- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Day 1:

For reasons unimportant — OK, it’s Derby weekend, and I’m a lowly journalist with no corporate expense account or patronage to speak of — I fly into Indianapolis and pick up a rental car before heading over 100 miles south on I-65 toward Louisville — the holy seat of bourbon, border-state history and culture and the most famous two minutes in sports. It’s a bit of a haul on this muggy Thursday morn, but it’s worth it.

For the same reasons cited above, I stray far off I-65 to a little town called Hanover, Indiana, home to the small liberal arts college that bears its name. It is here that my Airbnb awaits courtesy of a professor at Hanover, who, after true Midwestern fashion, assures me that the house will be unlocked and my bed ready.

After a brisk nap I find my host, Dustin, downstairs in the kitchen. He’s affable and friendly, and I thank him for allowing me the chance to take a siesta after an early morning of travel. His accent is difficult to place, which is perhaps not atypical in this part of the country, where Midwestern and Southern cultures clash and mash along the banks of the Ohio — ostensibly the demarkation between U.S. north and south.

After loading up my rental with some journalistic equipment, I walk back into Dustin’s home to find an older lady in his kitchen. She doesn’t seem surprised to see me and shakes my hand. I tell her I will just run back upstairs to grab some things and be on my way.

“Upstairs?” she inquires. “Oh, are you looking for Dustin?”

The edifice is in fact a duplex, and I have just walked into the wrong door and into a stranger’s kitchen.

I apologize profusely, but the lady is all smiles and offers a shrug, as if a wayward New Jerseyan often inadvertently breaches her threshold.

Having laughed my way through an awkward episode of Midwest hospitality, it’s time to pierce the South. I chew up the final miles of I-65 separating Indiana from her southern neighbor, and soon the iron bridges crossing the Ohio into Kentucky and the spires of her largest city are visible.

It’s been just over two years since my last time in the Bluegrass State, and I’ve been ready for this for some time. My Bourbon Trail passport has just one final page awaiting its stamp after I conquered all of those in Lexington and in Louisville.

All save but one.

At the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience (528 W Main St, Louisville, Kentucky, 40202, 502/272-2611), visitors are ushered into what I can best describe as a Disneyfied narrative of both the history of Kentucky distilling and the eponymous Evan Williams, the first commercial distiller in these parts. In the first room on the tour, we step into a mockup of a 19th century backwoods cabin, where information is doled out both from a guide’s lecture interspersed with movies playing on the walls, where actors portray Williams and his mates when this was the hinterlands.

It’s a tad hokie, but there’s a reason the word “experience” is part of the name. This is far more a living attraction than a tasting spot, although sipping the wares is, of course, part of the tour. Graphics and interactive displays tell how bourbon is made and of its comprising ingredients: corn, malted barley and either rye or wheat. (Fun fact: Bourbon whiskey need not be distilled in Bourbon County. In fact, in order to be so labeled, it must be at least 51 percent corn and distilled in virgin barrels.)

The Evan Williams Experience tour takes about an hour, which is a little bit longer than I felt necessary, but for novices, it offers a decent bourbon primer in a rather colorful atmosphere. My favorite part, natch, is the tasting at the end in a room fashioned like a backwater saloon.

My final passport stamp now in my book, I thank the staff and head out.

Next stop, the Kentucky Derby Museum (704 Central Ave, Louisville, KY 40208, 502/637-1111) at the historic Churchill Downs racetrack. Here one can browse through 142 years of Kentucky horse racing history and tradition, with exhibits showcasing medals, trophies and the all-important flashy jockey and attendee attire — with entire sections of Derby hats to boot.

There’s much to read about American Pharaoh, Secretariat and various others from across the breadth of equine champions and their steeds. The newest attraction is “The Greatest Race,” a film projected inside a 360-degree theater in the round that places you, the viewer, into the heart of the Derby itself. It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears, and definitely worth the visit.

My next appointment is at Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller, (3860 Fitzgerald Rd., Louisville, Kentucky, 40216, 502/475-3325) located a bit south of downtown in what was, once, the actual Bluegrass frontier.

This is the province of none other than Tom Bulleit himself, a local gentleman who studied at UK and at U of Louisville before heading east to earn his J.D. at Georgetown in the District. After practicing law in the nation’s capital and later in Lexington, where he still lives, he returned to Louisville to start his own brand of bourbon.

