Monday, July 21, 2008

Let the Spirit Move You

With high fuel prices affecting summer travel plans, many people are considering vacation destinations closer to home.

May I suggest America’s whiskey country?

It is just 300 miles from Chicago to Louisville, though the drive is not as easy as it should be with the way Indiana currently has the northern part of I-65 screwed up.

I visit the area primarily because of the whiskey distilleries, but there is a lot more there to enjoy. Louisville has long styled itself the Gateway to the South. The area has much history and a unique regional culture.

Although whiskey has been one of Kentucky’s main products since the 18th century, local boosters have only recently recognized its tourism potential. The Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau has just launched the Urban Bourbon Trail to complement the Kentucky Bourbon Trail recently created by the Kentucky Distiller’s Association and Kentucky Department of Tourism. They’re both following the lead of the Distilled Spirits Council and its American Whiskey Trail.

Both Kentucky trails include a passport program. Get a stamp from every destination and win a free T-shirt.

Although there are two whiskey distilleries in Louisville, operated by Brown-Forman and Heaven Hill respectively, neither one gives public tours. Instead, the Urban Bourbon Trail points you to eight Louisville watering holes that feature Kentucky whiskey. Five of them are in hotels. I recommend the Old Seelbach Bar for its historic elegance and Proof on Main for its modern flair. Both have first class restaurants too.

Just a few doors north of the Seelbach is the Maker’s Mark Lounge, which features a wide range of whiskeys and other spirits, not just its eponymous bourbon. It is a very good restaurant too, but I generally choose appetizers at the bar. (The crab cake sampler is awesome.)

Of the eight Urban Bourbon Trail destinations, only Bourbon’s Bistro is outside of downtown, on Frankfort Ave. It is the Louisville joint most dedicated to bourbon whiskey, not just as a beverage but also as an ingredient in creative cooking. The bar and restaurant is in an 1877 building in a nice neighborhood, so have a little walk afterwards.

Other Louisville-area attractions include Falls of the Ohio State Park (largest naturally-exposed Devonian fossil beds in the world), the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum (cool baseball stuff), Churchill Downs (an excellent horseracing museum and, depending on when you go, actual live thoroughbred races), the Muhammad Ali Center (a museum about the iconic boxer and Louisville native), and the Speed Art Museum (an excellent collection housed on the University of Louisville Campus).

If you want to see bourbon distilleries, you can either head east to the Frankfort-Lawrenceburg area, or southeast to Bardstown. Seven producers welcome visitors and offer some kind of tour. To make sure you see the actual distillery part you should go to Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey or Maker’s Mark, or call Buffalo Trace in advance and request their hard hat tour.

Heaven Hill, in Bardstown, makes up for the lack of a distillery tour (because their distillery is in Louisville) by providing a museum-quality visitors center. They will take you into a barrel warehouse, as do most of the others, which if you’ve never done it before can be the most interesting part of a distillery tour.

Jim Beam is in the process of overhauling its visitor experience, a project whose completion is at least a year away. Barton is building a new visitors center too, but it won’t be ready until fall, 2009.

The rest of America’s whiskey-makers are 250 miles further south, in southern Tennessee. Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are just a few minutes apart and both worth visiting. Daniel’s gets 250,000 visitors a year so it’s quite a show, while Dickel is much smaller and provides a more personal experience.

Some of the best attractions in both states are the natural ones, the terrific lakes, rivers, parks, and wilderness areas. Visiting horse farms is popular around Lexington, Kentucky. As America’s original frontier, both states have many significant historical sites too.

Some tips:

Tourism infrastructure is a bit underdeveloped outside of the major urban centers in both states, especially if you want to avoid hotel and restaurant chains. Using Louisville as a base for day trips to distilleries and other attractions is a good strategy in Kentucky. In Tennessee, although the distilleries are another 75 miles south (and not close to any significant urban center), you’ll probably enjoy a visit to Nashville.

Although whiskey production is important to both states and so, increasingly, is whiskey-related tourism, many counties there remain officially hostile to its purchase and consumption; i.e., they’re dry. The largest cities are wet, but many rural areas are not. This is especially true in some of the best places to go for scenic beauty, so be sure to check first.

Recent state law changes make it possible for Kentucky distilleries to provide free samples, i.e., tastings. Producers in both states are now allowed to sell bottles of their product in their own gift shops.

There are many historic sites in Kentucky related to Abraham Lincoln, his parents, and his wife, Mary Todd. Official Lincoln Bicentennial events will be held at many Lincoln sites between now and February 12, 2010. (Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809.)

The annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival is in Bardstown, this year running from September 16-21, although most of the action is on the weekend. Depending on your point of view, this is either the best time to visit Whiskey Country or the worst. There are lots of special activities but also many, many people. This year, that will be compounded by the fact that the Ryder Cup is in Louisville during the same period.

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