Probably the number one recommendation we got for our time in Kentucky was to tour the famous bourbon distilleries. Coming in at a close second was the Kentucky Horse Park. So for our second week in the Bluegrass State, we decided to do both.
The Horse Park is located just north of Lexington in central Kentucky. It’s a state park that has more of a private park feel due to the lack of privacy between sites and amenities such as a giant swimming pool (which was closed for the season), and lots of stuff for the kids. We arrived on a Thursday with no reservations to find a completely booked campground. Oops…turns out it was the first weekend of their annual Halloween Camp Out. Luckily, they also have a primitive electric and primitive non-electric area that are non-reservable. The primitive electric area is basically a field with shared electric poles. It was pretty jammed with RVs for the weekend festivities and didn’t look very appealing. Later in the week, I walked through a found a few spots against the trees that looked okay.
The primitive non-electric area, on the other hand, is a massive, grassy area bordered by trees. This space had the feeling of a boondocking location while still providing access to everything the park offers (like laundry, showers, and recycling). For $20 a night it was nearly perfect.
We were joined by a dozen other RVs, a few tents, and even a trio of teepees over the weekend. The area is so big though that you could probably fit a hundred RVs in the space before it started to feel crowded. After the weekend everyone left and we once again had the entire area to ourselves.
Even if we had planned ahead and reserved a spot in the campground, I’m not sure we would have wanted to be down there for the Halloween event. It was a crazy scene with RVs all decked out in their spooky finery, every golf cart in the state of Kentucky in attendance, and more kids hopped up on candy than I would ever want to camp next to. That said, I’m sure if you live nearby and have kids this is a really fun weekend. They go all out with trick-or-treating, an RV decorating contest, a golf cart parade, live music, and a bunch of other things that I’m forgetting.
Oh yeah, they also had a haunted trail through the woods. The trail was nothing more than a dark path decorated with a few spooky ghosts and skeletons. As you walked the trail people dressed in camouflage jumped out at you (and sometimes they followed you down the trail). I know that doesn’t sound scary, and I expected it to be a complete bore, but I screamed as every single person jumped at me, even the ones I knew were there. And I screamed especially loud when the guy with the chainsaw pretended to saw my leg off. Tim thought all my screaming was pretty hilarious.
Adjacent to the campground is a 1,200-acre working horse farm complete with a museum, a stadium and arena for events, a group of resident retired champion horses, and so much more. I’m going to start by admitting right off that we are NOT horse people. I’m very allergic to horses, which means I have never ridden one, and the last time I touched a horse my entire face swelled up. As you can imagine, the idea of visiting a park all about horses held zero appeal to me. But since we were already at the campground I figured it couldn’t hurt to look around (but no touching).
So last weekend we hitched up our trusty mounts (aka our mountain bikes) and rode into the park for a few hours of horsey-ness.
*Pro tip: If you’re staying at the campground you can save $4 per person by buying your admission tickets from the campground office. Also, you can save on parking and get a bit of exercise by riding your bike instead of driving the quarter mile from the campground to the park.
The park has various events throughout the year. Last weekend it was the Lexington Catholic Cross Country Invitational. While I’m still not exactly sure what that is, we wandered around and watched what looked like high school students lead their horses around and jump over low fences.
They also have daily presentations at both the Hall of Champions and the Breed Barn. We caught the afternoon Hall of Champions event where a selection of the resident retired racehorses are paraded around a ring while the announcer brags about their accomplishments and we all snap photos. It seemed to be a giant bore for the horses involved. This handsome guy is Won the West (he prefers to go by “W”). He has a whole list of titles to his name, and now lives out his days entertaining the tourists and hanging out with his retired horse buddies.
We also spent some time at the International Museum of the Horse. Even for non-horse fans this was a really great museum. And really huge! It covers everything horse related staring way, way back in history. We both enjoyed the historic part the best, skipped over the giant exhibit about Arabian horses, and the quickly moved through the hall of trophies. If you are a horse fan, you will want to plan to spend at least a few hours in the museum.
My final take on the Horse Park is that if you’re like us and not really into horses I wouldn’t bother making a special trip here. However, if you’re staying at the campground it would be worth buying a ticket and wandering around for a few hours. And if you are one of those horse-loving people, you will probably adore the park and might even want to take advantage of the second day half price admission (save your receipt when you buy your ticket and present it the next day for a discount).
