Bluegrass, rolling hills, grazing horses… Kentucky is beautiful. At the entrance to downtown Lexington Gwen Reardon’s collection of sculptures in Thoroughbred Park greets us. The park is a tribute to the thoroughbred race horse, and features thirteen sculptures. Seven life-size bronze race horses and jockeys race toward an imaginary finish line, while in the adjacent park bronze broodmares and their foals graze.
Lexington, which is named for the initial battle of the Revolutionary War at Lexington, Massachusetts, was founded in 1775. Lexington is a small city and easy to get around. We stayed in the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton which is conveniently located on Richmond Road and just minutes from the University of Kentucky and Kentucky Horse Park. Their renovated over-sized rooms feature king or two queen beds and each guestroom is furnished with Flat Screen HD TV. The young woman who checked us in was very friendly and helpful.
After a long day of driving from Maryland, we were hungry and tired. The young woman at the Hilton recommended a restaurant nearby – The Chop House. Jay still raves about the Chop House Pork Chop (bone-in, thick cut) and my filet mignon was tender and perfectly cooked. We both ordered the chopped salad which really hit the spot… crisp romaine lettuce, bacon, blue cheese crumbles, avocado – we chose the Santa Fe dressing – a ranch-like spicy dressing. And good news – The Chop House has a gluten-free menu!
Historically and today, downtown is the center of cultural life in Lexington. The restored 1887 Lexington Opera House features touring professional theater groups, Lexington Philharmonic concerts and other arts performances. Downtown is home to many of Lexington’s most popular and creative restaurants including A La Lucie on North Limestone. We walked by before they were open, but the reviews online are very positive. Asking the owner about a good coffee spot she suggested Third Street Stuff & Coffee. Not only did we enjoy a great cup of coffee (voted best cup of coffee in Lexington multiple times) the whole vibe is creativity… from the 3rd Street Stuff store inside to the fun embellishments on the outside patio, and mosaic on a back wall.
Lexington is home to the University of Kentucky, as well as to Transylvania University, the oldest college established west of the Allegheny Mountains. For art lovers, the University of Kentucky Art Museum comes highly recommended and is home to many American works of art by acclaimed artists such as Alexander Calder, Sam Gilliam, Louise Berliawsky Nevelson and Gilbert Charles Stuart.
A number of Lexingtonians have roots that go back generations. Kentucky writers, most notably Wendell Berry, draw deeply on this sense of place. The stunning Red River Gorge is located in eastern Kentucky (about 60 miles from Lexington) and home to 26,000 acres of untamed river, rock formations, historical sites, unusual vegetation and wildlife. Berry writes about the Gorge, revealing its corners and crevices, ridges and rapids. His words not only implore us to know more but to venture there ourselves. Infused with his very personal perspective and enhanced by the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, The Unforeseen Wilderness draws the reader in to celebrate an extraordinary natural beauty and to better understand what threatens it.
The nickname for Kentucky is The Bluegrass State. Bluegrass is actually green – but in the spring bluegrass produces bluish-purple buds that give a rich blue cast to the grass when seen in large fields. The gentle rolling hills, and the highly fertile soil are good for growing pasture which makes for good horses.
To learn about the horses and have a chance to get up close, visit the Kentucky Horse Park. On a nice summer day the Horse Park is a beautiful green space to walk around and explore. You will see scores of horses in the fields and barns. Kids can take a pony ride, adults can ride a horse, or the whole family can take a spin on a carriage ride. It’s a working farm with fifty different breeds living on the park’s 1,200 acres.
Limestone makes for good horses and good whiskey. Millions of years in the making Kentucky spring water, purified as it flows over limestone rock formations, is perfect for Bourbon distilling because it is free of minerals that affect taste. As we leave Lexington to drive west towards Missouri we decide to detour onto the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and pay a visit to the Makers Mark Distillery outside of Loretto.
The history of bourbon begins in the 1700s with the first settlers of Kentucky. The Governor of Virginia at that time was Thomas Jefferson, and he offered pioneers sixty acres of land in Kentucky (then called Bourbon county) if they would build a permanent structure and raise “native corn”. No family could eat that much corn, and they found that getting crops to market over narrow trails and steep mountains was a daunting task, so it was turned into whiskey. Kentucky Bourbon is different from other types of whiskeys because of ingredients, aging, the pure limestone-rich water of Kentucky, and the Kentucky crafted American white oak barrels.
Production of Maker’s Mark started in 1954, after its originator, T. William “Bill” Samuels Sr., purchased the distillery known as “Burks’ Distillery” in Loretto, Kentucky for $35,000. The first bottle of Maker’s Mark was bottled in 1958 and featured the brand’s distinctive dipped red wax seal. The distillery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 31, 1974, and designated a National Historic Landmark on December 16, 1980, listed as “Burks’ Distillery”. It was the first distillery in America to be recognized, where the landmark buildings were in active use for distilling.
The tour of the distillery begins near the stonewalled creek that runs through the peaceful, landscaped grounds, where you’ll hear a brief history of the distillery. Its black buildings feature bright red shutters with a Maker’s Mark bottle cutout. Unlike larger distilleries’ 600-barrel-per-day production, Maker’s Mark crafts its bourbon in 19 barrel batches. This is a free tour and no reservations are needed. Tastings are given in the gift shop area at the end.
Located on the grounds of the Makers Mark Distillery is The Toll Gate Cafe, housed in a toll house built in the late 1800s. Completely remodeled, it has a pleasant atmosphere – historical photos on gray-toned walls trimmed with the traditional Maker’s Mark red. The menu has some bourbon-inspired recipes and we decide to share some bourbon BBQ which is delicious. The perfect ending to our visit and fortifying as we continue to Missouri.
Bourbon’s All-American Roar an article by Mickey Meece in the NY Times talks about the current trend in bourbon and rye and has the winning recipe for a great Manhattan.
Charles Cowdery’s book – Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey follows the trail of America whiskey-making from its 17th century origins up to the present day. In his book, readers discover the history of the American whiskey industry, how American whiskey is made and marketed, and the differences among various types of American whiskey. The many fascinating characters who have made American whiskey what it is today are introduced, and a complete tasting guide with 35 detailed product reviews is included.