By Fiona Young-Brown
We all know one fine reason to visit Kentucky: bourbon. The state’s Bourbon Trail features guided tours at a number of the distilleries. But there’s more to discover while you’re in the Commonwealth. Here are some local finds you may not know about.
Bourbon barrel beer. Technically, Chicago can claim the first commercially produced beer aged in bourbon barrels, but today breweries across Kentucky are getting in on the action. Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company ages their ale in used bourbon barrels for up to six weeks, allowing the rich flavors within the oak to seep into the beer. Paducah Beer Werks produces an Irish Red and a stout that are aged for six and nine months respectively, ensuring robust results, and Louisville’s Goodwood Brewing Company produces several beers aged in bourbon barrels. The company also has expanded into the production of ales aged in brandy and red wine barrels. Just as bourbon distillers don’t reuse their barrels, so the barrels at Goodwood Brewing are used only once.
Metal artistry. If you visit the Woodford Reserve Distillery, you might notice some impressive iron gates, designed with a corn motif. At The Brown-Forman Corporation headquarters, a sculpture of trailing oaks and acorn-shaped lights adorns a walkway. Both are the work of Louisville metal artist Craig Kaviar. Kaviar started his artistic career in stone carving but taught himself blacksmithing and has been working with metals for more than 30 years. He takes his inspiration from the nature that surrounds him – the corn and oak that are so important in bourbon for the Woodford Reserve projects, an apple for a current work-in-progress to be displayed at a local hospital (“an apple a day keeps the doctor away”). Using a repurposed hammer originally housed on a World War II battleship and a press from an old ammunition plant, Kaviar produces work that has been displayed around the world. He also teaches classes and has seen “an explosive growth in interest” from students wanting to learn metalwork. “I love making beautiful objects,” he says, “and it is very satisfying that years later people should tell me their favorite thing is something I crafted for them.”
Beer cheese. Not only have Kentuckians combined bourbon and beer, they’ve successfully combined beer and cheese, too. Kentucky beer cheese is a dip/spread made with stale beer, cheese and spices. There are several theories as to its origin: one local company claims to have invented it in the 1940s for visitors from Arizona. There is evidence that it actually existed long before that, but the legend stuck. Strong marketing has helped to dictate that Clark County is now recognized as the home of beer cheese. The dish is most likely an adaptation of a recipe from the beer halls of southern Germany. Tavern owners would mix their leftover beer with some cheese and spices. The salty spicy dip would be available for patrons and would, of course, make them thirstier, so they would buy more beer. So strong is local devotion to beer cheese that an annual festival is held in Winchester every June, where both professionals and amateurs compete for the coveted title of beer cheese champion. There’s also a Beer Cheese Trail with a free t-shirt for those who visit at least five participating local restaurants.
The nation’s first winery. Kentucky is the birthplace not just of bourbon, but also of American wineries. Recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places, Jessamine County’s First Vineyard and Winery has been certified as the nation’s first commercial winery, established in 1799 by Swiss immigrant John James Dufour. French soldiers who had settled after the Revolutionary War bemoaned the difficulty in growing grapes on American soil, so Dufour set out to find which varieties could produce a decent yield. Sadly, the enterprise barely lasted a decade. A severe frost in 1809 destroyed the entire crop and the land was abandoned. Fortunately the grapes had been shared with other winemakers, allowing vineyards elsewhere to flourish. The winery’s rebirth is the result of years of painstaking research by current owner, historian Tom Beall. After learning of its past, he has carefully restored Dufour’s original terraces. Several grape varieties are now grown on the property, which was originally surveyed by Daniel Boone.
Disco balls. During the Roaring Twenties, bootlegged bourbon kept parties going until the wee hours in Louisville. Fifty years later, the advent of disco kept the city in the party spotlight for a different reason: Louisville is the disco ball capital of the US. Local company Omega National Products makes a number of products, but it is the company’s famous mirrored disco balls that proved to be a hit in the 1970s. In their heyday, they were producing thousands of the handmade balls each month. Now, demand has dropped; just one employee remains in the disco ball division, tending to the fifteen or so monthly orders. To commemorate the dazzling days of disco, this year’s Kentucky Derby Festival featured a giant mirror ball, weighing in at 2,300 pounds and measuring 11 feet in width. A project is also underway to reclaim the Guinness World Record for the largest disco ball with plans for a 67-foot wide sparkling behemoth that will take pride of place in the city.