Having the opportunity to travel for something you’re passionate about is, in my opinion, one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you follow my Instagram page, you may have seen my most recent boozy excursion to Kentucky where I had to pleasure of eating some delicious food, and guzzling some exceptional drink with Woodford Reserve, as well as the James Beard Foundation.
Although I was only there for two full days, I learned so much about Kentucky’s culture through the lens of food and drink, which is a valuable pillar of “southern” lifestyle that I have come to admire. With that, I want to share my experiences that I had in this historically-rich state with the hopes of inspiring at least one of you to go and visit for yourself. Although my experiences were curated by the nature of what I do, I believe learning about the people, food, and drink of Kentucky, through my experiences, will be encouraging enough to hop on a flight and explore a place true to the roots of America. Lots of Bourbon is included.
Day 1: Barrel-Making at the Historic, Brown-Forman Cooperage
After a long day of travel the day before, and a minor change to the itinerary due to landing in Louisville as opposed to Lexington, the first thing on my agenda was to go on a private tour of the Brown-Forman Cooperage where all the barrels for aging are made. This is a unique feat in that most distilleries will buy their barrels from other producers because they don’t have the facilities, or the talent, to run an operation of their own. This specific cooperage makes barrels for Woodford Reserve, Jack Daniels, Old Forester, Slane Irish Whiskey, as well as a few other notable brands.
The cooperage has their own tour center, which is a newly renovated space with memorabilia for purchase, decorated with different pieces of the barrel all over the walls and space. This allows visitors to get their toes wet with the anatomy of the barrel prior to their guided tour through the cooperage (which is right across the street). After getting my barrel-making 101 primer from my extremely knowledgeable guide, I put on my neon blue vest, construction glasses, and ear plugs so that the workers there knew that I was clueless. I stepped into this old warehouse filled with, seemingly, old technology but that is where the magic happened. It was loud with clangs of the machinery and metal, and the workers were hard at work, muscling away at each of their stations.
I was guided through the entire process from laying down the staves into the bottom ring to begin forming the barrel which was, apparently, much more difficult than it looked. We went through where they make the head (the circle, top, or bottom) of the barrel, where the barrels were ringed (with the metal rings you see around barrels to keep them compressed to avoid leaking), where they were scorched / charred (my favorite), as well as where any faulty barrels were analyzed and repaired by the “coopers.” The coopers are considered expert barrel-makers - they have worked at every station in the cooperage and are the most efficient problem-solvers and craftsmen.
My favorite station where the barrels were charred, finished, and sent through for shipment was quite exciting because I was able to get this beautiful photo of a 40-second char (which will make for one, smoky whiskey). Understanding the toasting / charring process, I found, was the perfect foundation for all of the other whiskey-filled learning that I would be partaking in the following day.
Day 1: James Beard Foundation’s “Taste Louisville” Event at Ashbourne Farms
As I rode out into the country outside of Louisville with my chaperon, Chris Poynter of Woodford Reserve, I was struck by the rolling, green hills of Kentucky’s countryside. We passed by beautiful, often brick, homes with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of acres of farmland. Some with livestock, some with crop, and some with both. I was entranced by it all and made the half hour ride out to the event seem like 10 minutes.
We finally reached the destination and drove down a very long “driveway,” passing by the front portion of the Brown (of Brown-Forman) family’s 3000 acre property. Once we passed all of the farmland, we turned down a smaller road that led to the destination of the event: Ashbourne Farms. The space was a beautifully renovated barn made for weddings and special events with a kitchen fit for any occasion. Behind the barn, on the back-side of the property, there were trees and rolling hills in the distance. I, literally, just stood there and soaked it all in before stopping to grab my whiskey sour which was on draft at Woodford Reserve’s pop-up bar, then I stepped inside the “barn.” I thought to myself, “this may be the most beautiful place I’ll ever walk into.” It was.
I walked into the entry space with exposed wooden beams and high ceilings, where I was greeted by servers with small bites made by some of the noteworthy, outstanding chefs selected by the James Beard Foundation. The place was buzzing with southern accents and genuine conversation. There was not a poorly dressed person in the place.
Large doors, made of windows, on my left, exposed the natural setting of rolling hills and forest that I had just witnessed prior to walking in, and a culturally rich reading room existed through the doorway on my right where Woodford Reserve’s Master Distiller, Chris Morris, and Assistant Master Distiller, Elizabeth McCall, were leading a tasting of all of their expressions. But, of course, I walked straight ahead to the first floor bar for a cocktail mixed up by one of the local mixologists - social lubricant as it’s often called.
