Bourbon, bluegrass and horse racing, plus the home of a sporting legend, are some of the many reasons to visit Kentucky. Even though it’s known as the “front porch” to the South, its pretty white clapboard towns seem more attached to the north, nestling in undulating green pasture, and the state was officially neutral during the civil war.
Arriving at Louisville airport I’m met with a huge sign saying Colonel Sanders Welcomes You. Apart from fried chicken, Louisville is famous as the birthplace of Muhammad Ali, once known as the Louisville Lip for his banter. Before he died he founded the Muhammad Ali Center with his wife and the emphasis here is more on his humanitarian work rather than boxing.
Of course, there are films of his famous fights with Henry Cooper, Joe Frazier and George Foreman but the display is laid out around his six core principles; confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. He was a deeply complex person and it’s a tragedy that he was incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease shortly after he retired from boxing.
Louisville is also known for horse racing and the track at Churchill Downs hosts the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. It opened in 1875 and has grown to include 40 stables, a Kentucky Derby History Museum and of course the famous stadium which can hold up to 170,000 spectators. Only 20 horses compete, after competing in heats all across the US, and they must be three-year-old thoroughbreds. The race lasts under two minutes and in 2018, the winning horse, Justify, earned its owner $1,432,000.
Horses are big business in Kentucky and stud farms are dotted all over the state. Godolphin, at Jonabell Farm in Lexington, owned by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, charges a fee of £200,000 for letting their stallion Medaglia d’Oro, “cover” your mare. The horse never won the Derby as it didn’t compete but they have three that did – the services of Street Sense, Animal Kingdom, and Nyquist are all on offer. For a much smaller fee, you can take a 90-minute tour of the farm and get up close to these thoroughbreds.
It’s not all about money, however, as the Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown is run as a labour of love by former Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen. 129 racehorses are out to grass here, with the oldest a venerable 32 years old. There are a couple of Derby Winners, including the 1997 winner, Silver Charm, and the star of the movie Seabiscuit, Popcorn Deelites, all enjoying their retirement on the tranquil 126 acre site.
Georgetown also claims to be the birthplace of bourbon – apparently, in 1789, the Reverend Elijah Craig distilled the first Kentucky bourbon using the water from a local spring. Of course, there’s no proof but he was probably the first to age it in charred oak casks, the process that gives bourbon its colour and distinctive taste. This certainly gave Kentucky a head start and now the state is responsible for 99% of the world’s supply. If you are interested in tasting the difference, there’s a mapped Bourbon Trail which guides you around the distilleries.
The visit a number of distilleries but the highlight is the guided tasting at Maker’s Mark, in Loreto. The distillery was built in 1805 on Burk’s Farm in the middle of the countryside but the whiskey is a relative newcomer. In 1953 Bill Samuels Senior was searching for a way to make a smoother whisky, something more palatable to modern tastes. He used 16% red winter wheat instead of the traditional rye and aged it for 5 years. The first bottles appeared in 1958 and met with immediate success.
As you’d expect, the American oak barrels are also made in Kentucky and the Brown-Forman Cooperage in Louisville produces 300,000 a year by hand. The inside of the barrels are exposed to flame for a period varying between 15 seconds to a couple of minutes to give them that all-important char. Interestingly, the barrels, costing around $10,000 each, are only used once in bourbon production – they then get another life, usually in Scotland ageing scotch.
Kentucky became known as the bluegrass state because early settlers thought the fields were blue – in fact, it was purple buds sprouting on the spring grass. That didn’t stop the type of country music pioneered by Bill Monroe in the 1930s getting the same name. Bluegrass was louder and faster than the music that had gone before and it was an immediate hit.
Bill was born in Rosine, in the West of Kentucky, and the house where he lived from the age of six has been preserved. His parents both died when he was young and he learnt to play fiddle tunes on the mandolin from his disabled Uncle Pen. His music is still kept alive here as every Friday night musicians arrive to play in the general store and in the Rosine Barn next door.
In nearby Owensboro, I get to attend the opening celebrations of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum. It’s on two floors with the ground telling the story of bluegrass from its roots in Scottish and Irish fiddle music with the upstairs home to the Hall of Fame archive. There’s also a 450 seat theatre where Nu-Grass artist Sam Bush gives a rousing opening concert. Next day the festivities move outdoors, with the Yonder Mountain String Band topping the bill before I leave for my own blue blue grass of home.
Tell me more about Kentucky
Kentucky Tourism has information on the state.
Travelplanners offer an eight-eight, fly-drive trip in March 2019, with United Airlines, from London (via Chicago) from £1259pp, (incl two nights each in Louisville, Covington, Lexington, and Owensboro) and Hertz car hire, with insurance and taxes. Tel: 020 3542 8888.