stops on Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail. I meet up with Angela Weisser of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, my spirited culinary Sherpa for the evening. With over 130 bourbons to choose from, chef Michael Crouch starts us out with flights each of Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, Ancient Ancient Age, and Blanton’s 93. It’s on now!

Thirty seconds later he is back with appetizers of tempura fried shrimp, steak tartar, and pesto lobster grilled cheese. Angela orders entrees of port wine citrus braised lamb shank, the pecan encrusted baked salmon, the prosciutto wrapped chicken breast, and the filet of beef.
The chef shamelessly chums the tip jar by bringing out yet another flight of Woodford Reserve Masters Collection Four Grain, the Heaven Hill Very Rare Old 100, and the Four Roses 40th Anniversary. Feeling like I’m being fattened for slaughter, I throw in the towel after three hours, waddling back to my hotel to regroup for tomorrow.

Half the next day is spent watching radar forecasts on my iPhone, and hanging out under overpasses dodging lightning strikes, and severe thunderstorms. The Wide Glide handles the inclement weather gracefully, and I finally meet up with Bernie Lubbers, aka The Whiskey Professor at the Jim Beam distillery in Shepherdsville. Bernie’s upcoming book, Adventures of a Whiskey Professor – My Life is a Paid Vacation, tells his story of being one of three Whiskey Professors who travel the country educating industry, and regular folks alike, on the finer points of bourbon.

Looking as if he’s dressed for the professional rodeo circuit with his gleaming belt buckle, Bernie rounds up a diverse collection of bourbons all produced by the Beam Distillery. Jim Beam, the largest producer and number one selling bourbon in the world, creates 16 million cases between its many labels – Jim Beam, Basil Hayden, Knob Creek, Booker and Baker’s, to name a few. Lined up side-by-side, that’ s enough bottles to stretch from Juneau to Key West.

Standing by the life-sized statue of Booker Noe, gazing across the grounds at Jim Beam takes you beyond bourbon. You sense the history and passion that have helped define an American original. The roads around the distillery, and of the Bourbon Trail, are a boundless maze of two-lane highways; dirt road offshoots abuzz with adventurers just like you. It is a motorcyclist’s Shangri-la. Most of the time you have absolutely no idea where the roads go, but you don’t care.

It’s about the journey, as well as the destination. You find yourself slowing down, exploring these seemingly secluded passages. There’s solitude. A hypnotizing solace in the gentle rise and fall of the road. The rumble of the Twin Cam 96. The warm buffeting breeze redolent of spice from white oak barrels of aging golden nectar. It is perfect.

Kentucky’s Bardstown, the self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World, is a Rockwellian painting of a town. After a day of riding its classic main streets lined with quaint, locally owned shops and historic Civil War homes, I arrive at The Jailer’s Inn Bed and Breakfast.

The accommodation is a converted 1800s jailhouse, still with adjoining prisoners’ quarters.
Dawn Przystal of the Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist & Convention Commission gives me a brief tour of the city before heading to a local favorite – Kurtz Restaurant.

Over the last few days, I’ve learned mixing anything with bourbon, other than more bourbon, is akin to talking with your mouth full and stirring the lemonade pitcher with your bare hand. Discussing bourbon (what else?) after dinner, one of my favorites comes up. Unknowingly, Dawn replies, “That’s an okay bourbon. I always keep a bottle around for company, specifically for mixing.” My hand mentally slaps my forehead.

The next day I head out early for a morning ride, and to meet Fred Allen, a tour guide at the Heaven Hill Distilleries. Fred shows up riding his Suzuki, and is soon leaving the blue grass for the Black Hills, just before Sturgis, with a few of his buddies.

What justifies $550 for the William Heaven Hill 18-year-old bourbon? Damned if I know, but it is in such demand the distillery is buying back every bottle it can find.

