Down a long, winding, country road beyond Woodford Reserve, there is a little shack on the left-hand side of the road. It is hard to miss with the “Kick-Ass Kentucky” mural on the exterior wall, and it’s one of the few sites along this wooded road that follows Glenn’s Creek down to Castle and Key Distillery. Housed inside this cabin-looking structure is The Stave restaurant. A delightful staff greeted us and seated us quickly since we had prior reservations. The place is small so I am glad that we had the reservation, although I think we could have made do without it. The owner Christopher, who had Birmingham, Alabama connections, was a gracious host and did an excellent job of telling us about his place, the extensive drink menu, and the carefully crafted, completely locally-sourced food offerings. He was a wonderful diversion for John Mark, as his mom, who traveled the furthest to be here, from Pinedale, Wyoming, to surprise him, entered the room inconspicuously, and made for the best surprise I think I could have given him on his 40th birthday.
After the excitement died down and some of the shock for John Mark wore off enough for us to order, we all saluted with cocktails to a wonderfully executed birthday surprise. I had the “Paloma” which is a grapefruit-style cocktail, John Mark’s mom, Annette, had a local beer recommend by Christopher, and John Mark had a pour of the Kentucky Owl on the rocks.
To eat, we started with a Kentucky classic, “hot brown fries”, which are hand-cut fries topped with a Mornay sauce, diced smoked turkey, crispy bacon and diced tomatoes. Reminiscent to me of a poutine-style dish minus the cheese curds plus some meat. It was yummy, and we gobbled it up quickly. We also shared an order of their deviled eggs. They had a more vibrant green hue to the egg mixture, which I believe came from their house-made bread and butter pickle brine. They were a little sweeter than I make mine, but the bourbon smoked paprika dusting added some needed spice and smokiness. We also tried their pickle-brined hot chicken sandwich. Their fried chicken was something of “Kentucky fried” chicken dreams. KFC has nothing on The Stave’s “Hot Chicken.” John Mark ordered the “Pig and Pickles” as well. It was a Kentucky-style Cuban sandwich with smoked local pork, country ham, house pickles, pimento cheese, and shaved red onion on a French roll.
At this point in the trip, John Mark still had no idea that an additional fourteen people were showing up to celebrate his 40th birthday later that day. As we were enjoying our day, the rest of the group were making their way to the AirBnB in Campbellsville, Kentucky. I was tasked with trying to kill time for the afternoon until the remaining guests had time to gather at the homestead, set up all the birthday decorations, and prepare for our arrival and what would be an epic surprise. We separated from his mom and her husband, Steve, and continued down the winding road in the opposite direction of Woodford Reserve, towards what we hoped was the direction of Buffalo Trace. We had zero cell phone service at The Stave. They have WiFi at the restaurant but as we were leaving there was no way to access directions on our GPS, which we were reliant on. It’s exciting getting lost sometimes, and sometimes you can happen upon beautiful surprises, which we did just up the road at Castle and Key Distillery.
We had no reservation and had learned during conversations that this distillery was not yet to the point of offering bourbon tastings. Their first batch of bourbon is still in the aging process. Located in what used to be Old Taylor Distillery, a castle-like building that looks like a building out of the Old World or Great Gatsby. As you meander down the concrete sidewalk you are surrounded by beautiful gardens and feel like you have been transported into a garden in Europe, and with good reason. The original structure was built in 1887 by E.H. Taylor Jr. and was modeled after European architecture, complete with a castle, sunken gardens, a springhouse, that is still in use today and is the source of the water used in making the bourbon on this property. This was the birthplace of bourbon tourism, but Prohibition in 1920 forced its closure, and the property eventually fell into ruin until 2012 when it’s current owners took over the property and began the revival of a wonderful piece of Kentucky Bourbon history.
We spent a little while here walking around the property’s gardens down by the springhouse and Glenn’s Creek that runs alongside the property. The springhouse was built in the shape of a keyhole by Colonel E. H. Taylor. He believed the mineral-rich, iron-free water was the key to good bourbon and his success. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the success of this property, but I believe he would be very happy to see what the current owners, Will Arvin and Wes Murry, have done to revive the property and maintain the historical heritage of the property. We hope to return in the future, maybe for John Mark’s 50th, and, by then, we should be able to taste their bourbon. They have not set a release date for their bourbon, and until their master distiller believes it’s ready to bottle, it will continue to age.
We left here and made our way over to Buffalo Trace Distillery, still with absolutely no cellular service, to possibly tour the property, and to check their shop for any bourbons we cannot get back at home. We found a very crowded welcome center. There were several buses of tours gathered at the gift shop. We did not find any bourbon to purchase, but I found John Mark some beard balm that smells dreamy. We took a few pictures and got out of there. I was hoping to kill more time to allow for more people to gather at the house, but John Mark was ready to go settle into the house and visit with his mom. So I started driving towards Lebanon, Kentucky just a little south of where we currently were. I chose an AirBnB close to Lebanon because it is the home of Maker’s Mark Distillery and the theme of John Mark’s birthday. I lucked up in my findings and was able to reserve three homes located on the Tucker Homestead. Caron Tucker was an amazing AirBnB host! She went above and beyond to help me keep everything a surprise for John Mark and even catered for the welcome dinner on our first night. Several of the guests raved the entire time about her chicken Alfredo casserole. It was especially nice to have that dinner catered as it was WILD from the moment we arrived at the house.