Last fall I met Joe Clarskon, a representative for his brand, at a D.C. event. Joe has invited me down to meet the man who lent his name to one of the youngest of the family of Kentucky distillers.

Joe ushers me into Mr. Bulleit’s office, where I am introduced to Doug Kragel, master of whiskey for Diageo’s North American whiskey portfolio — under whose umbrella Bulleit falls. As we make small talk I take in the Daniel Plainview-esque interior of Mr. Bulleit’s inner sanctum: leather-fashioned chairs, cabinets, photos with dignitaries, all manner of Bulleit signage. All befitting of a whiskey emperor.

Mr. Bulleit enters, and my mental image of him is instantly dispelled. He walks with the confidence of being unhurried and assured that his business runs smoothly though his back be turned. His balding pate is offset by his white mustache, which frames his grin and instantly wins over the visitor. He smiles with an unpracticed, unforced nature, shakes my hand firmly, speaks with a thoroughly Kentuckian patois that is both pleasing to the ear and warming to the soul — rather befitting for the man whose bourbon has done much the same for me on many an evening.

Mr. Bulleit settles in behind his desk like the flip side avatar of a Coen brothers villain. Mr. Bulleit started his business in 1987, at first against his father’s wishes. His father pushed him to join the Army, during which time he saw action in Vietnam. The GI Bill then paid for his education, and before long he was assaying a shiny law career.

Still, the barrels beckoned.

“I went back to my father, talked about it, and he said, ‘That’s between you and your banker,’” Mr. Bulleit says with an amiable chuckle. “Those were his exact words. No money for me.”

Success was swift. He partnered with Seagram’s in 1997, and much of that company’s assets were then bought by Diageo, bringing in more advertising heft and increasing market share, both in Kentucky and around the world — including in whiskey-hungry Japan.

“Really you can’t taste your way into it,” Mr. Bulleit says of starting out, adding that because it typically takes six years to distill a batch, it’s up to the crafter to know what goes into the magic elixir upfront — and in what quantities.

“I think one of the things [the public] may not consider is the extremely long lag time between the very heavy investment of buying that goes on in owning a distillery,” he says of the ingredients. “Buying the grain, processing the grain, distilling the whiskey, barreling the whiskey, putting the barrel in the warehouse.

“We think bourbons age beautifully between six and six and a half years,” Mr. Bulleit adds of the predilections of he and his Kentucky cronies. “Bourbons a lot of times don’t get better after that.”

This is why, he said, there is often a misperception that Irish whiskey and scotch must be “better” simply because they are aged longer. Seasonal climates such as that found in Kentucky cause both the barrels and the liquid within to expand and contract throughout the year as temperatures fluctuate, which in turn adds character to the distillation as it ages year after year.

“In contrast, have you been to Scotland? You will notice when you get there, the weather is uniformly dreadful,” Mr. Bulleit says. “It’s just wet and drizzles. It sits in the middle of the North Sea washed by the Gulf Stream. So it takes a lot longer to age scotch,” which often resides in barrels — many of them shipped overseas from America — for 12 to 18 years or longer.

“So I think the most common misconception is that bourbons aren’t fully aged because they’re younger than scotches, which is not true.”

Mr. Kragel pours glasses of the special Bulleit Barrel Strength. Unlike a single-barrel brand, where every bottle is different, Barrel Strength’s consistency and flavor, he says, “comes from pooling the right barrels.”

The classic whiskey palate “burn,” he said, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s higher in alcohol content either.

“The nose itself, it’s not overwhelming,” Mr. Kragel explains. “It doesn’t hit you right in the nose and burn your palate right from the beginning. It’s still very identifiably Bulleit bourbon, it’s just a slight evolution to it.”

Mr. Bulleit relates how one of his colleagues told him once “that what water is to whiskey is what oxygen is to wine.”

We add a touch of water to open up the flavor. We toast. We don’t drink; we sip.

I ask Mr. Bulleit for a photo together. He absolutely insists that I sit in his desk chair as we toast, with two bottles of his wares in the foreground.

I decide I lead a rather blessed life.

