Developing a taste for the best in Lexington, Kentucky

Who doesn’t love vacations with good friends, good food, and experiences good enough to revisit? Lexington, Kentucky, which I first considered to be best known for famed Thoroughbred horse races, also turned out to be the perfect cocktail of bourbon, beer, food, and all-out good times.

We arrived in town past dinnertime, so we decided to head out for an evening cocktail and a look around our latest vacation spot. Downtown was busy with the cloppity-clop of horse-drawn carriages and folks casually milling about, wandering in and out of old warehouse buildings that are now home to restaurants and bourbon bars.

On recommendation from our hotelier, we ended up at the quaint and classy Belle’s Cocktail House. The four of us, my husband and our long-time friends Carrie and Chase nestled up to the bar to deliberate our cocktail choices.

“There’s no better time than now to try bourbon,” my husband, Mark, chided me, “This is bourbon’s birthplace, you know.”

I had always proclaimed that bourbon wasn’t for me, but Mark was right—we were in Bourbon Country. As I studied the cocktail menu, Mark and our friends wasted no time ordering sophisticated bourbon cocktails of their own. The three of them sipped their bourbons, evoking the coolness of Mad Men. Mark’s drink was a unique mixture blended with a hint of liquid smoke that he joked was the “manliest cocktail he’d ever had.” Carrie and Chase stuck to their go-to whiskey sours, and I hesitantly ordered an Old Fashioned, which seemed a safe, smart, and somewhat literary choice—maybe something Mark Twain would have ordered.

The Old Fashioned’s orange zing left me with a pleasant, warm feeling and a zesty sparkle on my tongue. Oh, this was going to be fun!

Hitting the trail

The next morning, I listened to Mark and our friends’ voices buzz with excitement at the prospect of taste-testing samples and getting a first-hand look at how their favorite elixir was crafted along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. I was excited to try the mixed drink options, or maybe even go so far as to try the flavor-infused varieties, but I wasn’t so sure about straight neat bourbon.

As we piled out of the car at the Wild Turkey Distillery, I could detect the aroma of bourbon in the air. The grain cookers, the seven-story rick house of lined and stacked bourbon barrels, and the patience of the process made me want to love bourbon even more. Back in the tasting room, we lined up at the counter for a sample or two. The guys chose the strongest of the Wild Turkey samplings, but I opted for a honey-infused version, thinking it may be more cocktail-like to my untrained taste buds. After a few sips, I felt a friendly connection to the hint of orange I detected through the liquid, honey sweetness. Not bad.

Mark and Chase chatted with Jimmy Russell, the Master Distiller, and got their very own Jimmy Russell-signed bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon.

Training the palate

We happily moved on to Four Roses Distillery, and were ready to make some taste comparisons. Four Roses is a small stop situated along the Salt River, where I learned more of this mellow liquid’s intoxicating history and became accustomed to its sweet aroma. I learned quite a bit from the guided tour, from grain testing to distillation, but I especially loved peering into the deep, roiling fermentation tanks. Four Roses’ Yellow Label was the fairest of the offerings for a newbie. In the sample, I was able to detect a whiff of pear and apple, and a taste of honey.

After a beautiful drive, Maker’s Mark was our next stop. I was overcome with the soothing sound of the nearby Whiskey River, the rows and rows of aging bourbon barrels, the smells, the smiles, and the signature red wax that sealed each bottle. I felt converted. My novice palate wanted more. I made my way to the tasting counter and sampled Maker’s creations, including the strongest.

I was so proud of developing this bourbon friendship that I bought a bottle and ceremoniously dipped it into the famed red wax for my Kentucky souvenir.

That evening, we celebrated our successful bourbon tours with dinner at Lockbox, one of Lexington’s newer restaurants, housed in the boutique 21c Hotel. Lockbox’s attitude felt sophisticated yet fun. The restaurant had communal tables, so it was easy to strike up a conversation with new acquaintances and discuss all of Lexington’s gems, including the 21st century art museum also inside the 21c Hotel.  As we studied the adventurous, mouthwatering menu, we popped olive appetizers into our mouths while imbibing on our, now shared, drink of choice.

Lockbox was definitely our most interesting meal. Standouts included octopus on the plancha, cast-iron hog chop, squid ink macaroni, and cold Blue Stallion craft beers (the amber Munich Dunkel was good enough to pack up and take home).

Mixed drinks

The following afternoon before heading home, we made a stop at Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company. Alltech happens to be the only place in town where we could sample both bourbon and craft beer. This was a win-win for our bunch of bourbon enthusiasts and forever craft-beer fans. We left Alltech toting more souvenirs; I purchased a bottle of Pearse Lyons Reserve, a bourbon complete with hints of nutmeg and a sharp finish of lemon crème and rich molasses. It is rewarding that my new appreciation of bourbon’s masterful craft led me to a new love and to something else I now have in common with my hubby and friends.

I learned a lot on this trip, namely that the Horse Capital of the World has more to offer than I ever imagined, with its robust culinary scene, stellar bourbon, and craft beer masters. I also learned that trying something new is worthwhile. Lastly, I learned Lexington certainly lives up to its self-proclaimed title, “Best Place in America to Grab a Drink.”

Cheers, Lexington!

Can’t get enough Kentucky fun? Check out The New Derby City.

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