The Year-Round Tour at Keeneland racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky, offers a chance to see thoroughbreds being exercised and trained. Contributed by Jane Owen
Photo: Jane Owen
Photo: Jane Owen

Horses and bourbon go hand-in-hand in Lexington, Kentucky

It’s quite a show, but this isn’t a race. It’s just an ordinary day of training, part of the Year-Round Tour offered at this picturesque racecourse that is a National Historic Landmark. The racing season ended in October, but these equine athletes must be exercised and cared for all year.

Owners pin big hopes and dreams on these sublime creatures that are bred for speed.

They know anything’s possible.

Thoroughbred racing history was made on this track in 2015 when American Pharoah won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, becoming the first horse to win the Grand Slam. He had already swept the Triple Crown, which includes the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, and when he easily rocketed to victory at Keeneland, winning a $5 million purse, it cemented his legacy as one of the greatest racehorses of all time.

The Breeders’ Cup returns to Keeneland in November 2020.

Suddenly, a shrill siren pierces the pastoral scene. A horse has thrown his rider and bolted. Outriders (think of them as mounted racecourse police) fly into action to secure the runaway. Soon, horse and rider are reunited.

Keeneland’s Jockey Garden features 11 statues commemorating winners of past races. Contributed by Jane Owen
Photo: For the AJC

Tour guide Clark Nyberg, who has a rich background in the industry, leads the group away from the racecourse and into the sales pavilion. It’s quiet today, but sometimes the excitement on the racecourse pales in comparison to the fierce bidding wars at the world’s largest thoroughbred auction house.

Sales are in January, April, September and November, and they are open to the public. Visitors may find themselves rubbing elbows with celebrities, industry royalty or even actual royalty. At the 2018 September yearling sale, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, spent nearly $20 million on 27 yearlings for Godolphin, his global horse racing empire.

Nyberg says buying a racehorse is a gamble no matter how deep your pockets.

“The most expensive horse ever sold here was back in 1985. A horse named Seattle Dancer went for $13.1 million. He ended up being nothing as a racehorse,” Nyberg said. “The flip side of that is in 2010 a yearling sold for $11,000. He was named I’ll Have Another. He won the Derby and the Preakness.”

After you’ve done the horse stuff, check out that other thing the Bluegrass Region is known for — fine spirits.

Kentucky is bourbon’s birthplace and distills 95 percent of the world supply. Recently, a couple of the region’s defunct distilleries have been brought back to life.

Castle & Key Distillery opened in Frankfort last year on the site of the historic Old Taylor Distillery. Contributed by Jane Owen.
Photo: For the AJC

Castle & Key Distillery

The problem with launching a new bourbon distillery is that you can’t just put out an “open” sign and start pouring samples. Straight bourbon whiskey has to age for a minimum of two years, and the good stuff sits in charred oak barrels for much longer.

Visitors to Castle & Key don’t seem to mind. They’ll drink the craft gin until the bourbon is ready.

The Taylorton Experience is an introduction to the history and architecture of this one-of-a-kind facility that opened on the site of the Old Taylor Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, in September 2018. Legendary bourbon baron Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. was ahead of his time, seeing the potential of bourbon tourism when he built his “castle” in 1887 as a showplace for entertaining distillery guests

The turreted gray stone distillery is nestled in a beautiful copse, but when the property was purchased in 2014, the castle had been conquered by nature, like an ancient Cambodian temple devoured by the jungle and forgotten.

Today, the grounds are perfectly manicured and guests enjoy strolling along the quarter-mile botanical trail that winds past a restored spring house.

The best part of the tour is a gin tasting at Taylorton Station, a repurposed train depot that offers a long list of cocktails mixed with one of two gins: Restoration Release and autumn release London Dry Gin.

An array of aromatic botanicals sits on the bar. Guests sniff ginger, coriander, rosemary, licorice root, chamomile and lemon verbena, then let the mixologist know what strikes their fancy.

Soon, they are sipping bespoke cocktails available only at Castle & Key.

James E. Pepper Distillery

Whiskey lovers sip Old Fashioneds at the restored James E. Pepper Distillery that began producing spirits in December 2017 after being shuttered for 50 years. The new Copper & Cocktails after-hours tour offers tastings of 100-proof 1776 straight rye whiskey and 1776 straight bourbon, which is produced at another distillery and bottled in Lexington. The bourbon distilled on site won’t be ready for a few years.

For some whiskey enthusiasts, there’s no better way to enjoy whiskey than in a classic Old Fashioned.

Modern versions of the Old Fashioned often include muddled cherries and oranges, but that’s not how legendary 19th-century distiller Colonel James E. Pepper drank this cocktail that was supposedly created in his honor.

Here, you get an old-fashioned Old Fashioned. The crisp flavors of the whiskey shine through because there’s nothing else in this elemental recipe but a sugar cube muddled with bitters and a lemon peel garnish. No superfluous fruity frou-frou gets in the way of this simple, delicious cocktail.

This abbreviated distillery tour is perfect for those who aren’t interested in lengthy talks about mash bills and fermenters. They just want to see the 27-foot-tall copper still, get a little background on the distillery and have a sample or two of this venerable whiskey brand that dates back to the American Revolution.

Distillery owner and operator Amir Peay says he’s pleased with the way the whiskey distilled on site is coming along, but the aging process can’t be rushed.

“The distillate coming off the still is very nice,” Peay said, “but we need to wait a couple more years as the whiskey ages to share it with the world. We just need to be patient.”

Good things come to those who wait.

IF YOU GO

Lexington, Kentucky, is 380 miles north of Atlanta.

Sights

Keeneland. Year-Round Tour $15, free for children 12 and younger. 4201 Versailles Road, Lexington, Kentucky. 859-254-3412, www.keeneland.com

Castle & Key Distillery. Taylorton Experience Tour $30. 4445 McCracken Pike, Frankfort, Kentucky. 502-395-9070, www.castleandkey.com

James E. Pepper Distilling Co. Copper & Cocktails Tour $20. 1228 Manchester St., Suite 100, Lexington, Kentucky. 859-309-3230, www.jamesepepper.com

Where to Stay

The Kentucky Castle. This luxury hotel is nestled among Lexington’s horse farms. $269-$869. 230 Pisgah Pike, Versailles, Kentucky. 859-256-0322, www.thekentuckycastle.com

Where to Eat

Honeywood. Classic Southern cuisine with a contemporary flair. Entrees $13-$28. 110 Summit at Fritz Farm, Suite 140, Lexington, Kentucky. 859-469-8234, www.honeywoodrestaurant.com

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