Day 15: Whiskeylandia
I got up early on Tuesday, needing to get to Frankfort, Kentucky by 2 p.m., a three-and-a-half hour drive that also included an hour I’d lose crossing time zones. Why did I need to get to Frankfort by two p.m.? To visit the Buffalo Trace Distillery, the oldest continuously operating maker of bourbon in the United States. I’ll allow Lionel Hutz to explain my feelings on the subject of bourbon.
I drove real fast and reached the distillery just after one and stepped out of my car to the overpowering smell of fermenting malted grain. If you’ve ever done a brewery tour, you know how strangely heavenly that smell is. I’d narrowly missed the standard tour, but I got to take a behind-the scenes tour that took me back to stare into the 93,000 gallon fermenting tanks and walked me through the distillation process.
I then got to do a small whiskey-tasting, trying Buffalo Trace’s eponymous whiskey and it’s higher grade brand, Eagle Rare 10-year. This is the time that I explain that Buffalo Trace is where they bottle Pappy Van Winkle, the greatest alcohol I’ve ever had in my life. Pappy is incredibly expensive (I paid $35 for a shot of the 15-year old, only the third longest-aged vintage, at a bar in Santa Monica a couple of months ago) and impossible to find (I’ve never seen it in a liquor store, although my dad found a couple of bottles in Europe last year, and my tour guide said he hadn’t seen a bottle of it in a year-and-a-half. Wright Thompson explains more about Pappy here.) I had been hoping to buy as much Pappy as I was legally allowed, but with this plan thwarted, I bought a bottle of the Eagle Rare, which, in case you’re curious, is widely available and at $30-35 is affordable and really, really good. I also carried a new hope with me: My tour guide told me that 12-year old W.L. Weller is made with the same recipe as Pappy, and he said he thinks it tastes better. Clearly I needed to find a bottle.
From the distillery I drove to my motel in Lexington. People make fun of Los Angeles for being a giant sprawling strip mall, and while there is some truth to this, at least L.A. has some interesting neighborhoods and some attractions. Lexington actually is just a big, sprawling strip mall, with parking lots that for some reason are all very difficult to get out of (I should note that the countryside in Kentucky is really quite lovely, and I’m sure this is even more true when it’s not, you know, winter). It was getting to be dinner time, and I had a debate with myself: I had for the most part avoided fast food and chain restaurants on the trip, wanting to eat locally and regionally distinctive food as much as possible. But there’s a certain dishonesty to that, because if you really want to have the true American experience, especially in a town that’s basically a repeating strip mall, shouldn’t you eat some chain food too? I mean, I’d driven through the south without stopping at a Waffle House. I was having this debate because I was tired, I’d gone to a Liquor Barn (Kentucky’s version of BevMo) that didn’t have the 12-year old Weller, and right next door to the Liquor Barn there was a Chick-Fil-A. Now, I’ve heard Chick-Fil-A is tasty, but I’ve never had it, and part of me was tempted to just dome a chicken sandwich and go back to my motel and pass out. But I decided I wanted to eat something particular to Lexington (also bearing in mind the whole “Chick-Fil-A hates gay people” thing), so I went to Gumbo Ya-Ya, a Cajun place near the UK campus. The food was cheap, but kinda meh. Afterwards I went to the Horse and Barrel, the best whiskey bar in Lexington.
My bartender there was a friendly and just horribly cute senior from UK, who I chatted with for a couple of hours while I had a couple of bourbons. They had the 12-year old Weller, about which the bartender gave me the same spiel that the Buffalo Trace tour guide had. Let me tell you, it is not even in the same GALAXY as Pappy. My bartender did make good by recommending I try the Double Oaked Woodford Reserve, which was sublime.
Day 16: A Friend! That I Actually Know and Stuff!
I thought about hitting another distillery the following morning before blowing town, but my stomach was pretty cranky (it was clearly too close to Mardi Gras for me to be adding bourbon to the mix again), and I felt like I needed to keep the train moving east. So I hit the road, driving through the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia, in the mid-afternoon seeing the pale near-full moon against the clear blue sky so close I thought I could reach and touch it, to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where a friend of mine from Grad School, Indigo, lives. We went to dinner, where despite my stated goal to not eat fried food, she talked me into having fried catfish (it was very good), and I talked her into drinking a bottle of wine. We then went out to a bar where we had a beer and she talked me into eating a fried Oreo cookie. (She didn’t really have to twist my arm on that one—I was pretty curious anyway. If you’re wondering, it’s a big ball of sweet fried dough with powdered sugar sprinkled on top and an Oreo lost somewhere inside. Not bad. Afterwards I reiterated my vow, which I’ve since broken repeatedly, to never eat fried food again.)
After the bar we went back to Indigo’s place and cracked into a couple of jars of flavored moonshine she had. For those who don’t know, moonshine is corn liquor, basically just bourbon taken from the still and bottled without being put in an oak barrel for aging. The barrel gives a bourbon its color, a good deal of its flavor, and removes some of its potency. Hence, the reason moonshine is clear, potent, and known as “White Lightning.” We had a couple of glasses each, which were very tasty and got me pretty seriously drunk. We had a nice catch up conversation and then I face-planted in the guest bedroom.
Day 17: Homeward Bound
I had breakfast with Indigo the next morning at a cute, hippie-ish café, and then took to the road for my last day of driving. Six hours and $35 in tolls later (seriously, don’t take I-95 if you don’t have to), I coasted up in front of my Aunt and Uncle’s house in Brooklyn, the Epic Road Trip having come to a close. They greeted me with yet another locally distinct food: a New York pizza pie.
Final Road Trip Tally:
Fried food and Whiskey Consumed: Enough to kill a medium-sized pachyderm
Pounds Gained: I’ll never step on a scale again
Money Spent: I’ll never look at a bank statement again, either. I’m just gonna assume everything’s fine. <Looks around, whistles casually>
Car Break-ins: 0
Car Breakdowns: 0 (Why is “break-in” hyphenated but “breakdown” isn’t?)
Speeding Tickets: 0 (Don’t ask me how)
Words Written in My Blog Recap: 10,406
I hope y’all enjoyed reading this. It was a long, strange trip.