We tour the distillery and see the sights, yet I’m thinking ahead to this crazy expensive bourbon I have heard about. We step into a private tasting room and he slides the door closed behind us. Remember teasing the dog with a biscuit, and the look on the dog’s face after he gets the biscuit? That is the look on my face now. This is not like any bourbon I have ever had.
After an appropriate time to purge the alcohol from our systems, we get to riding. We spend the next five hours traveling in and around Bardstown. From the Abbey of Gethsemani to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, there is far too much to see in an afternoon.

A former high school teacher, Fred is a walking encyclopedia, relaying more information about Kentucky’s history than most people have forgotten. Along the way, we have picked up a couple of friendly riders who are also enjoying the sights. We team up and make our way to our last stop – Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky.

We reach the manicured grounds at Maker’s Mark just before closing, but my personal tour has been arranged in advance. Although I arrive with an unexpected entourage, our guide Stan doesn’t seem to mind. The setting for the distillery is worthy of a tour itself. The five of us make our way through the barrelhouses, the fermenting tanks, and the bottling area to the nightclub-like tasting room.

A fan of Maker’s Mark for years, I am privileged to sample its first new product since its inception in 1953 – Maker’s 46. During the tour we learned the bottle went through over 20 different designs. “The glass just arrived a couple of days ago so we have just begun the bottling process,” Stan tells us. Sitting at the bar in the tasting room he brings out the good stuff. The Maker’s 46 is fantastic, and somewhat spicier than the original.

With yet another thunderstorm on the horizon, I reluctantly cut my visit short making my way back to Louisville. Upon arrival at the 21c Museum Hotel‚ a Conde Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Award winner – there is a three-foot tall red penguin in my bed, and I am not under the influence. I call the front desk with a request.

“I’m sorry, but can you call animal control?”

“Is there a problem Mr. Lang?” asks the bemused employee.

“There’s a penguin in my bed,” I inform him, “and it’s sort of freaking me out.”

My concern is greeted with a chuckle and an explanation. “They’re harmless. Just keep your hands and feet away from their beaks, and you’ll be fine.”

That’s not so reassuring, so I hang up, and quietly tiptoe out of the room to not disturb my avian adversary. It turns out my feathered friend is a mascot of sorts for this hotel-slash-contemporary art museum.

Later, I meet Angela at the hotel restaurant, Proof on Main; again, she has appetizers and bourbon flights lined up. Here we go again.

Successful master distillers are equal parts mad businessmen and mad scientists. With degrees in biology and chemistry, Jim Rutledge at Four Roses fits this description perfectly. Jim, who has 35 years of riding experience and currently owns a BMW K 1200 LT, takes me to his office where we spend the next hour discussing bikes instead of bourbon.

Unfortunately for him, but luckily for us, Jim has little time to ride these days after orchestrating the complicated resurrection of the 1888 brand. Rather than take me to the public tasting room, we visit a mixing lab where they create the different notes and elements that make up Four Roses’ unique blend of bourbon.

Looking like a chemistry experiment gone terribly awry, every blend is kept in a specially coded tasting glass – dozens in all. We go through numerous glasses that create the distillery’s unique taste profile.

Back at my hotel in Lexington with my trip coming to a close, I reflect on what I found most memorable. “Specifically for mixing.” That does it! I walk straight back to the Bluegrass Tavern, and my favorite bartender is there waiting. I have him pour a glass of my old standby to compare to her Evan Williams 18.

With the sting of her words still fresh I sip my favorite. Just as I expected, smooth, clean, something I can drink anytime. Taking a sip of the Evan Williams, “How dare she say my bourbon is just for…holy crap, this is good!” I’m stunned – beyond stunned, in fact.

Can it be that big of a difference? Have I been wandering in the dark wood all these years only now to see the light? I have the bartender line up bourbons from all the distilleries I’ve visited so far, along with a few others. They are all better than mine. I would be dejected, but considering I have a dozen or so of the world’s best bourbons before me, and five hours before last call, my re-education has just begun. How sweet it is.

From the May/June 2012 issue of Ultimate MotorCycling. To read a digital version of the latest edition, click here.

Photography by Shaun Lang