Lexington, Kentucky and the Bourbon Trail

Horse Sculpture in Lexington, Kentucky
The Thoroughbred Park Sculpture Collection, Lexington, KY

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!

A La Lucie, Lexington, Kentucky
A La Lucie in downtown Lexington, Kentucky

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.

Third Street Stuff & Coffee, Lexington, KY
Third Street Stuff & Coffee, Lexington, KY
Third Street Stuff & Coffee patio
Third Street Stuff & Coffee groovy patio
Third Street Stuff & Coffee mosaic in Lexington, KY
Third Street Stuff & Coffee mosaic

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.

Makers Mark Distillery on the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky
Makers Mark Distillery on the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky

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.

Barrel room at Makers Mark Distillery
Barrel room at Makers Mark Distillery with tools of the trade displayed.

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.

Copper stills at Makers Mark Distillery
Gleaming copper stills at the Makers Mark Distillery

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 bookBourbon, 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.

Cincinnati, OH and Covington, KY too

Ohio River, Cincinnati, Ohio
View of the Ohio River from Cincinnati with the lights of Covington, Ky just over the bridge.

Experience, travel – these are as education in themselves” ~ Euripides, Greek playwright, c. 480-406 BC. In the ancient tradition of traveling across lands, I find myself stimulated and curious to learn about each area we are driving through or stopping to visit as we traverse the country.

Sitting with our friends on their balcony this first evening in downtown Cincinnati, watching the barges maneuver past each other on the river, we start talking about the Ohio River’s history. During the Civil War the Ohio River, which forms the southern border of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, was part of the border between free states and slave states. “Sold down the river” was a phrase used by Upper South slaves, especially from Kentucky, who were shipped by way of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to cotton and sugar plantations in the Deep South. On the flip side, before and during the Civil War, the Ohio River was called the “River Jordan” by slaves crossing it to escape to freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad. Some research reveals that more escaping slaves, estimated in the thousands, made the perilous journey north to freedom across the Ohio River than anywhere else across the north-south frontier. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, portrayed such escapes across the Ohio and fueled abolitionist work.

Pendleton Art Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
Pendleton Art Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati is home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located at 50 East Freedom Way. Their mission is to reveal stories about freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.

And while we are on the topic, for those of you who are bicyclists, The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route (UGRR) honors the bravery of those who fled bondage and those who provided shelter. The route passes points of interest and historic sites along a 2,008-mile corridor. Beginning in Mobile, Alabama – a busy port for slavery during the pre-civil war era – the route goes north following rivers through Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Waterways, as well as the North Star, were often used by freedom seekers as a guide in their journeys to escape slavery. Upon crossing into Ohio, the route leaves the river to head toward Lake Erie and enters Canada at the Peace Bridge near Buffalo, New York. In Ontario, the route follows the shores of Lake Ontario and ends at Owen Sound, a town founded by freedom seekers in 1857.

Now, back to Cincinnati. Our friend, Judith Serling-Sturm, is a book artist and hand binder who has her studio in the Pendleton Art Center. Judith creates custom books – designing covers with leather, textiles, and artisan-made papers from around the world. Visiting her studio we are fascinated by the exposed bindings and book covers embedded with natural elements, semi-precious stones, and found objects.

Judith Serling-Sturm Book Art
One of Judith Serling-Sturm's handmade books from her "Bill of Rights" art piece.

Built in 1909 for a shoe company, the Pendleton Art Center is now home to over 200 artists. As we walk up the stairs to the eighth story, the building’s history is revealed in the original pine floors, tall arched windows, ancient radiators and fine old doors. Visitors are welcome to studio walks on the Final Friday of each month from 6 to 10pm.

Findlay Market, Cincinnati, Ohio
Findlay Market, Cincinnati, Ohio
Butcher in Cincinnati's Findlay Market
Charles Bare Meats in Cincinnati's Findlay Market

Never missing an opportunity to eat, we head to Findlay Market for lunch. In operation since 1855, this is Ohio’s oldest continuously operating public market. First stop is Pho Lang Thang for a bowl of Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), and then a cruise around the market checking out the many year-round merchants. Meat, tea, cheese, gelato, wine, fish and seafood… at Colonel De’s we find Raz Al Hanout, a Moroccan blend of spices that Jay enjoys cooking with… and at Dean’s Mediterranean Imports we buy a delicious Fig jam with sesame seeds and anise seed. Dojo Gelato seriously tempts us as we leave the market but still full from lunch and with dinner reservations at Lavomatic Cafe we walk on by.

