Barrel Wagon at Buffalo Trace Distillery

My regular readers will recall that, before the New Year’s column, I had started regaling you with my and my wife’s adventures traveling the Kentucky Bourbon Trail back in early November. It was an interesting experience, not only because simply finding the bourbon distilleries is an adventure, but also because we were visiting during the COVID pandemic.

I give the folks we visited credit: they were all about sanitation, mask wearing and social distancing. Most were not giving their usual tours and several had dispensed with the customary tour-ending tasting. At a couple, we were only allowed the opportunity to browse their gift shops. We tried, at each stop, to buy a bottle that, as we were told, was only available at the distillery. We figured that if we wanted a bottle of “the usual” we could wait until we returned home.

Our favorite purchase, now lamentably long gone with the holidays, was a bottle of Barton’s Bourbon Ball Crème Liqueur. Oh, that we had purchased a few bottles or – I daresay – a case. The stuff is delicious. Like Bailey’s, but with a bourbon kick and a very nice note of chocolate. Our second favorite was a bottle from the Willett Distillery – a brand we’d never heard of until we saw their sign by the roadside while searching for the way better-known Woodford Reserve. I’ll be honest; we bought the bottle because of the container itself. Shaped much like an old-fashioned pot, still we figured, regardless of the quality (or lack thereof) of the product within, the decanter itself would look great on our bar. We were extremely pleasantly surprised. At 94 proof, the stuff is smooth as silk, with a taste of caramel vanilla cake. We bought the bottle because it was supposedly only offered on-site at the distillery; we later discovered that a smaller exactly-the-same bottle is widely available everywhere. Good news for those not currently on the Bourbon Trail!

We did the touristy ritual dipping of the Maker’s Mark bottles in the signature red wax. There was little else to do as the distillery was off-limits for tours or tastings. It’s a beautiful place if you want to wander the grounds, but we had already wandered quite a bit in locating the place (and could’ve used a drink). After our obligatory waxing we decamped to Woodford Reserve, which before our trip we regarded as our favorite bourbon – primarily due to the brand’s association with the Kentucky Derby. For years we have purchased, usually at quite a premium, a bottle of Woodford with the annual Derby artwork. We open the bottle in May for the race to make juleps, and it typically lasts us the rest of the year.

Woodford was another stop that yielded only a “virtual” tour and a gift shop opportunity. We’ll be back. If we can find the place again.

Finally, we wound up in downtown Louisville, where our goals were two-fold. We would enjoy lunch at The Brown Hotel, where the Kentucky Hot Brown was created in 1926. And we would visit Angel’s Envy – a hip, urban distillery with nary a dirt road in sight. There we had our best tasting, albeit while watching a video-taped tour. I did glimpse their tasting room/bar and I really want to go back when things are open. These folks are savvy; they sold pre-mixed cocktails in small (two portion) containers. They even included a small bag of snacks – so when you returned to your hotel room it was practically like sitting at their bar. Well, no. But the cocktail was excellent. The beds in our room … so-so.

By far our most enjoyable visit was to the Buffalo Trace establishment. They offered up a full-scale tour of numerous historic buildings and threw in a comprehensive and free tasting. Buffalo Trace, now owned by the Sazerac Co., is the latest name of a historic distillery once known as the George T. Stagg distillery and the Old Copper distillery. This place was one of a few to be granted a “medicinal” distilling license during Prohibition. They never closed, they just labelled their product appropriately as medicinal. Our guide, a lugubrious fellow with countless tales to tell, said that during that dark period of mandated abstinence every ailment necessitated a prescription for bourbon. Even the baby with colic was so entitled – as well as Fido, who could get liquored up courtesy of the town vet! (I’ll bet Fido never saw a drop.)

In addition to bourbon, Kentucky has a lot of horses. Sure, there’s that hallowed turf at Churchill Downs, but there are countless horse farms all throughout the Bluegrass State. We visited several and petted countless horses – any of which might be the next Derby winner. One thing they all share in common – a love for peppermint! Just the sound of unwrapping a cellophane-encased Brach’s makes every horse whinny and stick their heads out of their stalls. Who knew? (Not this city boy).

A highlight was visiting the Kentucky Horse Park, where retired race horses go to live out their days in pampered luxury. I especially enjoyed meeting the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner (1994) with the attractive name of Go For Gin. I found out later his name refers, not to my favorite libation, but to the game of gin rummy. Figures … since we were in bourbon country after all.

Once you select a bottle from the plethora of bourbons now offered at your local spirits purveyor, I suggest the following concoction provided to us by the folks at Buffalo Trace. The illustrious bourbon, Blanton’s, is made there (along with many other brands). I should offer a disclaimer: Blanton’s is excellent simply sipped neat. But if you want to mix it this is a very nice cocktail, named after the other historic hotel in Louisville.

THE SEELBACH

1 oz. Blanton’s Bourbon

1/2 oz. Cointreau

7 dashes Angostura Bitters

7 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

Champagne

Ice cubes

Stir all ingredients, except Champagne, over ice until chilled. Strain into a flute and top with Champagne.

Garnish with a lemon twist.

This is about as sophisticated as a cocktail can get. If you can find a horse to pet while drinking it all the better. Don’t forget the peppermints!