It’s a straight nine-hour drive from Toronto. While there are no direct flights to Lexington, most major airlines offer one-stop flights. Or, fly direct to Cincinnati and rent a car for the short drive to Kentucky.
WHERE TO STAY
21c Museum Hotel is modern and bright, and it has original art on each floor. Rooms start at $270 per night. 167 West Main St.
For distillery tours, you’ll need a car. If travelling with a group, Mint Julep Tours will drive you between destinations outside of Lexington. Uber and cab services are affordable to reach destinations outside of Lexington’s downtown core.
I keep returning to Kentucky. The state is infectious. It's not just for the whisky, though there’s plenty of that. It's for the presence of Kentucky. There’s a rich heritage of horse racing, food and culture that takes time to peel back.
Lexington is the smaller of Kentucky’s two main tourism centres – the other being Louisville – and it was my home base for my most recent trip in May. On the surface, Lexington seems a little plain. When travelling, I'm often reminded that we’re very spoiled by the diversity of food and cocktail culture in Toronto. But Lexington is quickly becoming a very cool, very quirky town, not unlike Austin or Portland.
The downtown core is rich with theatre, art and plenty of bars that supply entertainment for students from the nearby college. There's a wonderful seedy character to Lexington, and if you’re willing to venture a little outside your comfort zone, you’ll be rewarded with some great experiences.
This is especially true in the case of the dive bars. Arcadium, with its old arcade games and vibrant crowd, is not to be missed. The Green Lantern Bar requires some courage to enter: the weathered green door and loud crowd of unfamiliar patrons can be intimidating. Once inside, though, you'll find yourself at home with cheap drinks, a free pool table and a truly local crowd. Neither bars serve food, but both allow dogs, so you'll occasionally see a furry friend later in the evening.
Lexington has a wonderful seedy character to it
I’m mesmerized by two restaurants a short cab ride from downtown Lexington. The first is Middle Fork Kitchen Bar. Mark Jensen, executive chef, was a successful food truck operator before opening his first restaurant. The wood-fired grill steals the show as you enter, and it’s the source of many great dishes.
Go with the duck breast from the grill, along with the lamb sausages and beef tartare. And don’t miss the bread boule, which comes with with a candle made from delicious brisket fat that melts onto the wooden board it’s served on. Middle Fork is located in Lexington’s own Distillery District, which is a tourist attraction in itself with an ice cream shop and brewery within.
The second must-visit restaurant is County Club. Years ago, when I first took a cab to the restaurant, the driver refused to let us out because he said the area is dangerous. It’s not. This restaurant immediately invites you in with big broad windows and a young, engaged crowd.
County Club is considered a pioneer of modern food trends in Lexington, and on the menu you’ll find Vietnamese fried Brussels sprouts, smoked flank steak and of course, tacos. The beer menu contains rotating taps from local breweries.
If you feel inclined for a few post-dinner drinks, Lexington’s most famous microbrewery, West Sixth Brewing, is just down the street. This large beer hall is famous for its IPA, and it’s focused on producing beer sustainably and on giving back to the neighbourhood by working with local nonprofit organizations.
I’m sad to say that I’ve not had much luck with barbecue in Kentucky. No matter how authentic some locations look and feel, they’re more in the style of Toronto’s mainstream barbecue joints than anything I’ve had in Kansas City or Austin. Blue Door Smokehouse is the exception, though, and worth the line up.
Keeneland racetrack is a draw for horse racing fans and non-fans alike, and it’s a true expression of Kentucky. Seasonal opening weekends rival any sporting event we have in Toronto. The crowd dresses up: you’ll see women in summer dresses and big hats and men with loud ties, funky shirts and shorts. The drinks are expensive and the parking is a pain, but it’s still worth it for the ambiance.
Kentucky's love of bourbon and horse racing happen to be tightly intertwined. In the 1700s and 1800s, merchants loaded up barges with barrels of whisky. They travelled down the Mississippi River selling their goods along the way. When they reached New Orleans, the last of their whisky was sold on Bourbon Street in what is now the French Quarter.
