There is something in the water—and it’s not just my golf ball. E. H. Taylor knew what it was. The Kentucky colonel bet his bankroll on it. By the 1870s Taylor had gathered all the science he would need to tie his fortune to the amber elixir that still carries the name of the state’s Bourbon County to most corners of the civilized world.
The man many call a father of the modern bourbon industry was aware that Kentucky’s rolling Bluegrass Country is perched on a giant limestone aquifer and that for bourbon, limestone is the philosopher’s stone: pure magic. When water passes through it, iron and other unwanted minerals filter out. Meanwhile, calcium filters in, later to combine with yeast in the fermentation process. "I do not believe that one can exaggerate the vital importance of a proper water in the manufacture of the finest grades of whiskey," avowed Taylor, who wound up buying or building many distilleries around Frankfort, the city he presided over for years as mayor. "And I am convinced that nowhere in the world can one find superior water for this purpose than in certain geological areas within the state of Kentucky."
It’s an observation I seek solace in when, on my approach to the par-five third at Kearney Hill Golf Links, I discover a less noble quality of the state’s water: It can swallow golf balls whole. But my playing partner, Doug Cauthen, who worships at the same well Colonel Taylor did, points out yet another redeeming quality of this calcium-rich water. "It’s what makes Lexington the horse capital of the world," says Cauthen, president of WinStar Farm, the breeder of Bluegrass Cat, who finished second in the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Kearney Hill prances over the muscular countryside on the outskirts of Lexington, and through a copse of trees left of the seventh and eighth holes we spy colts and fillies finding their legs on the training track of a thoroughbred farm called Hurricane Hall. "Horses need strong bones," says Cauthen, "and calcium builds strong bones." How could I harbor a grudge against a tonic capable of that?
So on this, my first foray into Kentucky, you could say I’ve come to test the water. Without it, bourbon—"America’s native spirit," as declared by act of Congress—would not be bourbon, and the horses might be pulling beer wagons instead of running for the roses on the first Saturday each May. And though the alluring mix of whiskey and thoroughbreds served to place this pastoral region on the map, be advised: Bluegrass Country is also fertile ground for golf. Just close your eyes and imagine loops of eighteen etched out of the sloping grassy expanses that racehorses have been fortifying themselves on for more than two centuries.
Bluegrass Country covers eight thousand square miles of the north-central part of the state, according to the University of Kentucky. It comprises two parts: the inner bluegrass, essentially an oval with Lexington at the center and Frankfort on the western edge, and the outer bluegrass, extending north and west to the state’s border on the Ohio River and defined by a ring of sandstone hills known as the Knobs. The outer bluegrass encompasses Louisville, home of Churchill Downs, and Bardstown, which helped inspire the song "My Old Kentucky Home" and lies a few split rails from Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. Horse country spreads across both sections. As does the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Seven of the state’s eight surviving commercial whiskey makers—there were more than two thousand distilleries in the early 1800s—welcome visitors into their sanctums of enormous stills and sweet-smelling rickhouses to see and taste how bourbon is made. Four of them (Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey and Four Roses) are located around Frankfort, forty minutes northwest of Lexington. The other three (Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam) are in or near Bardstown.
Over five days in May just after the Kentucky Derby, I set out to explore this swath of Americana. I chose four distilleries as my way stations and arranged games at the finest public golf courses nearby. I flew into Cincinnati, swung south toward Lexington and then headed southwest to Bardstown and slightly beyond the bounds of Bluegrass Country to the town of Falls of Rough.
I arrive early for my first tee time, at Lassing Pointe Golf Course, and the pro suggests I go right out. On the par-five first hole, I somehow manage to hit both tiers of architect Michael Hurdzan’s split-level fairway. This, I’m thinking, is no backwoods golf course, and nothing I experience over the following seventeen holes changes my mind. The landing areas are generous and the putting surfaces sly. Water taunts on three of the final five holes. The eighteenth features a gargantuan green—longer than a football field—with water to the front and back and the grave of a Revolutionary War veteran to the right. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I can’t get over the greens fee: less than forty dollars. Value, I discover, is a hallmark of golf in Bluegrass Country. None of the five courses I ended up playing posted weekday rates that reached fifty dollars. And they’re all memorable layouts, with impressive architectural bloodlines and championship credentials. Kearney Hill, crafted by Pete and P. B. Dye, hosted the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links in June. Old Silo Golf Club in Mount Sterling, thirty miles east of Lexington, served as a U.S. Open qualifying site this past spring.
