The sour, unmistakable smell of fermenting whiskey filled my head as soon as I stepped inside the distilling room. There’s not another scent quite like that and I recognized it immediately, harkening back to a visit I made to the Woodford Reserve distillery several years ago. I listened attentively as our tour guide explained the bourbon distilling process, showing us the various bottles for purchase, and making friendly small talk with my Dad, who had accompanied me on my visit to the Town Branch Bourbon distillery in Lexington, KY. As I took my first sip of their single-barrel Kentucky bourbon whiskey, I will admit to the fact that I sort of tuned everything out for a second or two, surprised by how much I enjoyed the flavors contained in that small, unassuming plastic cup and its amber-colored liquid. I’ve had bourbon plenty of times before, but it has almost always been paired with something else, something to cut the intensity – that one-two punch it so often has when served neat. Ginger ale or ginger beer, Coke (Diet or otherwise), a healthy squeeze of lime, water, etc. So, I was genuinely caught off guard by how easily this was going down; this sip of small-batch, single-barrel bourbon I took while standing in the tasting room that day. I didn’t even have to feign composure or grapple with my facial expression, and that is really saying something (I am, you see, the opposite of cool).
“Would you like to try the rye as well?” Our tour guide asked.
Don’t mind if I do. Nope, don’t mind at all, I thought. I reached across the counter and happily retrieved my second plastic, bourbon-filled cup and tossed it back, perhaps a bit too swiftly this time … a little too enthusiastically given that it was not yet 10:30 in the morning.
Our guide smiled as I placed my cup back down on the counter. “You know the feeling you get deep down inside when you take that first sip of bourbon? The sort of slow, easy burn? That’s what we call a Kentucky hug.”
“Just watch your head!” my cousin warned, as I stooped and ducked my way through the old, wonky doorway that led into the large abandoned warehouse. “I wish the lights were on … you’d get a better view. You could see where all of the old barrels were stored.” Clay, my cousin, is the owner of a commercial real estate firm that has played a large role in helping to develop the old Distillery District in Lexington, and he so kindly offered to give me a grand tour. Paying little mind to the pesky “100% chance of rain” that had been forecasted for the majority of the afternoon, we wandered through the myriad establishments that line the side of the small but growing area and paid a visit to some of the artisans and proprietors who have decided to call the Distillery District home.
With Clay and my one-year-old son waiting patiently for me outside, I walked into the massive room that makes up what once was an active distillery, and is now an abandoned, broken-windowed, behemoth of a property that it seems time has all but forgotten. The large room in which I stood was almost completely dark, save for the light that flowed in from a few of those broken-paned windows to which I referred. A few small red light bulbs were positioned throughout the room, glowing their brightest in an effort to better illuminate things, but they mostly looked like beady little eyes, watching me as I shuffled around on the dirt-covered floor, hoping my own eyes would adjust sooner or later. I stood there for a few seconds, trying my best to snap a decent photo, and listening to the rain fall outside and all around, its sound amplified by the raw, almost instrumental materials of which the warehouse was constructed. In a way though, I was glad that the lights were off and that things were so shut down. It almost forces your imagination into high gear, as you stand in wonderment over what went on there so many years ago. The hushed darkness that surrounded me was, I’m sure, a stark contrast to the lively, bustling scene that must have colored its rooms during the Distillery District’s heyday.
Just across the parking lot from where I stood in that warehouse, stands the old James E. Pepper bourbon distillery which, with its distinctive silhouette, seems to stand as a beacon for the surrounding area. “That’s where we’re headed now,” Clay said as he motioned in the direction of Pepper’s distillery. “This is the only waterfront property in town, you know,” he added, referring to the Town Branch Creek that carves out the southern boundary of the district. Buried for more than 100 years, the Town Branch Creek has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in recent years as local officials are working to bring it to the surface again. “The Town Branch Creek is kind of the DNA, the anatomy of how we became a city and how we developed as a city,” said Van Meter Pettit, president of Town Branch Trail Inc. (www.weku.fm).
In 1775, the Town Branch Creek provided a source of fresh spring water for settlers who traveled along the creek’s middle fork and now, fast forward a couple of centuries, you can still clearly see the bones of industry that grew from those first settlements; in the abandoned distillery warehouses, the old mills, and even in the railroad tracks that seem to create a decorative border for the area.
You know the feeling you get when you’re witnessing something new, something that is still in its very early stages – a new idea, a debut novel, an innovative product, maybe even a new singer or band – and you can just tell that it’s going to be a big deal? That’s the feeling I had throughout the entirety of my whirlwind tour that day. Over the course of 24 hours, I made three trips to the district – eating, drinking, shopping, exploring, learning – all in an attempt to get a better grasp of what exactly was going on in that industrial, tucked-away, gritty-surfaced corner of my hometown.
Following my highly successful introductory prelude at the Town Branch distillery, I made my way around the rest of that district like a critic for the New York Times, seeking fodder for my next big review. We stopped in Kentucky Knows to grab a quick cup of jo and to learn the story behind owner Tony’s specially crafted bourbon barrel coffees and handmade goods. Using old Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels, Tony roasts his Guatemalan arabica beans to a unique level of toasty, smoky bourbon-scented perfection. I had no choice but to buy several bags. We swung by Crank and Boom ice creamery so I could grab Elle a pint of the raspberry sorbet I’d promised before I left the house. For me, however, I opted for their honey bourbon ice cream. When in Rome, after all.
With my childhood best friend perched across the table from me, I spent my evening in the Distillery District dining on fantastically delicious fare at Middle Fork Kitchen Bar, which I cannot recommend highly enough if you are ever in the area. The short ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender and they sat atop a cloud of the fluffiest winter veggies you or your plate could ever hope for – no exaggeration. The Town Branch Creek runs just outside of the restaurant, and I was proud that I could fully appreciate its name, “Middle Fork,” as would too the area’s original settlers I’d like to believe. I capped my evening appropriately with my new favorite cocktail, an Old Fashioned, which was popularized by none other than James Pepper himself. The bartender handed me my drink and I took my first sip, shaking my head and scrunching my face up as the bourbon hit the back of my throat (opposite of cool, remember?). I smiled at her, even though I don’t think she was looking at this point, and I laughed to myself.
Those Kentucky hugs will get you every time.
Chocolate Bourbon Waffles with Salted
Bourbon Maple Syrup
these waffles are fluffy and just chocolatey enough, and we make them ALL the time in my house. The batter comes together quickly and the waffles absolutely drink up the maple syrup. So, it doesn’t hurt to make a double batch of that …
1.5 cups all purpose flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup white sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1 cup milk
2 teaspoons bourbon vanilla extract (regular vanilla extract is great too)
1.5 tablespoons bourbon
4 tablespoons melted butter
Salted Bourbon Maple Syrup (simply warm 1 cup maple syrup, a hefty pinch of salt and a splash of bourbon in a small saucepan until ready to serve)
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and cocoa. Stir in the milk, bourbon vanilla, eggs, and melted butter until smooth. Spray a pre-heated waffle iron with non-stick spray and cook the waffles, using about 1/2-cup batter per, until all of the batter is gone. Serve warm with boozy bourbon maple syrup.