We ended up enjoying the park best after hours on our bikes. There’s a gate at the back of the campground that leads into the park. They keep it open for foot and bike traffic. While you can’t get into any of the buildings after hours, you are free to ride around and take in the sights. The park is huge and there’s plenty to see.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Okay, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Who cares about horses when you have a dozen bourbon distilleries to visit? While neither of us are huge bourbon drinkers, we always love a good tour, and when that tour includes historic buildings and samples of booze at the end, even better!
Central Kentucky is bourbon country. With a history that goes back hundreds of years, the art of distilling is very much a part of the culture around here. For die-hard bourbon fans, this area is your mecca. Many people come here with the main goal of visiting as many distilleries as possible. Some people follow the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail which includes nine distilleries and has a passport that you can get stamped at all distilleries and then redeem for a t-shirt (and bragging rights).
I kind of like the idea of doing the whole trail because every distillery is a little different and offers a unique experience. Word on the street is that if you plan correctly you can do the whole tour in 3 to 5 days. Unfortunately, we would have had to take a 3-5 day vacation to make that happen since the distilleries are generally only open for visitors until 4 in the afternoon. So we were limited to visiting on the weekend and only ended up with enough time to visit three.
The first distillery we visited was Woodford Reserve. You’ve probably never heard of them, or maybe you have, but it really doesn’t matter because the tour was excellent and the grounds and buildings impressive.
We arrived about 20 minutes before they opened for the day (noon on Sunday) and joined the growing line at the front door. Soon the doors opened, we paid our $10 fee and joined the first tour. After learning some interesting facts about bourbon such as, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon, 95% of bourbon is produced in Kentucky, bourbon must contain at least 51% corn and a few others, we got to see some of that famous brew.
These giant vats of thick yellowish sludge are filled with mash (a unique combination of corn, rye and malted barley) that is mixed with yeast and allowed to ferment. We were encouraged to inhale the pungent aroma of the fermenting mash and even given permission to dip our fingers in for a taste. At this point, it tastes like yeast and not at all like bourbon.
Next we saw the distilling room where they have three giant copper stills.
Then we moved on to the area where the bourbon goes into the barrels. They don’t barrel (is that verb?) on Sundays, but our guide explained the process, and someone had thoughtfully left a picture prefect set up of the tools used to seal the barrels.
Outside we saw the barrel run that moves the barrels from the bottling room to the warehouse. This is the original barrel run that has been operating since the mid-1800s.
Up next was one of the warehouses. Bourbon barrels spends anywhere from 4 to 15 years aging in warehouses. One of the reasons why Kentucky produces so much bourbon is that the climate is just right for the barrel aging process.
Finally, we had a tasting. We tried two different bourbons and were instructed to sip slowly and notice the hints of cardamon, vanilla, and other things that I couldn’t appreciate because my mouth was burning from the alcohol. I guess I’m not a fan of straight bourbon.
Our second distillery visit was at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort. This one is not on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and we only knew about it because some friends had requested a bottle of their special bourbon that is hard to find. Unfortunately, the distillery didn’t sell any bottles other than what you would find a regular old liquor store, so we struck out on that mission, but we did enjoy visiting the distillery.
The tour here was completely different from Woodford Reserve. First of all, it was free which meant a gigantic group of over 50 people. Second, we didn’t see any of the bourbon in production. Instead we walked around the grounds a bit and learned about the history of Buffalo Trace while looking at a few warehouses.
Next we watched a short video that gave an overview of Kentucky Bourbon along with some specifics of the distilling process at Buffalo Trace. From there we squeezed into one of the warehouses and chatted a bit about how the placement of the barrels affects the outcome of the bourbon. It was pretty interesting to learn that a barrel at the bottom of the warehouse produces a bourbon totally different from one stored at the top or in the middle.
Like most of the larger distilleries, Buffalo Trace has an automatic bottling facility, but they also have a small workshop where they hand bottle some of their special bourbon. We briefly ducked in here and saw some Blanton’s that are hand bottled and labeled, and then topped with one of eight mini horse statues.
The tour ended with a tasting. I didn’t take any photos this time because it was a complete mob scene with 50+ people crowded around a small bar. We got to choose two tastings from four offerings: The White Dog (basically this is bourbon before it goes in the barrels), a vodka, the classic Buffalo Trace Bourbon, and Eagle Rare. We shared a tasting of the last two and liked the Eagle Rare enough that we bought a bottle. At the rate we drink bourbon It will probably last us forever. They saved the best for last and ended the tasting with their Bourbon Cream. It was delicious and we ended up with a bottle that we plan to save for a holiday treat.
