Where does our Frolic Afield take us to this week? To Bardstown, Kentucky, by way of Alcohol Professor. Bottled History is a look at my visit to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. From bottles of old Coon Hollow to a still they claim belonged to George Washington, it’s a fascinating — and free — look at the history of my favorite tipple told by an amazing assortment of artifacts.
It’s time for a Kentucky Derby Frolic Afield. I’m back on Alcohol Professor, and in An Urban Bourbon Trail Through History I’m taking y’all on a tour of Louisville’s three most historic hotels: The Brown, The Galt House, and The Seelbach. Or, more accurately, I’m taking you on a tour of their bars. Special guest stars Abraham Lincoln, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the hot brown.
Cave Hill in Louisville is, like Brooklyn’s Green-Wood, one of the finest, most beautiful public parks in the world. It also happens to be a sprawling cemetery, designed in the era of “garden cemeteries,” full of opulent and/or spooky monuments and historic figures. Chartered in 1848 (just ten years after Green-Wood), Cave Hill has become a popular destination for strollers and history buffs. It is the last resting place of local and international figures like Colonel Sanders, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, cult film director William Girdler, the Frito-Lay magician, and a vast assortment of local generals, mayors, captains of industry, and luminaries. I set myself loose on the grounds armed with a Lomo LCA and Holga to wander aimlessly and capture some of my favorite spots in a cemetery so huge that there are still, all these decades later, unknown corners.
Maintaining the most notable presence amid the scattered remnants of Louisville’s once mighty whiskey distilling industry is Brown-Forman. Their facility near the corner of Dixie Highway and West Broadway (right across the street from Heaven Hill) is crowned with a giant bottle of the distillery’s signature product, Old Forester Bourbon. There is a second location a little further up the road at 2921 Dixie Highway, where I believe most of the distilling takes place, but it doesn’t have a giant bottle of Early Times or anything on it. About the only thing to see when you drive down the service road to that facility is a security guard who will politely but firmly tell you to turn around and please don’t take any photos. Neither location is open to the public for tours, but at least the 850 Dixie Highway location sits right on the highway, so you can stand on the sidewalk and take photos of the building and the giant bottle of Old Forester — though if you are particularly nerdy and linger around too long trying to get your photo just so, the guard at the front gate might get suspicious and start making calls.
Not too long ago, whilst back in my home town of Louisville, we went on a brief late-afternoon sojourn to the city’s historic Cave Hill Cemetery, of which we shall make mention many times in the future. The cemetery is well worth an entire day spent exploring it, but we were running late and looking for a specific grave (that of cult film director William Girdler). As is usually the case with any trip to Cave Hill, mere minutes after entering the vast rolling grounds, we were lost. It was as we tried to find our way back out before the cemetery gates were closed for the evening, presumably locking us in and fating us to a night battling ghosts, we stumbled across this, one of the cemetery’s many interesting monuments and markers. Not one to let something curious pass by without investigating further, we stopped and found out what we could about this Harry Leon Collins, also known as the Frito-Lay Magician.
On Broadway and the corner of 18th Street in downtown Louisville, I stumbled across a highway marker (Kentucky’s obsession with highway markers is intense and most welcome) for the “Execution of Sue Mundy.” Sue Mundy was actually Jerome Clarke, a Confederate soldier who escaped from a Union prison camp and launched a career as a guerrilla soldier…a FEMALE guerrilla soldier. He was twenty years old when they hung him for his crimes. It’s a strange story, and one I was happy to have come upon thanks to a random marker.
“We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.” – Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle
The intersection of Dixie Highway and Ralph Avenue (Ralph Street on some maps) marks more or less the southern boundary of Shively’s former bourbon district, and so it makes as proper a place as any to begin your tour. Assuming you are heading north toward downtown Louisville, when you approach the intersection, on the corner to your right you will see what remains of the old Four Roses distillery: a group of brick warehouses, now sitting on the property of Louisville Cartage Trucking. Note it for later in this series, but for this part of the tour we’re taking a left onto Ralph Avenue and heading just a little ways down to then make a right onto Fitzgerald Road. Be careful, because it’s easy to miss. The street intersects some train tracks at an odd diagonal that can make it look like you are actually turning onto the railway. It all becomes clear once you commit though, and immediately on your left you will see the imposing warehouses of the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery.
Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail is one of the most enjoyable and best developed touring trails one could hope for, unless of course one happens to be the designated driver. The Trail winds through picturesque country roads, mostly centered around the historic town of Bardstown where many of the major bourbon distillers cluster (more or less, anyway), but it also meanders out to Lexington and the state capitol of Frankfort, home of Buffalo Trace. Wel, sort of. We’ll cover that in a second. All told, the official Trail hits seven distilleries: Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, and the newly added Town Branch (also known by it’s much more cumbersome name, Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company). The addition of Town Branch fills the space left by the departure of Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace and their associated Tom Moore distillery from the Trail program. Buffalo Trace and parent company Sazerac felt they were doing pretty well on their own with attracting tourism and so opted not to chip in for the officially blessed Bourbon Trail. However, most anyone who has done the tour doesn’t realize Buffalo Trace is no longer part of it, so they sort of get lumped in regardless.