There was a mezzanine level to the barn where each chef, and their restaurant staff, had a table to showcase their small bites for the evening. The small bites were paired with some mood-appropriate live music, as well as a second bar that overlooked the downstairs dining space that was headed up by the bar team of New Orleans’ award-winning, Cure.
Separate from the beauty of a space that I deemed the “Blue Hill Stone Barns” of Louisville (except without the regular dining service), the people that I met were absolutely lovely. Coming from a city where conversation with strangers could be, oftentimes, superficial, it was a breath of fresh air to experience southern hospitality in the form of connection through conversation. It’s a real thing, people. Individuals who I had just met were introducing me to their friends who had approached to say hello. Instead of making me feel alienated, which could have been the case, instead I was embraced and welcomed as though I was a part of the community. I was sincerely grateful for this thoughtful gesture.
I met influential individuals of all kinds, including one of the owners of Justify, the most recent triple-crown winner and the only horse to end its career undefeated in professional horse racing, and the mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer. Although many of these individuals were very well-endowed through their familial, and personal successes, they were some of the most down to earth people that I’ve ever spoken to.
The top-tier dining experience and auction that followed were quite the thrill and treat but, for me, the beautiful venue and hospitable company truly stood out and made me feel comfortable and cared for in a way that was unique to the place (Kentucky). It was, without a doubt, the most lavish event I have ever been to. It was an unforgettable culinary and cultural experience that I look forward to experiencing again in the future. The James Beard Foundation put together this impactful tour across America to bring all sorts of people together around food and drink, as well as raise money for their food-centered initiatives, such as “Waste Not,” an initiative focused on encouraging culinary professionals and home cooks to reduce food waste by thinking differently about food and adopting full-use cooking methods. If James Beard’s Taste America tour comes to your city, although it won’t be Taste Louisville, do yourself a favor and buy tickets - it will be well worth your time.
Day 2: A Day at Woodford Reserve Distillery
While the previous experiences were primarily word-driven, I was lucky enough to capture some imagery from my time at the distillery, so I hope you enjoy this little piece of photographic journalism from my day at Woodford Reserve led by Chris Morris and Elizabeth McCall, with the James Beard Foundation and their exceptionally talented selection of chefs.
Woodford Reserve is the first, and only, triple distilled, copper-pot bourbon available in the U.S. Pictured here are their three copper pot-stills (one is cut-off): the beer still, wine still, and spirit still. Triple-distillation isn’t the most efficient process—heating the liquid three times means it has more opportunities to evaporate (Woodford Reserve lose approximately 50% of their distillate through evaporation - a.k.a the Angel’s Share) —but it’s worth the price, creating richer alcohol vapors.
Woodford Reserve carefully control the distilling process through their management of temperature to ensure the unwanted alcohols (i.e. ethyl and methanol) can be eliminated. This separation, or elimination, of the unpleasant and unwanted substances is called rectification and is obtained by removing the heads and tails of the distillate (which contain the unwanted alcohols), while keeping the hearts.
Lunch was proper as ever with the stunning, crystal, Baccarat glassware, the beautifully set table with a floral arrangement that smelled as good as it looked, and food to match which was prepared by Woodford’s chef-in-residence. Bourbon and fine wine was flowing as well, of course.
Master Distiller, Chris Morris, poured an exclusive expression of Woodford Reserve for the group to taste shortly after lunch. Owner, and bartender, of Cure in New Orleans, mindfully smelled the complex aromatic character of this delicious whiskey. This unique expression will be released in 2019, so start saving your pennies.
Each member of the group signed a special barrel of Woodford Reserve. I signed right beneath James Beard award-winning (Best Chef: Southeast 2017) chef Steven Satterfield (pictured below). Talk about leaving your mark, right?
We ended the afternoon with a demonstration of how distillers used to char barrels back in the 1800s. Assistant Master Distiller, Elizabeth McCall (pictured below) added hay, and lit it on fire. Once the barrel caught fire, the group counted to twenty-five to track the char level, then the fire was extinguished. Depending on the expression, the char level varies. No matter how old you get, fire still seems to be exciting … especially in the context of bourbon.