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Kentucky's Bourbon and Golf Trail | T+L Golf

Randy Harris Bluegrass Country

Photo: Randy Harris

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.


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