After my round at Lassing Pointe, I head south for Lexington, staying two nights at the Gratz Park Inn, a charming hotel in the city’s historic district. It serves as an ideal base from which to make early stops along the Bourbon Trail (conveniently marked by brown signs along the highways) at Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve. Then I drive down winding roads south of Bardstown to Loretto (population 623), where I meet Dave Pickerell, the master distiller at Maker’s Mark, the bourbon that in the 1950s set out to change the way America’s signature whiskey was perceived.
Though Maker’s Mark is barely fifty years old, whiskey has been made on this site since 1805, and the bearded, burly Pickerell, a West Point grad with a master’s degree in chemical engineering, proves to be a fount of lore. "Back then, it didn’t matter what bourbon tasted like," he says. "It wasn’t gonna stay in your mouth long enough to matter."
Bill Samuels Sr., for one, didn’t like it. Samuels was descended from a long line of distillers (a lineage still intact through his son, Bill Jr., who runs Maker’s Mark today), but in the early 1950s he took a mulligan. He tossed out old family recipes in search of a bourbon less bitter, one to roll gently around the tongue rather than simply knock back. This he achieved by substituting red winter wheat for rye as the flavor grain. Samuels tapped the first batch of Maker’s Mark from a charred-oak barrel in 1954 and it’s been flowing ever since. By the mid-nineties, Maker’s was selling 175,000 cases a year; now the figure is more than three-quarters of a million. "Who would have thought," asks Pickerell, "that the words ’premium’ and ’bourbon’ could end up in the same sentence?"
There was also a time when the terms "premium" and "golf" were mutually exclusive in Kentucky. Old Silo, which opened in 2001, is part of a trend that’s changed that. The first U.S. design of Australian Graham Marsh, the course features open fairways and wild elevation changes, including a ninety-five-foot drop from tee to landing area on the creek-lined par-four sixth. The hole seems designed to measure not just distance but hang time as well.
After a morning round at Old Silo, I drive an hour west to Woodford Reserve in Versailles. The company’s distillery is set beside Grassy Springs Creek and accessed by a road cloaked in a canopy of trees. Dave Scheurich, the general manager, is awaiting my arrival. Woodford is old (established in 1812) and comparatively small, and it produces only a namesake brand. Rundown and abandoned in the 1970s, the distillery was restored in the mid-1990s. We tour the still, where I sample the grain mash at different stages of fermentation: early (when it’s bitter) and late (sweeter). Then we sit on a porch overlooking the stillhouse, where the bourbon is distilled. Scheurich pours his nectar into a snifter and hands it to me. I lift the glass and examine the color: deep amber. I sniff. Hints of vanilla and caramel. And I sip. The tastes hit different parts of my palate: sweet on the tongue, dry in the back of the mouth and a little prickly going down. "If you’re looking for a glass of 7Up to help it," Scheurich says, "we haven’t done our job."
Related: Seven Secrets of Churchill Downs
I reflect on that the next day during my long drive to Bardstown along Frankfort Pike, the road defined by open pastures, lyrical barns and lithesome mares grazing alongside their foals. After checking in at the historic Old Talbott Tavern, I head off to Kenny Rapier Golf Course in My Old Kentucky Home State Park. On a descent into the hollow of the par-three second, the unmistakable aroma of bourbon grows so intense that I think I’m hallucinating. At the fifth hole, I find its source: nearby Heaven Hill Distilleries. As I stand over my putt, I inhale the perfumed air, and in that instant golf and bourbon become one. Although the course, with modestly rolling hills, lacks the drama of all the others I would play, the golf is effortless fun. What’s more, a creek bisecting the sixteenth and seventeenth holes offers a wonderful laboratory for observing the striations in limestone just above the stream bed: Bluegrass Country waterworks in microcosm.
Which got me thinking about another connection between golf and spirits: Scotland and the rise of single malts in the 1970s. With the cachet they commanded over blended whiskeys, single malts forced the bourbon barons to come up with new concepts just to compete. They devised small-batch bourbons—premium bottlings of a limited number of specially selected barrels. Elmer T. Lee took it further, devising the even fancier idea of single-barrel bottling. Both methods aimed directly at the palates and prestige meters of a generation of drinkers who wouldn’t be caught dead sipping from the same jug as their forebears.
