Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail: A Pilgrimage To The Maker’s Mark Distillery

maker's mark bourbonI’m not much of a bourbon connoisseur. In fact, before a recent road trip to Kentucky where 95% of the world’s bourbon is made, I had no idea what distinguished bourbon from regular old whiskey. But when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so I decided to visit the Maker’s Mark Distillery, reputedly one of the best stops on Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.

The distillery is a 25-minute drive, along a windy country road that dips and turns along a pastoral landscape from Bardstown, a distinctive small town named the “most beautiful small town in America” by USA Today this year. Along the way we passed some pitch-black Maker’s Mark warehouses that resembled a disused prison complex and one of them reassured us that we were just three miles away from some sweet Kentucky bourbon.
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The distillery is set across a large complex that makes for a nice walk on a sunny day. There are a host of buildings, each painted dark brown and adorned with shutters the same shade of red as Maker’s Marks distinctive red wax bottle seals, which are hand dipped on the premises. (You can buy and dip your own bottle in the gift shop.)


maker's mark distilleryThe tour used to be free, but it now costs $7, which is still a bargain considering the fact they offer guests a chance to sample three bourbons and learn about a product that’s a deeply entrenched part of Kentucky’s culture.

The Samuels family, which founded Maker’s Mark, and scores of other Scotch-Irish distillers, fled to Kentucky from Pennsylvania after George Washington imposed a whiskey tax in 1791, sparking the Whiskey Rebellion. The whiskey tax went uncollected in Kentucky, then a frontier state, as no one had the will to enforce the law or prosecute those who ignored it.

Our tour guide, Jacqueline, told us that a nearby lake served as the base for the product.




“Why are there so many successful bourbon distilleries in the state of Kentucky?” she asked. “Here in a six county radius, we happen to sit on top of a very rich limestone shelf, that limestone filters our water making it iron free and calcium rich. Perfect for distilling whiskey with.”

maker's mark distillery fermentation roomAnd what makes bourbon different from regular whiskey?
To call it a bourbon whiskey it must have at least 51% corn, in the recipe – Maker’s Mark uses 70%. It must also consist of only grain, yeast and water, with no artificial flavors or colors; it has to be aged for at least two years in new, charred, oak barrels; and it has to be distilled at no more than 160 proof, barreled at no more than 125 proof and bottled at at least 80 proof.

Many of the technical details went over our heads, but we enjoyed having the opportunity to dip our hands in the vats in the fermentation room and were stoked to have a chance to sample three of their products: the 90 proof Maker’s White, which is only available at the distillery (thank God), regular Marker’s Mark and Maker’s 46, which Jacqueline described as “bourbon on steroids.”


We were instructed to taste the Maker’s White first and for good reason – the stuff is nasty.

“I like to look at all your faces as you’re tasting the Maker’s White,” Jacqueline said. “I can tell if you’ve had moonshine before, you know the Maker’s White isn’t that bad.”


maker's mark liberal conservativeBut the Maker’s Mark and the Maker’s 46 were complex, with long, sweet, smooth finishes that lingered on the front of the tongue for a long time. I felt like I was still tasting them well after my insides were already warmed and my mouth felt a little numb, as though I’d just gotten some Novocain at the dentist. But on the way out, rather than getting a toothbrush and some floss, we were given a nice piece of chocolate – a sweet ending to our introduction to the world of Kentucky bourbon.



[Photos by Dave Seminara]

Two Reasons to Visit Louisville: The Kentucky Derby Museum And The Muhammad Ali Center

kentucky derby museum churchill downs barbaro statueYou don’t have to be a sports fan or a museum buff to appreciate the fact that Louisville has two of America’s best sports-related museums: the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center. I’m not much of a sightseer, and my wife would sooner clean the toilets than watch a boxing match or a horse race. But we could have easily spent all day in these outstanding museums.

