Our reason for going to Louisville, Kentucky was a wedding. We stayed for the BBQ, the bourbon and the caves!
During Memorial Day weekend, Mike was a groomsman for his best friend’s wedding. It took place at the historical Brown hotel, which was probably the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. You may have heard of this hotel if you watch Food Network. They love to talk about the famous Hot Brown sandwich which was invented at this hotel for the tired, drunk clientele. All that turkey, cream and bacon certainly sobered me up.
Here’s one tip when traveling; Don’t describe everything as ‘charming’. As soon as I said I was from New York and I thought Louisville was absolutely charming, people suddenly needed to go to the bathroom, or refresh their drinks and I never saw them again. In retrospect I can see how it sounded patronizing, but it did seem like the best word to describe the city at that time.
After the wedding, we drove an hour and a half south to a camp ground near Mammoth Cave. Mammoth cave is the largest cave in North America so of course I studied it in Earth Science … not. I can’t believe I never heard of this place before. It was absolutely stunning. We took two cave tours; The Historical Tour and The New Entrance Tour. Both cost $12 a person, but there are free tours as well. The caves are a constant 54 degrees so it was definitely worth it to escape the 95 degree weather above ground.
During the historic tour we learned about the history of the cave, and got a general sense of the size and scale of the cave (there are 367 miles of explored caves down there). On the new entrance tour, we climbed down a 200 foot shaft and walked through crazy water tunnels, and saw many different rock formations. My favorite section was the drapery room. The stalagmites and Stalactites were so dense they seemed to form translucent curtains all around you. Here’s a helpful hint for remember which rock formation forms from mineral deposits dripping from the ceiling, and which come from the floor (just in case you’re ever on Jeopardy) The c in stalactite is for ceiling and the g in stalagmite is for ground.
It was certainly unsettling to be under three hundred feet of limestone and earth. Especially when we were surrounded by layers of rock that had already fallen because of the weight. Our tour guides assured us that those rocks fell thousands of years ago, and that no one in recent history had died from falling rocks – it’s much more common to die from flash floods or getting lost. Needless to say I stayed close to the guide.
Afterwards we visited the Heaven Hill Bourbon distillery. We’ve been on lots of alcohol themed tastings and every place seems to have some claim to fame like, “we’re the oldest vineyard to use organic fertilizer,” “We’re the longest running brewery that uses chalices.” Heaven Hill claimed to be the largest, privately owned, family run distillery in the country.
Our tour guide took us inside one of the rickhouses and the smell of caramel, vanilla, smoke, and wood filled the building. I’m not a big fan of bourbon, but that smell made me want to take a bath in bourbon.
What is the difference between Whiskey and Whisky? Basically, in America the alcohol you make from sour mash (fermented grains) is called whisky without the e. If it’s made in Ireland it’s whiskey with an e. If it’s made is Scotland it’s called scotch. And if it’s made in Kentucky it’s called bourbon. If it follows all the guidelines set by the royal bourbon society (I made that name up) it’s called straight bourbon. All of these varieties can have different combinations of wheat, corn, rye and barely however bourbon is primarily corn and rye based. They say one of the reasons for bourbons distinct taste is that the ground water in Kentucky runs through limestone and that takes out all the iron in the water. Other states make bourbon but they have to say something like “Tennessee bourbon” on the label so you know what you’re getting. 95% of the bourbon sold around the world comes from Kentucky.
Inside the rickhouses there are 7 floors. There is no heating or air conditioning and they rely on the natural changes in weather to create the distinct flavor. Once the alcohol is distilled it is poured into charred, white oak barrels. At this point it’s 120 proof – also known as moonshine. During the summer the heat and humidity expands the liquid and makes it seep into the white oak. In the winter the liquid contracts and takes the flavour from the wood with it. This is what gives bourbon the caramel color and the smokey finish and aroma.
One of the reasons why alcohol gets more expensive the longer it’s aged is because more alcohol is lost to evaporation the longer it ages. They can lose up to 47% of the alcohol during the aging process. But the flavor does get richer and more evolved so it’s definitely worth the extra money.
After the tour we moved to a tasting room that was shaped like the inside of the barrel. We got to taste 10 year aged Evan Williams single barrel, Elijah Craig 12 year aged small batch, and Henry McKenna 10 year aged single barrel. Difference between single barrel and small batch? Small batch means they have mixed several of the peak barrels together at the same time and bottled them. Single barrel will cost you extra. They pick the barrel from the “honey spot” which is the warmest part of the rickhouse, and they bottle just that barrel. If you buy a bottle of single barrel it should have the date it was bottled and the number of the barrel on it.
Personally I think the age created a much better flavor than the single barrel factor. The Evan Williams had a sting to it. It wasn’t my favorite. Our tour guide recommended adding just a few drops of room temperature water to the bourbon. That really mellowed it out and left all the flavor but none of the sting. Elijah Craig was delicious and we could really taste all the subtleties of flavor. But my favorite was the Henry McKenna which was a wheated bourbon (it has more wheat than rye).
And of course we had bbq every day of our trip. I must say I had some misconceptions about bbq in Kentucky. I thought it would be everywhere but we had to drive about an hour every time we wanted to try a new place. Our favorite was Mama Lou’s BBQ in Horse Cave, KY. There was a smoker outside and the man behind the grill looked like he could be in ZZ Top. The table clothes were sticky vinyl, the chairs were plastic, and there were only four choices on the menu, but damn it was good!
Kentucky is definitely worth a trip. Even with the airfare, a rental car, lots of alcohol, and 3 nights at a luxury hotel we spent less that $1,200 for the two of us for 6 days. Not only did I feel recharged after this short trip, I came away with much more appreciation for a part of the country I often overlook.
- A master bourbon distiller shares four tips for tasting whisky (business.financialpost.com)
- Angel’s Envy (pointsandfigures.com)
- Happy Hour: Budget and blowout bourbons (life.nationalpost.com)
- Distilling The Secrets Of Kentucky Bourbon (cbsnews.com)