Thursday, December 6, 2012

Kentucky ~ One Year Anniversary Trip

When I think of Kentucky, I immediately envision horses, rolling hills, bourbon, and bluegrass music.

After Ryan and I visited Kentucky for the first time this past weekend to celebrate our one year anniversary, I must say my imagination was spot on.

Kentucky really is a beautiful state, and even though we went in December after all the trees had lost their leaves, I can only imagine what it looks like during the spring, summer, and fall for prime horse-racing season.

I never really thought of Kentucky as a destination spot, but became interested when a sorority sister of mine posted about her and her husband's trip to Louisville, KY. I did a little research, and knowing how much Ryan loves bourbon, posed the idea of taking a little road trip for our anniversary. Ryan jumped right on board and I began planning the trip! Ryan defers all planning to me because he knows how much I love it and can be a tad OCD about these things. I may or may not have printed out an itinerary for the trip.

But really, planning things like this are so much fun for me and gives me something to look forward to! I read reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor before making reservations and booking hotels. And if it hadn't been for my hyper-organization, we probably would've gotten lost or missed a tour or two, so that was certainly a plus!

Our initial thought was to do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, where you get a passport and have it stamped at each visit to 6 distilleries in the state. Since we were just going for a weekend, it was overly ambitious of us to think we could stop at all 6 distilleries in 2 days, especially with shortened hours on Sunday for tours and the drive back home. After reading some advice from other reviewers, we decided to skip the Four Roses, Wild Turkey, and Heaven Hill distilleries and added a "must see" that wasn't on the list, Buffalo Trace Distillery. I'm so glad we did this because Buffalo Trace was probably one of our favorites!

We both took the afternoon off on Friday, gassed up Rhonda (my affectionate nickname for my Honda Accord. It rhymes...get it? #nerd), and hit the road. Ryan did the driving on the way up, while I talked incessantly until my half-hour nap just after we passed through Knoxville, TN. It only took us about 5 1/2 hours from Greenville, which was much better than the GPS's prediction of 6 1/2!

I have a Hilton Honors account since I travel pretty frequently so I'm always trying to rack up points when we're on vacation. I stumbled upon this DoubleTree in downtown Lexington. This place was a gold mine! It was a steal for what we got: a "suite" with a king-size bed and the biggest bathtub I've ever seen.

My roomie's response to this picture when I texted her: "Haha, you would"....What can I say? I love a good bath!
I was showering and getting ready for dinner when Ryan surprised me with a glass of champagne and this gorgeous LAGOS bracelet:

I thought the trip was our present to each other, so I stuck with the bourbon theme and bought him a leather flask. He sure outdid me with his gift! He's too good to me!

I made reservations for dinner for us at Jonathan at Gratz Park. The reviews were good but I was sold when I saw this review from Garden & Gun. Give me "southern cuisine" and you better believe I'm going to love it!

 After staring at the menu for what seemed like an hour, we finally ordered appetizers and Ryan chose a bourbon from the extensive list. We had fries with bourbon mayonnaise and Sea Scallop Hot Browns.
The drink list was printed on a wooden slat from a bourbon barrel
We had to ask our waitress what a "hot brown" was and wasn't surprised to find it's a Kentucky classic.
I found this explanation online: "A hot brown is a hot sandwich originally created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY. It's an open-faced sandwich with turkey and bacon, covered in cheese and baked or broiled until the cheese melts. Other variations include ham and tomatoes."
Our Sea Scallop appetizer was obviously a twist on the original and it was unbelievably good. Ryan and I both agreed we could've ordered 3 of these and made it our meal.
Onto the main course: Ryan and I shared the Bourbon Barrel Ale Braised Short Ribs and the Mushroom Dusted Beef Tenderloin. They were both extremely tasty, but I think the tenderloin was our favorite!
We couldn't make room for dessert but I would've loved to try the bourbon banana pudding. Yum!
I highly recommend this restaurant if you're ever in the area!
The waitress also suggested a few bars nearby at the Pavillion, but we were both so full and tired, we headed back to the hotel instead. Hopefully next time we'll be a little more lively and check out the downtown scene! Lexington is where the University of Kentucky is, so it's got a bit of "college town" vibe.
Successful start to our anniversary trip!
Saturday was full of activities! I had mentioned to Ryan (who loves basketball) the possibility of trying to go to a Kentucky basketball game while we were in town (UK basketball is HUGE in the state), and we lucked out that UK was playing Baylor (where Ryan's brother went to college) at 12:30 pm on Saturday. When we first checked, tickets were pretty expensive, so we checked again on StubHub on Saturday morning and the price had dropped dramatically! We purchased 2 tickets for $17 each and printed them in the hotel lobby! Score!
However, this made our bourbon touring for the day a little tricky. Our first stop was Buffalo Trace which had a tour bright and early at 10 am! We grabbed bagels at Panera nearby and made the trek out to the distillery (as a side note, most of these distilleries are in the middle of nowhere, so we were prepared for a drive anywhere we went!)
While all the trees had lost their leaves and everything looked a little dead, all the distilleries were decorated for Christmas, which I loved. It really got me in the Christmas spirit!
We went on a brief tour, learned about the process of making bourbon, and then had a tasting. This tour was pretty informal and more conversational since the group was smaller. Fun Fact: Buffalo Trace is one of only 4 distilleries that was allowed to remain open during Prohibition and produced bourbon for "medicinal purposes" (haha, yea right). Those other distilleries have since shut down, so Buffalo Trace is the longest operating distillery in the country!
After the tasting, we were back on the road to Lexington to make it to the basketball game in time.  UK plays in Rupp Arena, one of the most famous college basketball arenas in the country (next to Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, I'd say). This place was insane. It's attached to a mall, which is kind of strange. You walk into the food court, then take escalators 2 floors up to the arena. Strange, but it works. As Ryan and I were entering the arena (and getting dirty looks for Ryan's Baylor shirt), we kept saying, "Oh my gosh, this place is huge!" I felt like we were going to a concert or something! The arena holds 23,500 people! That's 2.5 times the amount of people of Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum.
We were so high up in the arena that we had TVs to see the action better