The Kentucky Derby has been held every year since 1875 and the famous twin spires at Churchill Downs are a national landmark. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the grandson of William Clark, of Lewis-Clark expedition fame, founded Churchill Downs after spending two years in Europe where he developed an interest in horse racing. This year more than 160,000 people turned up for the race; only 54,000 of them had seats, while the rest pile into the infield in the center of the track.
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“Ninety-nine percent of the people in the infield see no horse racing at all,” said Tiara, our guide for a walking tour around Churchill Downs. “But 99% of them don’t care. They’re here for the party.”


The derby is held on the first Saturday in May, but if you don’t want to take part in the Derby day madness, definitely hit the museum, and, if you can, take in a race. Churchill Downs plays host to more than 800 horse races per year, so there are ample opportunities to see top-flight thoroughbred racing.


The tour starts with a walk past the headstones of four derby winners that are buried on the grounds. We learned that horses are cremated and normally only the head, heart and hooves are buried, but in the case of truly legendary horses – like Secretariat, who won the Derby in 1973 and still is the only horse to complete the race in less than two minutes – they are buried whole.

kentucky derby museumTwo horses live at Churchill Downs year round – Perfect Drift, who placed third in the 2002 Derby, and Winston, a 19-year-old miniature horse that could be mistaken for a pony – and we had a chance to visit with both before pushing off to see the rest of the grounds.

We strolled past a statue of Pat Day, a jockey who won 2,500 races at Churchill Downs and more than $23 million in prize money during his career, and Tiara asked if we thought the diminutive little statue reflected his actual height.

“He’s actually two inches shorter in real life,” she said. “He’s 4 foot 11, and the statue’s just over 5 feet.”

We passed the betting windows – Tiara said they open some 3,000 of them on Derby day – and made our way toward the track, which was empty and full of puddles on the day we visited.

“The seats in here sell out a year or two in advance,” Tiara said. “And if you want to sit in the best seats, you’d better be a celebrity or have plenty of money.”

We learned about a few of the Derby’s cherished rituals – drinking mint juleps, eating burgoo and singing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

kentucky derby museumThe museum itself was just as interesting as the tour. My sons were hooked on an interactive jockey video game where you climb onto a horse and try to ride it to victory, while my wife was fixated on exhibits featuring fancy ladies hats worn on Derby day and another exhibiting jockey silks – the colorful jackets jockeys wear on race days that have evolved since the days when chariot drivers in ancient Rome wore variations of the same thing (there are now 25,000 registered designs).

I was hooked on the video booths, where you can sit and watch replays with commentary of every race dating back to the 1920s. You can sort through the choices by choosing close races, wins by long shots, runaways, and Triple Crown winners. We capped off our visit by checking out “The Greatest Race” a short but intense film about the Derby that is shown in a remarkable 360-degree cinema.

Muhammad Ali – World Class Fighter & Traveler

muhammad ali centerMuhammad Ali is probably the greatest sports personality of the 20th Century and Louisville’s Ali Center, opened in 2005 at a cost of $80 million, does the great man and his fascinating life justice. It’s a huge place that’s informative, interactive and entertaining. I thought I knew everything there was to know about Ali, but I came away with a deeper appreciation for what an interesting and influential personality Ali was.

He was born and raised in Louisville while the city was still segregated. Ali, then Cassius Clay, took up boxing at age 12 after his bike was stolen and a police officer suggested he join a recreational boxing league after he insisted he was going to “whup” the thief once he caught him. He rose through the local ranks, became an Olympic and heavyweight champion, converted to Islam, became a member of the Nation of Islam and then was stripped of his title for refusing to serve in Vietnam during the war.

muhammad ali centerAfter the Supreme Court ruled that his claim as a conscientious objector was legitimate, he was reinstated in 1971, and quickly regained his title. One could write a 1,000-page book on his personal life and not cover it all. Ali married four times (once to a 17-year-old) and had nine children, two from extramarital affairs. He was considered a dangerous rabble-rouser by many in the white establishment and was even under FBI surveillance for a time.

