Golf, spirits abound on Kentucky Bourbon Trail
On a winding two-lane country road, past hand-lettered signs offering firewood for $40 a rick, creeks swollen by spring rains and fields waving their winter wheat, the search for a national landmark comes to a halt.
There’s a wild turkey crossing the road.
At least one of us knows where he’s going.
Up around the bend, as Kentucky Route 52 swings east through the one-stoplight town of Loretto (pop. 713), a sign at Burks Spring Road greets wanderers: “You’ve just found the home of Maker’s Mark.”
Bourbon drinkers have put this scenic hideaway – with its Victorian black outbuildings dating to 1805 and trimmed in the brand’s signature red – on the map. It’s the southern way station on a Kentucky adventure known as the Bourbon Trail.
But before carrying out this assignment – sampling the local brew and golf across the trail – there’s some history to savor.
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Central Kentucky – a 100-mile arc from Louisville south through Bardstown and northeast to Lexington – is home to 95 percent of the world’s bourbon production. That’s no accident of geography.
For hundreds of millennia, the limestone bedrock has served as nature’s water filter. That purified aquifer and rich soil for growing grain have made this part of the country a natural kettle for distilled spirits. The brown elixir – by federal law, made from at least 51 percent corn and aged in a new, charred oak barrel – predates statehood. Two centuries after the first barrels of excess corn distilled for ease of transport were shipped down the Kentucky River, the spirit – named for the original Bourbon County – enjoys a large following.
Greg Davis, the master distiller at Maker’s Mark, embraces that heritage. During a recent tour (they’re free at most distilleries and run hourly), he stops to pose for pictures and sign the trademark red-wax-topped bottles of Maker’s Mark bought and hand-dipped by tourists.
These aren’t the “tipsy tours” that dot California’s Wine Country. Visitors get an education in the art of bourbon distilling, how mashed corn, other grains, water, yeast and years of aging – at least two, often many more– work their magic.
“Maker’s Mark is a model of inefficiency,” said Davis, 41. “It’s stepping back in time and preserving how things used to be done.”
Stand in one of the hundreds of warehouses that dot the green hills along the Bourbon Trail, look up amid the rows of 53-gallon barrels stacked floor to ceiling and inhale. That’s the pungent aroma of bourbon in maturation, evaporating at about 5 percent per year. Black stains streak the sides of warehouses and leave an ashen look to nearby trees. For the pilgrims on the Bourbon Trail, though, it’s a free sample that doesn’t even need to cross the lips. It’s a tariff to the heavens known in these parts as “The Angel’s Share.”
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Jerry Summers, 58, has spent 32 years at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, south of Louisville. As he guides a visitor through the plant, he moves easily among the workers, shaking hands and asking about family. He came up through the ranks, having risen to operations manager. He talks about Beam’s history, how it uses Kentucky corn, Kentucky wheat, even burns Kentucky coal to make its uniquely Kentucky brand of bourbon. It’s a pride that’s apparent at the other distillers, but nobody embodies it more readily than does Summers.
“It’s a lifestyle,” he says, simply.
Perhaps even spiritual.
Nearby Bardstown bills itself as the “Bourbon Capital of the World.” It is home to Heaven Hill and the Barton 1792 distilleries, plus the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival in September. It’s where Stephen Foster found the inspiration to write “My Old Kentucky Home” and is just a few miles from Abe Lincoln’s boyhood home. Many of the state’s early settlers found religion here, via the first Roman Catholic diocese west of the Alleghenies.
Golfers can enjoy a similar revival at Heritage Hill in Shepherdsville. Designer Doug Beach, a Nicklaus acolyte, took a rollicking mix of woodland and farmland along the Salt River and created the state’s No. 1 public-access course on Golfweek’s Best list. The zoysia tees and fairways play into bent greens. In a masterful stroke, Beach created six dramatic downhill shots on a course that plays uphill only once, at the short, par-4 13th. The downhill, 181-yard 11th offers a visual thrill off the tee. “If we had what you’d call a signature hole, this would be it,” head pro Nick Sweeney said. No. 18 is worth signing off on, too. It plays from the eponymous Heritage Hill, where the tee shot is struck next to 19th-century tombstones and sweeps downhill to a peninsula green.
However, the best variety of public golf is near Lexington.
As a native Kentuckian, Stephen Howard knows bourbon. As a businessman, he knows people. What they want, he has found, is good golf and good bourbon. At Old Silo, a family-run course in Mount Sterling, he offers plenty of both.
Old Silo, a Graham Marsh design that opened in 2000, has been a regular on the Golfweek’s Best list in Kentucky, ranking No. 2 this year. At 7,011 yards and with some spirited elevation changes, it’s a favorite for road-trippers from Ohio and Michigan. To keep the customers coming back, Howard stocks 15 brands of bourbon in his restaurant bar.
“We try to connect the traveler with our Kentucky spirit,” Howard said.
That will include mint juleps this weekend on Derby Day.
Cherry Blossom Golf Club, a 2001 Clyde Johnston design in Georgetown is a perennial Golfweek’s Best favorite. It slipped to No. 3 this year after seven years at No. 1. Owner Luther Conley, with the can-do spirit of his Appalachian heritage, takes that as a challenge: “We’ll just have to work harder.”
Indeed, they’re on their way. An NCAA Division II men’s regional and an NGA/Hooters Tour event this month will validate Cherry Blossom’s tournament chops. With greens that roll private-club true and a spectacular 16-17-18 finish, it’s a must-play.
On the north side of Lexington, wind whistles across Kearney Hill Golf Links. The muni has strong tournament bloodlines: a former Champions Tour stop, site of men’s and women’s U.S. Amateur Public Links and host to this summer’s men’s State Amateur.
Pete Dye, an Indianan who designed Kearney Hill with son P.B., left his wicked sense of humor here for University of Kentucky fans to rue. As if the fiendish falloffs on the greens of the 7,049-yard links-style layout weren’t enough, Dye carved an “IU”-logo bunker right of No. 13 fairway to tweak the Big Blue faithful at the uphill 468-yard par 4.
“Nobody noticed it until they took an aerial of the course,” head pro Justin Mullannix said.
Versailles Road west out of Lexington rolls past some of the region’s most beautiful horse farms. Rows of white four-rail fencing as far as the eye can see line Calumet Farm, home to Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation and generations of champions. Just a few furlongs west, Keeneland Race Course stands as a monument to American sport. If Seth Raynor had designed horse tracks instead of golf courses, this is what he might have created. Visit in April or October when the thoroughbreds are running. Here’s one tip that’s a sure thing: Grab the breakfast special at the Keeneland track kitchen. It’s where the jockeys and trainers eat before their morning workouts. You can eavesdrop on the day’s entries and eat like a, ahem, horse – all for about what it would cost you to box a $2 exacta.
West on Versailles (that’s vur-SALES, y’all), aka U.S. 60, Woodford Reserve stands as the Merion of distilling: outsized yet championship-caliber. In Lawrenceburg, Four Roses and Wild Turkey complete the trail.
Eddie Russell, who oversees warehouse operations at Wild Turkey, is a fourth-generation bourbon maker and son of legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell. He applied some Bluegrass wit to the hold that bourbon has on Americans: “People drink when they’re happy, and people drink when they’re sad.”
Davis, the Maker’s Mark maestro, said the industry will continue to stand the test of time.
“There’s no such thing as a bad bourbon,” he said. “Some just taste better than others.”
The same might be said for Kentucky golf.