Kentucky's love of bourbon and horse racing happen to be tightly intertwined
These traders, flush with gold, purchased the best horses for their trip back north. The fastest horses, it was believed, gave you better odds of surviving a treacherous path littered with armed robbers. When the surviving merchants reached Kentucky, they sold these proven horses for cheap. Kentucky already held a rich love of dog racing, and horse racing became a new obsession that continues today.
While there is way more to Kentucky than bourbon, you’d be selling yourself short to not pay at least a little bit of attention to this integral part of the region’s history. And Lexington is close to some of the big distilleries of Kentucky, including Buffalo Trace, Four Roses and Wild Turkey.
Kentuckians love their bourbons authentic, and they have the laws to prove it. Bourbon, protected federally by the United States, is whisky made primarily of corn (51 per cent), malted barley and usually rye (though sometimes wheat). As is often said in Kentucky, “All bourbon is whisky, but not all whisky is bourbon.”
Like all whiskies, the base ingredients are first fermented to make a beer, and then the resulting beer is distilled. Bourbon may be the most stringently regulated whisky in the world. While most whiskies allow for some additives (even Scotch might get a dab of food colouring), bourbon is not permitted any additives except for water.
Distilleries in the region have a history going back to the late 1700s, and many of the distilleries today retain the charm of old Kentucky. This is most exemplified by Castle & Key Distillery, located on the property of Old Taylor Distillery. The distillery dates back to the late 1800s, but it was abandoned in the 1980s when whisky sales slumped. When the property was purchased in 2012, it was completely overgrown with vegetation.
On my visit there in May, much of the property had been restored and modernized. It's expected to open to the public in August.
The original owner of the distillery was Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr., whose name may not be familiar, but he was partially responsible for passing the first consumer protection act in America: the Bottled-in-Bond Act.
Prior to this, less credible whisky makers added iodine – or even tobacco spit – to darken their whisky, because dark whisky was seen as a more premium product. Back then, whisky was often prescribed as medicine, and the protection act was not unlike an assurance of pharmaceutical quality control. Colonel Taylor continues to be viewed as one of America’s biggest whisky influencers for this reason.
Kentuckians love their bourbons authentic, and they have the laws to prove it
When building Old Taylor Distillery, Colonel Taylor was loosely inspired by European architecture and the rich experience one might have purchasing brandy in France. That’s the reason for the large impressive castle that’s the main feature of the property. While the castle gives the impression of being a home, inside you’ll find big fermenters and two modest whisky-producing stills.
When I walked the grounds with master distiller Marianne Barnes, it was apparent that she draws inspiration from the storied history of this distillery. In the past, women were deeply involved in making whisky, but Barnes is Kentucky’s first female master distiller since prohibition – and she’s considered a prodigy. She held the master distiller role at Woodford Reserve before taking on a role for Castle & Key.
The open fermenters used at the distillery are traditional, allowing for wild yeast to participate in the process. Unfortunately, the distillery only started making whisky in the late summer of 2016, so the whisky won't be available until at least 2021.
Colonel Taylor's most well-known distillery is Buffalo Trace, which pre-dates many distilleries in Scotland. At Buffalo Trace you’ll see the authentically industrial side of the bourbon-making business. Beautiful big warehouses are scattered throughout the property, with piping running along it. In the mornings, a crystalline fog entrenches the foothills on the furthest side. If you get there on the right day, you'll see new barrels of whisky lazily rolling down an above-ground track to the warehouse.
I walked the grounds of Buffalo Trace with Freddie Johnson. While he often goes by the title of tour guide, in truth, he's a historian and storyteller for the region.
“History can be baggage, or it can be an enhancer … it makes you who you are,” Johnson told me.
He is a third-generation employee of Buffalo Trace, and he started working at the distillery as a tour guide almost 17 years ago. Tours are free, and they book early. He has many interesting tales to tell, so I recommend asking for his VIP tour.
“Unbridled spirit” is Kentucky's official slogan. It's a modern state, with patches of counties that have been alcohol-free since before prohibition. The politics are complex, but you’ll probably find the youth more Canadian in their views than southern.
It's a modest state, with a fascinating history and a growing momentum of food trends taking inspiration from other parts of America. Each time I return from Kentucky, I start planning my next trip there – and my next adventure.