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."