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.