I was able to get John Mark to the house under the guise that we were going to the caterer’s house to get the dinner, which was partially true. I got lost trying to find it, and we were literally in the middle of nowhere. We passed the entrance to the home, and we got lost for a minute, eventually making our way down the correct driveway and into an amazing surprise for John Mark. Many of his life long friends, his favorite Aunt Connie, and his Mom were all waiting on the front lawn of the plantation-style home. John Mark was dumbfounded. It was an amazing accomplishment pulling it all together and to see the surprise on his face made it all worth it.
After we enjoyed our catered dinner, we dined on the cake I was able to order from a local bakery, Cakes by Camille, located just a little south of the house in Campbellsville, Kentucky. One of my co-conspirators picked up the cake on their way to the house earlier in the day. We spent the first night enjoying the front lawn of the farm the AirBnB was located on. Some of our friends had brought up lawn games and there was an ample amount of lawn chairs for everyone to enjoy the three-sixty views surrounding the property. Watching the sunrise every morning on the back porch and the sunset on the front porch was my favorite part of the days spent in Kentucky. The rolling hills, corn for miles, barns with tobacco hanging to dry, cows mooing in the distance, roosters crowing, and a symphony of outdoor sounds were all very relaxing and pleasing to the senses.
The following day, I had arranged with Mint Julep Tour Company a bus to come and pick up our group at the homestead and take us around for the day to various areas of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. We started by visiting Four Roses tasting room. Some of the best advice I received during the planning phase of this trip was to be selective on which distilleries you do the entire distillery tour on. For time’s sake and to accommodate our lively bunch better, we did tastings only at Four Roses and Barton 1792. We stopped in Bardstown for lunch at Kurtz which had ample room for our large group. They are known for having been in business since 1937 and also their homemade pies. We were even greeted by the family when we arrived, as they are not just owners, but operators of the restaurant. We passed through My Old Kentucky Home and were able to catch a glimpse of the Clydesdale horses that live on the property, and made a stop at Willett Distillery in hopes of catching a cocktail at their upstairs bar. Even with our prior arrangements, they were not able to accommodate our group, but we understood that they were only a few days into being open and that they were probably still figuring things out.
Maker’s Mark was our final destination for that day. We were excited upon our arrival at the property. It is a very picturesque property, and this was the birthday boy’s favorite drinking bourbon. The welcome center is a beautiful glass-walled structure. They were having an exhibit of Stephen Rolfe Powell’s glass artwork and that was nice to gander at while we waited for our tour time to start. Since we were not able to have the cocktails at Willett as scheduled, we were surprisingly ahead of schedule. When our tour did start we were stoically welcomed to the property by a robot-like tour guide named, Lexi. Long story short, we did not make it very far along this tour before our entire group walked off. The management staff tried to correct the matter, but we missed most of the extensive distillery tour we had scheduled, we did not get to visit the restaurant on the property as planned, we did not get to visit the gift shop and wax dip bottles, John Mark did not get to see his ambassador barrel with his name on it, and it was overall a let down, mainly because we had very high expectations for this particular visit.
We spent the final day of the trip on the AirBnB property. Everyone lazed around and relaxed (or recovered in some cases). We watched SEC football and had a tailgate-style menu. That evening we had a 1979 disco party, complete with disco-styles, disco-lights, and disco music. We celebrated the birthday boy being “straight out of the seventies!”
All in all, we had a wonderful trip. Definitive memories were made that John Mark will have for a lifetime. Getting to spend time with close friends and family meant a great deal to him, and that was the best birthday gift I could have given him. Of all the major distilleries during our four days of tours, Maker’s Mark may not be the favorite from this point on. One of the best things about traveling and seeing new places, you can open your mind to learn about new things, things you might like more, and you get to experience different angles of life. New experiences are our absolute favorite part of traveling, and probably the number one thing that fuels our incessant wanderlust.
Four Day Trip Itinerary
Day One- Stay in Bardstown. Go to lunch at Bottle and Bond inside Bardstown Bourbon Company. Visit Willett, My Old Kentucky Home, Barton 1792, or tour Bardstown Bourbon Company. Spend some time wandering around downtown. If you are parched stop in the Blind Pig Speakeasy for a cocktail. Visit the Oscar Getz Museum if time permits, or visit Heaven Hill’s tasting room.
Day Two- Pack up and drive to Versailles and visit Woodford Reserve. Spend plenty of time here and enjoy the beautiful property and tasting area, bistro. Drive down the scenic road to The Stave and enjoy a delightful lunch. Sometimes they even have live music! From here stop in at Castle and Key and take in the beautiful restoration efforts of the new owners. Maybe you will be lucky enough to catch their bourbon release. From here go over to Buffalo Trace and take a tour of the property. The gift shop alone is not enough to appreciate the brand. You are also near Wild Turkey, so stop in here if you are on a roll.
Day Three- Go to Maker’s Mark early. Catch a tour while it’s possibly still cool, and then stay a while and enjoy Star Hill Provisions on the property. If we ever have the chance to return to the area this will be a must stop. Hopefully we can make up for the less than ideal experience we had our first go-round. If you are hardcore and have a sober driver, make the forty minute drive to Jim Beam and see what I have been told is a very impressive operation.
Day Four- Go to the races at Keeneland. Visit the Arc Encounter. Visit the “Kentucky Castle” in Versailles. Go to a cooper, Independent Stave Company, in Lebanon. Enjoy a day on the farm and relax.