At age eighty-eight, Lee is part dean, part legend of the bourbon industry. Long retired, he was the master distiller at Buffalo Trace and is one of only two living masters to have a brand named in his honor, a fitting tribute to the revolutionary concept he came up with. Unlike Scheurich, Lee doesn’t mind cutting his bourbon with soda. "I have a highball every night before dinner mixed with either Sprite or 7Up," he volunteers while leading me through one of the dark open-air rickhouses at Buffalo Trace. Whiskey has been distilled under one name or another on this site since 1775. Now a massive operation that comprises scores of buildings spread over 110 acres, the distillery produces fourteen brands and twenty-four variations, or "expressions," on them.
When his bosses wanted to create something with the mystique to rival the finest single malts, Lee remembered how his mentor, an industry giant named Colonel Albert B. Blanton who ran Buffalo Trace in the years after Prohibition, would occasionally wander through his favorite rickhouse, sample several barrels and tap the one he liked best for his own drinking pleasure. Lee thought the idea might work on a larger scale, and in 1984 he came up with Blanton’s, the original single-barrel bourbon (its bottle capped with an eye-catching racehorse figurine). When he retired two years later—he remains the distillery’s goodwill ambassador and sits on its tasting panel—Lee was asked by his successor if he would mind a label bearing his own name. Sure, Lee said, as long as he could choose the bourbon. "I like a traditional taste," he explains. "Vanilla, caramel, a little sweetness. Not harsh. No aftertaste. A hint of oak and fruit from the barrel. A balance, really."
As Doug Cauthen and I walk to our balls in the fairway of Kearney Hill’s gently bending par-four seventeenth, he describes horse breeding in similar terms of balance. "It’s mechanical science and it’s an art. There are so many time-tested traditions, but we’re always trying to improve things," says Cauthen, whose brother Steve won the Triple Crown astride Affirmed in 1978. "Golf’s like that, too. It’s all a balance between tradition and technology."
Two days later, I can’t help but balance old and new as I navigate my way around the water-encroached fairways of Lafayette Golf Club. Once the homestead of a mid-nineteenth-century congressman named Willis Green, the farm, mill and manor house fell into neglect after the death of Green’s great-granddaughter, known as Miss Jennie, in 1965.
Miss Jennie’s old house has new life as a stylish nine-room bed-and-breakfast, perfect for traveling golfers and others who want to explore the region. The course, designed by architect Jodie Kinney, the rare woman in an almost exclusively male profession, celebrates the farm’s natural lakes and streams, its mature hardwoods and its rolling topography.
After hitting a good drive, I duck-hook my second shot into the lake fronting the green on the eighteenth hole. Suddenly I recall something Elmer T. Lee told me earlier in the week about Colonel Blanton. Asked why he always put the water in first when diluting his bourbon, Blanton replied, "If you add bourbon to water, you’re making the water better. If you add water to bourbon, you’re making the bourbon worse."
And when you add a golf ball to water?On second thought, I just drop another and reload.
The best times of year to visit Bluegrass Country are spring and fall. April and May offer the chance to see redbuds and dogwoods blooming and thoroughbred foals scampering in their paddocks. Come October, the graceful trees that line the country roads of the Bourbon Trail wear dappled coats of autumn colors.
Where to Play
Kearney Hill Golf Links
This links-style design in rolling horse country tests players’ nerves with plenty of water and sand (there are twelve bunkers on the short par-four sixth alone). It’s hosted a Champions Tour event as well as the men’s and women’s U.S. Amateur Public Links. 3403 Kearney Road, Lexington. Architects: Pete and P. B. Dye, 1989. Yardage: 7,031. Par: 72. Slope: 131. Greens Fees: $23–$34. Contact: 859-253-1981.
Old Silo Golf Club
As much a thrill ride as a golf course, this layout rises and falls along some precipitous slopes. Approach shots on the par-four sixteenth must steer clear of an abandoned silo looming just off the left side of the fairway. 350 Silver Lake Drive, Mount Sterling. Architect: Graham Marsh, 2000. Yardage: 7,011. Par: 72. Slope: 139. Greens Fees: $49–$59. Contact: 877-653-7456, oldsilo.com.