Colonel De Gourmet Herbs & Spices in Findlay Market
Colonel De Gourmet Herbs & Spices in Findlay Market

Next, knowing Jay’s love of music, Judith takes us over the Roebling Suspension Bridge to Covington, Kentucky to visit Cymbal House. Located at 524 Main Street in downtown Covington. As you can see in the photo this is a gorgeous, highly efficient space. We walk in as a well-seasoned local jazz musician is carefully listening to various cymbals.

The owner is very friendly and explains to me that the size of the cymbal affects its sound, larger cymbals usually being louder and having longer sustain. Heavier cymbals (measured by thickness) have a louder volume, more cut, and better drum stick articulation. Thin cymbals have a fuller sound, a lowered pitch, and faster response. The jazz musician tells us he will be performing just down the street from Cymbal House at Chez Nora – A Rooftop Terrace Bar and Jazz Club. They offer live music five nights a week and spectacular views of downtown Cincinnati and the scenic Ohio River.

Owner of Cymbal House, Covington, Kentucky
Proud owner of Cymbal House in Covington, Kentucky
Main Street, Covington, Kentucky
Main Street, Covington, Kentucky

For dinner we drive to Over-the-Rhine, sometimes shortened to OTR, a neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is believed to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in the United States. Over-the-Rhine was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and contains the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the United States. Its architectural significance has been compared to the French Quarter in New Orleans, the historic districts of Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, and Greenwich Village in New York City. Besides being a historic district, the neighborhood has an arts community that is unparalleled within Cincinnati.

Lavomatic Cafe, Cincinnati, Ohio
Welcome to Lavomatic Cafe, Cincinnati, Ohio

Our destination is Lavomatic Cafe, an urban wine bar and restaurant. Blessed with a beautiful evening we chose the rooftop patio for dining. Several of us start with the Seasonal Soup – Gazpacho – made with fresh, local tomatoes and seasoned with smoked paprika. Divine. For dinner, Judy & Peter both chose the Bruschetta Salad with Shrimp, Jay has the Grilled Caesar with Salmon (served with a house bleu cheese dressing), and I decide on the Duck Confit Salad. All delicious and totally enjoyed with a chilled bottle of white wine recommended by our server.

Lavomatic Cafe is a great place to go before or after a show, as it is moments away from Cincinnati Music Hall, The Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, The School for the Creative and Performing Arts and Know Theater of Cincinnati.

Our stay was much too brief, so we offer some local tips on dining recommendations from our friend in Cincinnati… thank you Judith!

Casual dining:
Riverside Korean Restaurant, Covington, Ky – fabulous Korean food, extremely reasonable
Lime Taqueria, Covington, Ky – huge organic buritos, inexpensive

Lunch/coffee – inexpensive:
Melt – eclectic deli, organic, vegetarian friendly – casual backyard seating – Cincinnati, Northside neighborhood
Coffee Emporium – great locally roasted coffee and best black bean burgers in Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine
Iris Book Cafe – local sources, vegan friendly, wonderful courtyard in historic Over-the-Rhine

Lunch and/or dinner – moderately priced:
Nectar – seasonal cuisine, casual backyard patio in Mt Lookout, Cincinnati (Best Restaurant 2011)
Honey – farm to table, Northside neighborhood, Cincinnati (Best Restaurant 2011)
Cumin – eclectic world cuisine, Hyde Park neighborhood, Cincinnati (Best Restaurant 2011)
Jean-Roberts Table – casual French, downtown Cincinnati (Best New Restaurant 2011)

Fine Dining:
Daveeds at 934 – farm to table, Mt Adams neighborhood, Cincinnati (Best Restaurant 2011)
Nicola’s Ristorante – Italian – Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine (Best Restaurant 2011)
Boka – Italian, Mt Oaklet, Cincinnati, but moving downtown (Best Restaurant 2011)

Visit Cincinnati Magazine on Best Restaurants 2011 to read their impressions of the award winners, and visit Livin’ in the “Cin” the official travel blog for Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.