They shoot off fireworks INSIDE when they announce each player.

Both teams played pretty poorly in the beginning, but Baylor ended up winning and snapped UK's 55 home game win streak! We made sure to book it out of there before the game was over so Ryan wouldn't get mobbed by angry UK fans (I'm exaggerating a tad; everyone was very friendly to us).
The reason we had to leave early was so we could make it back to the car and drive out to the country again to make it to the last tour of the day at Woodford Reserve. We had heard this was the "fanciest" of the distilleries, and it was obvious once we pulled into the parking lot.

I kept telling Ryan I felt like we were at a winery in Napa instead of a distillery in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky!
This tour was the most informative, taking you step by step through the process. Fun fact: Even though no one mentioned this during the tour, Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby!


We even got to keep our shot glass after the tasting! Every distillery served these bourbon balls with the tasting which were delicious and served as a little chaser to your shot of bourbon!
As we were leaving the distillery, I captured this shot of quintessential Kentucky:
Then we were off to Bardstown, KY for the rest of our trip!
The other two distilleries (Jim Beam and Maker's Mark) are about an hour drive from Lexington, so we just decided to move hotels to make the driving easier for us on Sunday. But believe me when I say Bardstown is a small town, which strangely enough, was named the most beautiful small town in America by USA Today. Honestly, I wasn't too impressed, but maybe we didn't actually get a good look at "the town"?
The restaurant choices were pretty limited, but we settled on The Rickhouse Restaurant for dinner. The food was good, we got to try Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale on tap (delicious), and got a little taste of the local life sitting at the bar while watching the SEC championship. All in all, a good evening!
Our first stop Sunday was Jim Beam, the largest distributor of bourbon in the country. It started raining right when we got to the distillery but we weren't going to let that damper tour #3!

This tour was probably my least favorite, simply because the machines weren't running on Sunday so there wasn't much to see, and the tour guide seemed a little disorganized when discussing the processes. Since this was our third tour, the information started to get a little repetitive, but it's still interesting to see how each distillery makes the process "their own." We had quite a few question askers on our tour and were cutting it close to get to our last tour at Maker's Mark, so we rushed through the tasting (a fancy vending machine type tasting) and jumped back in the car.
Maker's Mark was by far the most remote location and for awhile, I wasn't sure we were ever going to make it there! We were driving on roads the width of a driveway and just praying we didn't meet an oncoming car.
It was certainly worth the drive though because the grounds were beautiful (and it's Ryan's favorite bourbon). Seriously, families could take their Christmas card photos here.

See what I mean? So pretty!
We learned a lot of interesting facts on this tour: the founder's wife is the one responsible for the shape of the bottle and the design of the label; every label is handcut and each bottle is hand-dipped in the famous red wax; the S IV on the bottle is for Bill Samuels, IV, the one who made the brand it is today; and the star represents the Star Hill farm, the family farm before they moved to the distillery.

The wreaths in the top windows spell "Maker's"

This was also the most informative tasting of our trip. Our guide explained each sip and how it was supposed to taste on the tongue, etc.

Another highlight of the trip: you can buy a bottle in the gift shop and dip it in the wax yourself! A must if you ever visit the distillery!

That concludes our bourbon tour of Kentucky!

One year in the books!

This trip was so fun! I'm thankful for the best travel buddy, Ryan, who lets me plan everything to a T and he just comes along for the ride! My type A personality and his type Z personality work perfectly together :)
If we ever make it back to Kentucky (which we will!), I think we'll go to Louisville, visit Churchill Downs, and do the Urban Bourbon Trail!
For visual reference, here are the 177 miles we covered while in Kentucky!
  • A: Our hotel in Lexington, KY
  • B: Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY
  • C: Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY
  • D: Woodford Reserve, Versailles, KY
  • E: Our hotel in Bardstown, KY
  • F: Jim Beam Distillery, Clermont, KY
  • G: Maker's Mark, Loretto, KY

Who doesn't love a good road trip?!

Disclaimer: After this trip, I'm still not a fan of bourbon. Give me a glass of wine anyday! Haha!

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