While the tour wasn’t quite as complete as the one at Woodford Reserve, our tour guide was excellent and we walked away feeling like it was a good experience. They do offer a couple more in depth tours that sound interesting, but you have to make a reservation pretty far in advance. Maybe next time.
The final distillery we toured was Maker’s Mark. It’s about an hour an half drive from Lexington, so we made a plan to stop there after leaving the Horse Park on our way south. They had plenty of RV parking, but if you don’t feel comfortable driving your RV on narrow winding roads you may want to leave it behind for this one (and avoid all Kentucky two-lane roads for that matter).
The tour here cost $9. While it was a busy Saturday when we visited, they run the tours every half hour and we had no problem walking in at 11:45 and getting on the 12:00 tour. It was a good size group, but not quite as large as at Buffalo Trace. Once again our tour guide was excellent, exhibiting both knowledge and enthusiasm for the product.
We saw a lot of the same things that we did at Woodford Reserve, including the giant mash tubs, the copper distillers and a warehouse full of barrels. The main difference here is that since they are such a huge operation a lot of what we saw on the tour was just for show. For example, the majority of their barrels are stored off-site in a massive compound of giant buildings in the tiny town of Lorretto. They don’t have nearly enough space at the distillery to hold all those buildings, so they just keep one for visitors to see. Also, the wooden mash tubs that we saw are not their main mash tubs. The ones they use for most of the mash are located out of sight and not made of wood. We don’t fault them for this, but it did make for a less authentic experience as compared to Woodford Reserve.
One of my favorite parts of these tours is learning the history of each distillery and what makes them unique. At Maker’s Mark, we learned a lot about the Samuels family who started the operation back in the ’50s. Part of of their lasting legacy is the distinctive bottle and label. Both can be credited to Margie Samuels, who not only came up with the name, but also had the idea to dip the bottles in wax (yes, each one is dipped by hand), and hand drew the label that is still in use today.
We toured the bottling room which only operates during the week. A bottling facility that’s not bottling is pretty boring, but they did have some cool art work on the walls. Theses are replicas of billboards from over the years. The beer one is my favorite.
Like all other tours this one ended with a tasting in the fancy looking tasting room filled with more cool art work.
We tried four different bourbons — actually three bourbons (Classic, Maker’s 46, Cask Strength) — along with their Maker’s Mark White (bourbon before it is aged). We both agreed that the classic Maker’s Mark can’t be beat.
After the tasting we were led into the gift shop. It was packed full of people and merchandise. Many fans were lined up to dip their bottle in wax, but we decided to skip the madness and instead went outside to look around the grounds a little more. Even on a dreary day, the fall color against the dark brown buildings was pretty spectacular.
We both ended up with a different favorite tour. Tim liked Woodford Reserve the best, while I think Maker’s Mark came out on top. Woodford Reserve got high marks for the buildings, the authenticity of the experience, and our very professional tour guide, while Maker’s Mark had really beautiful grounds and better bourbon in my opinion. We also enjoyed Buffalo Trace (that Bourbon Cream was worth the visit alone), but the free tour left us wanting a bit more. In the end, we enjoyed touring the distilleries more than we thought we would and look forward to coming back and seeing the rest of them someday.
I really should be wrapping it up, but I have to mention two more things that we did in the Lexington area. First up was the food we ate. We consider it our duty to try the barbecue in all the different regions that we visit. And since Red State BBQ was only a quick 10 minute drive from the campground it only made sense that we pay them a visit.
The verdict? This is a small, roadside BBQ joint that serves up some really great food. We both stuffed ourselves with various BBQed items and left with full stomachs along with a pint of their delicious house made sauce.
We also had an incredible meal at The Village Idiot in downtown Lexington. We celebrated my birthday while in town and I made my usual request — a night off from cooking. We wanted a casual restaurant with good food that didn’t cater only to tourists. And I think we found it. Our meal was nearly perfect, and I won’t soon forget my bowl of creamy mac n’ cheese with pulled pork on top.
To burn off some of those tasty calories we did a lot of biking throughout the week. I already mentioned that the Horse Park is a great pace to ride, but there’s another nearby option. It’s called the Legacy Trail. This 12 mile walking and biking trail runs from the east end of downtown Lexington to the Horse Park. It was a great trail with lots of ups and downs that made for a good work out.
And Even More…
Finally, here are links to some more fun sounding activities in the area. Unfortunately we ran out of time to do it all, but as I always say, I guess we’ll have to come back!
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Town Branch, Country Boy, West Sixth, and all the other fantastic sounding breweries in Lexington
Keeneland Race Track
Mary Todd Lincoln House