By Michael Croley
Except for horse racing and basketball, everything in Kentucky serves as a chaser to bourbon, America’s native spirit by a 1964 decree of Congress. The Bourbon Trail was established by the Kentucky Distillers Association in 1999, and in the last two years more than two million visitors have traveled from Louisville to Lexington and the small towns in between to visit the 27 distilleries, learn the history of bourbon, and get a taste of what happens when corn liquor mellows in charred oak barrels. The trail is perfect for any kind of getaway, bachelor party, long weekend, or golf trip, but no matter why you come, make time for a day at the races. To get your trail trek started, here are the courses and distilleries that make a trip to the Bluegrass State worth ordering a double.
Fly into Louisville, not just because it’s Kentucky’s only major city but because it’s one of the best small cities in America, with a burgeoning food scene and interesting developments popping up all over downtown like NuLu (short for “New Louisville”), where the Rabbit Hole Distillery is located. This new distillery makes one of the smoothest ryes you can buy and the cocktail bar at the top of its facility is one of the most inventive in the city. Rabbit Hole’s sleek modern building mixes old school recipes with new school methodology: Each employee can enter the Sensory Lab and offer anonymous notes on what the distillers are working on. It’s an interesting, very democratic approach to product development and perhaps a glimpse into the future of bourbon making.
If you can score a round at Valhalla, located on Louisville’s eastern edge, do so if for no other reason than to relive the glory of Tiger, Rory, and the 2008 Ryder Cup. The Nicklaus track is big and brawny with large swaths of land between holes to accommodate the spectators and infrastructure of modern golf championships. The course is a tale of two nines, the open front side hugging Floyd’s Fork and the back tree-lined and featuring more elevation. The back is more interesting, with several dramatic holes, a standout being the short par-four 13th, “The Island.” Drives will settle on uneven ground and require a pitch to an island green wrapped in Kentucky limestone slabs and surrounded by water. The 18th is a reachable uphill par five with a multi-tiered green shaped like a horseshoe, homage to Kentucky’s thoroughbred ties. Most of the challenges offered up by Valhalla won’t affect shorter hitters, which makes sense given that the course was conceived and built with hosting major championships in mind and is owned by the PGA of America.
Continuing out of town, it would be criminal to not stop at the famous Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which used to make Pappy Van Winkle and is now home to the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience. A metal plaque from the Stitzel-Weller days displays an ethos all businesses and craftsmen should live by: “We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can. At a loss if we must. But always fine bourbon.” This is one of the most historic distilleries in the state, with rickhouses that hold the bourbon sitting much closer together than current regulations allow—think one errant spark of fire—and the original still now out of commission. The tour shows where some legendary liquor was made, recounting the collapse of Stitzel-Weller in 1972 and its subsequent iterations as a warehouse for its competitors. Stepping into one of its historic rickhouses and seeing barrels rise nine floors (27 barrels tall) and holding about a million gallons of bourbon (20,000 barrels) is a bit awe-inspiring. Don’t walk away from the gift shop without a bottle of Blade and Bow, formed by an intricate process that combines older bourbons with younger ones, translating into a spicy but smooth pour.
It’ll be hard to not tear into that bottle when you arrive at the secluded Heritage Hill Golf Club, 20 minutes south of Louisville, but fight the urge as this is one of the best courses in Kentucky. First-time visitors might be surprised at the amount of elevation in the state; Heritage Hill does a good job using it. From the expansive first fairway with subtle mounding along the fairway to the green contours that run most balls toward the middle, the course invites you into its space, rambling pleasantly over a large tract of land free of homes. On the fall day I visited, with the course all to myself, the hay bales running down the left side of the 5th fairway looked like bison roaming a meadow. As at all the courses I visited, Kentucky limestone is liberally applied to the design, but at Heritage Hill it appears natural, exposed rather than placed. Built by former Nicklaus design associate Doug Beach, Nicklaus’s touch appears throughout in the bunkering, mounding, and green complexes. The terrain and the solitude are a nice change of pace from the city and a fine transition into rural Kentucky and the heart of the trail.
Drive south to Bardstown. Maker’s Mark, one of the best known bourbons, is made in nearby Loretto, but I suggest visiting Lux Row—the newest distillery on the trail, exhibiting how modern technology has been married with time-honored tradition and craft—and Heaven Hill, home to the Bourbon Heritage Center, where you can trace the history of bourbon in Kentucky. If you remember your history classes you’ll know the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was a revolt against a tax on whiskey in Pennsylvania. One of the first challenges to the federal government’s authority to tax, tax collectors were met with violence until President Washington released the militia. The whiskey makers fled and found themselves in Kentucky, where limestone-filtered creeks and springs provided unparalleled clean water and taste, which many say is the key to Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Bourbon is divined by three or four ingredients—corn, barley, and then either rye or wheat. What separates the taste of one bourbon from another is the way those ingredients are blended. Use more corn (law requires a minimum of 51 percent to be called bourbon) and you get a sweeter flavor; use more rye and you’ll get one that’s more viscous and has better legs. Younger bourbons are spicier and have more hit while older ones are mellow and smoother. The process of making bourbon is the same just about everywhere and the distilleries show you that process—it’s no secret, nor are the percentages. The differences can be ephemeral but each brings its own charm.
The quality of the local bourbons is superior to that of the golf courses in Bardstown, but that’s not to say you won’t enjoy Bardstown Country Club and My Old Kentucky Home Golf Course. The former is a private course gone public that winds through a housing development and features wide fairways and mostly flat greens. My Old Kentucky Home, part of the state park system, is well maintained but could use a little more TLC. It is routed over good land, winding through hillsides with the par threes the most notable holes. More than anything, the golf in Bardstown is merely a way to keep sharp for what awaits.
When you reach Lexington, play Kearney Hill Golf Links. A collaboration between Pete Dye and his son PB, it’s fantastic. I know it’s sacrilege to call anything a links that doesn’t run beside the sea (or bear the imprints of burrowing animals in its bunkers), but Kearney Hill features wide corridors and plenty of Dye knobs along the fairways. Play is along the property’s edges going out and moves to the interior coming in, not quite a corkscrew but similar. The course’s charms—and difficulties—are arresting, and although no one has ever said the Dyes build easy courses, this one offers enough get-ability to entice you back. You’ll never get tired of it.
Wrap up the golf at Griffin Gate Resort, a Marriott hotel with a gentle Rees Jones layout. Its par threes are the best on the trail, with picturesque views and demanding long iron shots: Hole 8 is 238 yards from the tips with a bunker front right; 11 is almost as long but offers the chance of running the ball onto the green from the left. The finishing three holes are relatively short but require driving through chutes of trees to find the expansive fairways. Despite some towering lighted signs above the trees and the roar of nearby I-75, Griffin Gate is a fine way to finish the trip.
Play the course in the morning then grab a quick shower, put on a coat and tie, and head to Keeneland for a day at the races. Place your bets, eat the burgoo, and don’t worry about your winnings. On your way out of town and back to Louisville, Town Branch is the lone distillery in Lexington but you might want to get up the road a piece and hit Woodford Reserve in the heart of horse country or even stop in Frankfort to visit Buffalo Trace, where the Van Winkles now ply their trade. Of course, after four days on the Bourbon Trail, you may just want to head home. Your wallet will be thinner but your heart will be fuller.