I bid my hosts adieu in order to make yet another 100-mile trek, this time east and north to Cincinnati to take in a Reds game. It’s my 20th MLB stadium, and though it’s drizzling, it’s still great to see baseball on the far side of the Ohio’s banks in its eponymous state.

After a celebratory Cinco de Mayo beer at Rhinegeist Brewery in downtown Cincinnati, I peace out to head back to Hanover for some well-needed rest.

 

Day 2:

I need a costume. It’s Derby weekend, and some seersucker is clearly in order. Brett Howard of Evolve: The Men’s Resale Store (2416 Frankfort Avenue Louisville, Kentucky, 40206, 502/690-6655) has invited me to drop by and check out his wares. He’s unable to meet in person, but he assures me I’ll be in good hands with his staff.

Tucked on an unassuming street a little bit east downtown, Evolve sits amid other shops. I walk in and am met by the unmistakable scent of consigned clothing. Hank, a cheery fellow behind the counter, offers to help me find the right couture for the weekend.

Mr. Howard asked me ahead of time for my measurements, but being a bachelor, there are many other “numbers” on my mind on a typical day. But Hank’s extremely helpful, both with sizing and color schemes. While my goal was a full white seersucker suit, the options are what they are — as is my bank account.

Hank’s eye is as sharp as his critiques, so I try on several candidates that get either a yay or nay from the shopkeep.

After several false starts and mixing and matching, the winning ensemble consists of white seersucker pants, a hilariously loud black-and-white shirt (Hank said it’s more or less required for Derby), blue jacket, pocket kerchief and untied bow tie. I’ve never tied one from scratch, but a fellow patron tells me to spend the evening on YouTube learning to tie it before the big race tomorrow.

Costume purchased, I head into downtown to hit up the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory (800 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky, 40202, 877/775-8443). It is here that the bats favored by the major leaguers have been fashioned from wooden dowels into the implements of homers for 125 years. Leaning against the building is the World’s Biggest Baseball Bat, which is impossible to miss, and fronted by a walk of fame dedicated to some of the greats of America’s Pastime.

The Slugger museum features interactive and stationary exhibits. You can handle replica bats from the likes of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams or browse through the company’s rather extensive historical artifacts. The absolute must, however, is the factory tour, which takes visitors into the bowels of the operation. The company churns out 3,000 bats per day, and each step in the process is beheld by visitors. No photographs are allowed in here, but our helpful guide answers any questions about the transformation of tree remnants into the bats to be found in MLB dugouts thereafter. The most exciting part is definitely watching a worker press the white-hot branding iron to apply the signature Louisville Slugger brand onto the fat part of the bat, each time with a flash of flame arising from the wood.

Despite ample markings on the floor — this is, after all, a hazardous work zone — some among my tour group insist nonetheless on veering off the path despite repeated chastisements from our guide. At the risk of generalizing, these were the very definition of “bros,” all dressed in tank tops, and whose social interaction consisted of little more than the signature palm clasp and half-hug, repeated among their number over and over despite having just greeted one another minutes, or even seconds, earlier.

Why? Just why?

After observing such a display of the young and the fooolish, I need a(nother) drink. It’s getting into the latter hours of the afternoon, but 50 miles due east is Frankfort, the state capital and also the home of Buffalo Trace (113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, Kentucky, 40601, 800/654-8471) on the Kentucky River, heretofore unvisited by myself (it’s not part of the official Bourbon Trail, and thus no stamp is to be gotten).

It’s near the end of the workday, so the extraordinarily helpful Meredith M. Moody, marketing services director, offers me a personalized, brisk VIP tour of the rather extensive premises — what she dubs “the Meredith tour.” Ms. Moody walks me first through the coopery, where virgin barrels are fashioned from Kentucky timbers, and then on to the aging rooms, where the evaporating whiskey fills the nostrils as it transforms into the so-called “angels’ share.” She also takes me into a workshop, where each and every bottle of the high-end Blanton’s is being bottled and labeled by hand, and thus showing why it tends to be pricey. (The actor Michael Shannon, himself a Kentucky native, told me it’s his favorite bourbon.) 