The museum chronicles all of this and more. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome in 1984, but he’s remained remarkably active. I was struck by what a traveler Ali was and is. He fought in Zaire, The Philippines, England, Canada, Italy, Germany and beyond. He visited Ghana in 1964 and was greeted like a conquering hero. He made the hajj to Mecca in ’72 and visited Iraq in 1990 to seek freedom for hostages held by Saddam Hussein.

muhammad ali centerIn 2002, he visited Afghanistan as a U.N. Messenger for Peace, and in 2009, he was again greeted like a rock star in Ireland, where he went to visit the ancestral home of his great-grandfather in County Clare. He’s done charity work in Indonesia, Morocco, and the Ivory Coast, among other places. And this summer, he took part in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London. These days he spends most of his time in Scottsdale, Arizona, but he celebrated his 70th birthday in January at the museum and he still owns a home in Kentucky.

Aside from all the interactive exhibits, the museum also features a boxing ring, and some punching bags for those who want to get their aggression out. But I was hooked on the cinema area, where you can sit down and watch a number of old Ali fights. If you’re too young to have seen him fight or if you aren’t but want to relive the good old days, you’ll love this museum.


Other Ali landmarks in Louisville:

The Clay Home
3302 W. Grand Avenue

Central High School
1130 W. Chestnut St.

Columbia Gym- site where Clay’s bike was stolen and his early workouts
851 S. 4th Street

Presbyterian Community Center- site of the rec program where Clay learned to box
760 S. Hancock Street

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Exploring Downtown Asheville, North Carolina

asheville north carolina

Asheville, North Carolina, is a town of many titles. Self Magazine considers it the Happiest City for Women, while to Rolling Stone, it’s America’s New Freak Capitol. Outside Magazine calls it one of America’s Best Outside Towns, while AmericanStyle names it among the country’s Top Arts Destinations.

Indeed, Asheville offers a little something for everyone. Many visitors are drawn by the city’s proximity to the historic Biltmore Estate, scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and famed Great Smoky Mountains. But Asheville’s charming downtown district is a treasure all of its own, with its array of Art Deco buildings, art galleries, socially conscious boutiques and gourmet restaurants. The “Buy Local” movement is strong in Asheville, with many store windows sporting signs that read “Love Asheville, Choose Independent” and “Local Is The New Black.” You won’t find any McDonald’s or fast fashion chain stores, but you will find an eclectic mix of places to eat, shop and see. Here are some highlights from a recent trip.

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Asheville’s array of artisan and ethnic food shops make it a perfect town for sampling. Start at the Laughing Seed Café, where you’ll find fresh, organic, farm-to-table vegetarian food. If the famed house veggie burger leaves you hungry, try a kathi roll at Chai Pani, a funky Indian street food joint. Then, unwind with a cup of Hotcha green tea and a book on Eastern philosophy in the pillowed recesses of Dobra Tea; their smoothies are also incredible. Cap off your eating adventure with sweet tea truffles at The Chocolate Fetish.

If you decide to go beyond downtown Asheville, don’t miss the inventive Mexican fare at White Duck Taco Shop, like the Banh Mi Tofu taco or the delectable Chips and Queso. Down at the Biltmore Village, you’ll find the Corner Kitchen, which offers gourmet but unpretentious cuisine that is sourced from area farmers and producers. The Obamas are said to be fans.

Shop

If you’re in the market for handblown glass terrariums, hemp tunics and natural oatmeal soaps, you’ve come to the right place. The historic Grove Arcade and Woolworth Walk are Asheville’s shopping epicenters, playing host to a variety of local artists, crafters and small business owners. The Mountain Made gallery at Grove Arcade is a highlight, with artisan products from across western North Carolina. Book lovers will get lost at the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, a cozy spot that combines two of life’s greatest pleasures: books and bubbly.

