For John Mark’s 40th birthday we said for years that the Kentucky Bourbon Trail would be our destination. His favorite cocktail has always been Marker’s Mark on the rocks; usually a large, single rock, or neat. The first birthday cake I ever got him eight years ago was a Maker’s Mark cake made by the original Sweet Malisa in Opelika, Alabama. He’s an ambassador with the brand and has always had an appreciation for the beverage. I was determined to make this bourbon themed birthday his most memorable birthday to date.
We started our journey in the heart of the bourbon trail, Bardstown, Kentucky. Located about an hour south of Louisville, this town has been named the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America”. I would beg to differ, but I am a little biased because Auburn/Opelika truly is one of the prettiest places I have ever seen. We arrived around lunch and headed directly to Bottle and Bond Kitchen located within the Bardstown Bourbon Company distillery. The distillery’s exterior is very modern and unlike any other we saw during our trip. The interior is an unstoppable Instagram worthy photo-opt-spot at every turn. The design is immaculate and tasteful; elegant and elevated, yet casual and comfortable. Our server was warm, kind and knew the menu very well. All of her recommendations were spot on. We could have closed this place down, and we would have been more than content. All of the food we tried was excellent. The four-cheese macaroni and cheese, with an herbaceous, crispy crust, was out of this world good. Definitely in the top five best mac n’ cheese variations we have ever tried. The specialty cocktails also were equally delicious and dynamic. The “Margarita Caliente” was a punch to the palate; spicy was not even the word, it was hot, but I liked it.
We had a reservation to tour Willett in the early afternoon, so we ran by our AirBnB located a few blocks from historic downtown Bardstown. Dubbed the Maxwell Inn this is probably one of the nicest AirBnB’s we have ever stayed in, and the only one to have a kitchen stocked with waters, beers, coffee, and an array of breakfast foods for our enjoyment. We had the entire home to ourselves and entered via a lockbox. The home was sparkling clean and had the most perfect front porch. We highly recommend staying here if you visit the area. It was close to everything and is within walking distance of the festival if you were to attend that event.
Of course, our trip coincided with the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, so the downtown was bustling and vibrant with cars and people. We did not attend the festival but did get to see a glimpse of what it was all about. I think it would be fun to return to the area again to attend this event, and also see some of the places we did not have time to visit during this particular trip.
After dropping off our luggage and checking into the house, we set out for our next stop on our agenda, Willett Distillery. It was an extremely hot Kentucky day. There was not a single cloud in sight. They have experienced dry, hot conditions similar to those we have had in Alabama this summer. You arrive through a gated entrance and up a long gravel drive and are welcomed by white, large rows of rick houses and wind around until you are led to a gravel parking lot at the end of the drive. The concrete sidewalks lead you into the welcome center, which is also a gift shop, the tour starting place, a coffee bistro, and the newly opened restaurant area upstairs. We were greeted at the door by several friendly faces and were directed where to sign-in for the tour of the facility we had arranged before our arrival. The gift shop was full of apparel, varieties of Willett bourbon for purchase, and many other whiskey themed items. John Mark collected a bottle of bourbon at each stop, always a variety of bourbon he could not purchase back in Alabama. Something else he can enjoy for many more years to come, or at least enough years until we can return to Kentucky.
Herb was our tour guide. A retired gentleman who had a good deal of enthusiasm for bourbon and Willett. He led our group of about fifteen people out of the welcome center over to the distillery. This was the first experience for both of us getting to smell the wondrous aromas that are produced by corn whiskey distilleries. The sweet, sour corn mash aromas permeate the air. Not being a big fan of bourbon, I thought I would be put off by this aroma, but the rich, sweet, fruity aromas of it led me to appreciate the flavors within Kentucky bourbons. It was close to 100 degrees outside this day, so I estimate it was at least 120 degrees within this distillery. The air was thick, steamy, and would take your breath away. I excused myself from the tour and John Mark continued with the group to see the rick houses and other highlights of the facility. I joined back up with the group when they returned to the welcome area tasting room that adjoins the gift shop. Herb was a generous host and gave John Mark birthday tasting pours. John Mark also benefited greatly from all of my tastings that I only tried a little of. I made myself try every single one though, and it did broaden my appreciation for the spirit, and also helped me gain a great deal of knowledge about which bourbons I prefer. Like most other things, it always seems to be, unknowingly to me, the more expensive it is, the more I like it. Funny how that works.
After we had spent several hours at Willett, we returned to our AirBnB to get all dressed up for what I was hoping would be a very special birthday dinner at The Rickhouse in Bardstown. I did my research, as I do with everywhere we visit or eat, read the reviews, and this place did not live up to the hype. We were greatly disappointed with the service and food. To sum it up in one sentence, the brussel sprouts were frozen, the green beans were from a can, the wine list was non-existent, and our server pulled her ringing cell phone out of her bra at the table adjoining ours.
We asked for our checks, and retired to the house and shared a nice bottle of wine John Mark brought from our home collection on the front porch. It was a quiet Wednesday night and we enjoyed the tranquility of the stillness and being able to just enjoy rocking together on the porch sipping.
The next morning we packed up our things and started our way over towards the Lexington side of the trail. John Mark did not know this at the time, but there was a slew of surprises in store for him that day. We started the day at Woodford Reserve. The drive into the distillery is breathtaking and beautiful. The rolling hills and uniform, fenced-in horse pastures as far as the eye can see. Exactly what I envision when I think of Kentucky. The visitor center for Woodford is across the street from the distillery and tasting room where you end up at the end of the tour. Woodford by far was the nicest facility, most organized tour, and overall best experience we had during all of the tours we went on during our time on the bourbon trail. It was pretty crowded, but we were there during what is probably the busiest season of the year due to the bourbon festival. Even with the crowd, the tour was very organized and we had a great guide. He was cheerful and an avid bourbon enthusiast. Woodford is the oldest known distillery site in Kentucky, dating back to 1812 and Elijah Pepper. It was early enough in the morning that the heat was not unbearable during this tour. I made my way through the entire facility with John Mark, getting to see the three impressive, large, bronze stills used in their distillation process, which greatly affords that smooth, easy-drinking flavor that Woodford is known for.
We did not have a lunch reservation for another half hour, and we could not arrive early due to impending surprises, so we stayed at the little bistro/bar area off the back of the tasting room at Woodford. I had a Kentucky Mule, which is a Moscow Mule, but made with bourbon, this one made with Woodford, of course. John Mark had a Woodford Old Fashioned, and we settled into a shady spot on the porch and sipped our cocktails while taking in the beauty of the moment and enjoying a relaxing moment in time together. I was trying to hide my anxiousness, so I was thankful to have the Kentucky Mule to sip on.
We walked back across the country road to our vehicle and made the five-minute drive down the hill to The Stave. John Mark had no idea that his mom who lives in Pinedale, Wyoming was about to show up, and that the next few days would be full of big surprises….