As it should, the tour ends with a tasting — unlike nearly all other distillers in Kentucky, this one is free of charge. It’s hard to choose from all on offer, but for my limited tastings I go with the vodka, the bourbon cream and the White Dog, a craft moonshine that hasn’t been barrel-aged and thus is both clear and smells of corn.

Ms. Moody walks me through an impromptu science experiment. She has me put some of the White Dog on my hands and rub them together.

“Smell,” she says, which reveals the smell of, well, alcohol.

“Rub them again.”

I do, and now I smell the corn.

A third try reveals, incredibly, a scent of bread — the grain.

Thanking Ms. Moody for her time, I head back to Louisville for dinner at the Bulleit estate, where Blade & Bow is being served, and where a horse named Stormin’ Socks tries to snag a sip of my mint julep. But that’s a story for another time.

 

Day 3:

I tried. I really, really tried. But after nearly an hour of attempting to fashion a bow with a YouTube video to help me, I give it up and opt to go without the neckwear.

I’m sure no one but me will ever know — until now.

Heading back to Louisville, I manage to avoid the traffic as I come upon my final museum stop, the Muhammad Ali Center (144 North Sixth Street, Louisville, Kentucky, 40202, 502/584-9254, a rather modern edifice dedicated to a favorite son of River City.

In here are five stories of exhibits about Mr. Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, born here on the banks of the Ohio in the segregated South, his athletic accomplishments pushed into the background at the time for no reason other than the color of his skin. His winning record in the boxing ring gained him fame worldwide, but upon coming home, Mr. Ali found only the entrenched prejudices of the Jim Crow South, where he could not enter into white establishments. One exhibit searingly tells of how, even post-boxing accomplishments, he was told, “we don’t serve no n****** here.”

Outside the ring, Mr. Ali devoted his life to fighting the draconian racial laws as well as standing up against apartheid and racism, both in the U.S. and abroad.

His museum serves both as testament to his tenacity as a boxer and to his servitude as a warrior for civil rights and for awareness of Parkinson’s — which the athlete battled since 1984. The museum bears testaments to his anti-Vietnam War views, his work in South Africa and with the U.N. as an ambassador for peace. That it all started here on the banks of Ohio, on the borderline between the South and the industrialized north, is an evangel to his abilities, his tenacity, his dignity in the face of a white culture that, despite his unprecedented string of victories, still treated him as less than equal. Little wonder then that he connected with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, and chose a new name in the face of oppression, but it was a name borne of new expression and experience as the face of a community so long under the thumb of racism — both officially sanctioned and unofficially endemic.

A half-century removed from his glory days, I inquire of the staffers of his museum if the champ ever returns — and I am told he does so, perhaps once or twice a year. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written prior to Mr. Ali’s passing Friday.)

My impression: The museum itself is for hard-core fans of Mr. Ali and those wishing to experience how even a famous black man was treated in one of the most northern of Southern states. Even for those less possessive or attached to his legacy, it’s still a great stop.

It’s on the Derby then. My exploits that day have already been documented for The Times, but suffice to say, it was indeed one of the most unique days of life.

I’ve got an early flight to catch back up in Indianapolis, but that’s many hours and 100 miles away. After dining on the gentry’s food at the Downs and drinking their mint juleps, I take the recommendations of a friend and head over to Bourbon’s Bistro (2255 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, Kentucky, 40206, 502/894-8838) where the local whiskey is amply represented. It’s a dimly lit but classy joint, and I order up a bourbon and a bottle of that delightful Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, a true joy of suds concocted in used bourbon barrels.

After some nosh at Cane’s, whose chicken fingers I am delighted to find this far north, I head for one final round before closing time at The Silver Dollar (1761 Frankfort Avenue, Louisville, Kentucky, 40206, 502/259-9540, a spot that honors the “Bakersfield sound” of country that came about in California as “Okies,” facing prejudice from native Golden Staters, created their own sounds of lament. The Silver Dollar offers drinks a-plenty, many of them whiskey-based concoctions. It’s as good a place as any to end my time in Louisville.

I change from Derby Day attire to street clothes in the backseat of my rented Mazda and then head north. I cross the Ohio River back into Indiana, and Louisville and Kentucky fade briskly in the rearview, keeping their secrets intact, but blessing me with memories.

Eric Althoff is the Lifestyle and Travel editor for The Washington Times.

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