Kenny Rapier Golf Course
If you’re playing this gently contoured layout in a southerly breeze, the fragrance of whiskey wafting from near the fifth hole should assuage any flubs. And four times every hour, bells sound the longing lilt of "My Old Kentucky Home," the name of the state park that encompasses the course. 668 Loretto Road, Bardstown. Architects: Unknown, 1928; Fred Rux, 2001. Yardage: 6,385. Par: 71. Slope: 128. Greens Fees: $20–$38. Contact: 800-323-7803.
Lafayette Golf Club
Laid out over old farmland, this course has been ranked highly in the state ever since it opened a decade ago. Unfortunately, it suffered a maintenance meltdown in 2005 that’s taken a new superintendent and most of this year to begin turning around. 57 Jennie Green Road, Falls of Rough. Architect: Jodie Kinney, 1997. Yardage: 6,942. Par: 72. Slope: 133. Greens Fees: $32–$42. Contact: 800-504-0906, lafayettegolfclub.com.
Lassing Pointe Golf Course
There’s no shortage of intrigue on this layout just south of Cincinnati, from the split-fairway opening hole to the hundred-plus-yard-long eighteenth green, guarded by water and the grave of a Revolutionary War veteran. 2266 Double Eagle Drive, Union. Architect: Michael Hurdzan, 1994. Yardage: 6,724. Par: 71. Slope: 133. Greens Fees: $37–$51. Contact: 859-384-2266.
Where to Stay
Gratz Park Inn Located in Lexington’s historic district, what was once the oldest medical clinic west of the Alleghenies has been converted into a charming hotel with thirty-eight rooms and six suites. It’s home to one of the area’s best restaurants, Jonathan (see next page). 120 West Second Street, Lexington. Rooms: from $169. Contact: 800-752-4166, gratzparkinn.com.
Green Mansion Bed & Breakfast This elegant brick manor specializes in housing golfers who are in town to play Lafayette. With only a few restaurants close by, innkeeper Mary Huffman tenders an alternative: She’ll gladly fire up the grill out back as long as you supply the provisions. 55 Jennie Green Road, Falls of Rough. Rooms: from $69. Contact: 270-879-3486, greenfarmresort.com.
Old Talbott Tavern The five rooms at this eighteenth-century stone inn offer a combination of antique furniture and modern convenience. One caveat: The live music in the Bourbon Bar downstairs on Thursday through Saturday nights can be rather loud. 107 West Stephen Foster Avenue, Bardstown. Rooms: from $70. Contact: 800-482-8376, talbotts.com.
Where to eat
Jonathan at Gratz Park Inn Chef and owner Jonathan Lundy—whose ancestors founded Calumet Farm, breeder of eight Kentucky Derby winners—serves sophisticated regional fare. His innovations include pork prime rib with hot slaw and bacon that’s been smoked over burning stoppers from Maker’s Mark barrels. 120 West Second Street, Lexington; 859-252-4949. $$$$
Kurtz Restaurant Merrill and Annette Kurtz opened the front rooms of their home to hungry locals in 1937. Today, their daughter, Marilyn Kurtz Dick (a.k.a. "Toogie"), has kept up the tradition, making sure the skillet-fried chicken remains as perfectly crisp and grease-free as ever. 418 East Stephen Foster Avenue, Bardstown; 502-348-8964. $$$
Ramsey’s The original of a small chain of diners is not much to look at, but there’s no need to look beyond the hot brown. A heap of Kentucky comfort food, it consists of turkey and ham on toast, swimming in gravy, covered with tomatoes and bacon and topped with melted cheddar. Save some room for a slice of homemade chocolate-cream pie. 496 East High Street, Lexington; 859-259-2708. $
All eight of Kentucky’s commercial whiskey makers have operations in Bluegrass Country. Four are centered on Frankfort: Buffalo Trace (buffalotracedistillery.com), Four Roses (fourrosesbourbon.com), Wild Turkey (wildturkeybourbon.com) and Woodford Reserve (woodford reserve.com). The rest are in or near Bardstown: Barton Brands (1792bourbon.com), Heaven Hill (heaven-hill.com), Jim Beam (jimbeam.com) and Maker’s Mark (makersmark.com). Except for Barton, all of them offer guided tours and tastings.
Check the schedule at Churchill Downs churchilldowns.com) in Louisville to see if a race is going on, or visit the legendary track’s impressive museum.