For clothes shopping, head to Spiritex, an eco-fashion boutique that sells organic cotton clothing produced within a 120-mile radius. Both Frock and Minx offer expertly curated selections of women’s apparel, much of which is also made in America.

See

At the turn of the century, Asheville was a popular mountain resort for luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Today, the city is home to an impressive array of Art Deco architecture, second only to Miami in the Southeast. The most famous example is George W. Vanderbilt’s famed Biltmore Estate, located just out of town. But downtown Asheville has a fair share of highlights too. The best way to tour the city’s architectural wonders is the free self-guided Urban Trail Walking Tour, which consists of 30 educational stops around the city. After winding up the two-hour tour, it will be clear why Asheville is regularly named one of the Most Beautiful Places in America.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

The Summer Redneck Games: A Hootin’ Good Time!

Starting today, Gadling is taking a look at our favorite festivals around the world. From music festivals to cultural showcases to the just plain bizarre, we hope to inspire you to do some festival exploring of your own. Come back each week for our picks or find them all HERE.

Each July, nearly 100,000 visitors descend on East Dublin, Georgia to participate in a one-of-a-kind event known as the Summer Redneck Games. This unique festival is a celebration of “all things Redneck” including special feats of athleticism, a variety of culinary treats and plenty of fun.

The story of the Redneck Games begins in 1996 before the Atlanta Olympics. After outsiders began making fun of “Rednecks” who were hosting the games, a group of volunteers decided to do something about it. Enterprising locals took critics’ remarks as a challenge, organizing their very own “Redneck Games” and agreed to donate the proceeds from the event to charity. In its inaugural year, more than 5,000 visitors showed up. The organizers knew they were on to something. Over the last decade, the Redneck Games have continued to grow, with participation reaching 95,000 rednecks during the annual one-day July extravaganza.

Much like the Olympic games, the Redneck Games hosts a number of challenging athletic events, but with a uniquely Redneck twist. Favorite contests include the Hubcap Hurl, the Bobbin’ for Pigs Feet Fest, Mud Wrestling, and a special contest called Redneck Horseshoes, which uses toilet seats in place of the standard iron game pieces. There’s also plenty of authentic Redneck foods for hungry spectators, including Corn Dogs, Alligator Kebabs and Elephant Ears. You’re also sure hear authentic Redneck slang like “y’all,” “fixin’ to,” “do what?,” and the all-time favorite (as coined by Redneck favorite, Larry the Cable Guy), “Git R’ Done!”

Though the Redneck Games would seem to be a decidedly local affair, it has slowly attracted fans from across the U.S. and around the world. As the event has become more popular, a steady stream of participants from “above the Mason-Dixon line” has joined in the fun, with events taking place as far away as Canada and a range of international media coverage.

There’s many misconceptions about the Games – critics decry the Redneck Games as nothing more than horseplay and drinking beer. But much like the comments the led to the event’s creation, event organizers and supporters have taken the remarks in stride. To its fans, the Redneck Games remain nothing but a silly, great time. Despite the increase in attendance and popularity, it remains much the same pure fun that it has always been.

Want to join in the craziness? Head down to Georgia this July 10th to check it out. Everyone is welcome – even Yankees…

The “Sweet Tea” Mason-Dixon Line

If you’ve spent any time in the southern US, you know about “sweet tea.” Pre-sweetened — sometimes mouth-puckeringly so — sweet tea is a staple throughout the south. But what do we mean when we say “the south”?

Historically, the line of separation between the north and the south has been the Mason-Dixon line. This line, set by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon on October 9, 1767, settled a border dispute and defined Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. During the civil war, the line stood as a separation between free and slave states.

Today, Virginia seems to have an internal conflict — a split personality, if you will — in which the northern area of the state does not generally offer sweet tea; in the southern part of the state, sweet tea is far more common. Perhaps the line of of change in sweet tea availability — a Sweet Tea Mason-Dixon line — may be the most realistic line of demarcation separating the North from the South today.
Sweet Tea line
[Via Neatorama]