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Kentucky: from Boone to bluegrass, bourbon, and barbecue

Thoroughbreds are paraded for all to see before the race at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky.
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Thoroughbreds are paraded for all to see before the race at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky.

The Bluegrass State is the birthplace of some of the best-loved country music, the breeding grounds of champion thoroughbreds for the Sport of Kings, and the producer of America’s finest native whiskey, bourbon, the drink of gentlemen.

Our 15th state was also the birthplace of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. President Zachary Taylor grew up on a Kentucky farm, and it’s the state where the governor made an entrepreneur a Kentucky Colonel for his “finger lickin’ good” culinary contribution to the state.

Kentucky, Land of Unbridled Spirit, was explored by frontiersman Daniel Boone, the American pioneer who followed an Indian trail through the Cumberland Gap and blazed the passageway to the West that became known as Wilderness Road.

Louisville

Louisville, Looavul, Luhvul, LouEville, Looaville, Looeyville.

No matter how you say it, Kentucky’s largest city, on the Ohio River between St. Louis and Cincinnati, offers top-notch cosmopolitan attractions—Louisville Zoo, Louisville Science Center, Speed Art Museum, Six Flags amusement park, and Fourth Street Live!, a revitalized downtown dining and entertainment district. There’s the orchestra, ballet, and theater, and a baseball farm league—as well as some old-time Southern charm– restored Victorian homes, historic streets with cast iron storefronts, and magnolia trees.

Some attractions, however, stand out as symbols of the spirit of the city:

Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory

You’ll know you’ve arrived at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory when you see the 120’ bat—the world’s largest—out front. Made from 68,000 pounds of steel, it is an exact scale replica of Babe Ruth’s 34” Louisville Slugger. This is an opportunity to relive some of baseball’s greatest moments, learn more about the official bat of major league baseball, and swing replicas of the bats used by such legends as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron. See the factory in action. Order your own personalized Louisville Slugger. Everyone walks out with a free miniature bat.

Muhammad Ali Center

Louisville is birthplace of one of the world’s most famous athletes, Cassius Marcellus Clay, who became Muhammad Ali. The $80 million Muhammad Ali Center opened in 2005 and is designed to showcase the three-time Heavyweight Boxing Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist’s career and ideals, and motivate others to greatness. With the Olympic torch as a symbol, and emphasis on his six core values of respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, spirituality, and giving, he encourages visitors to go on to “light the way” and be all that they can be.

The Kentucky Derby: The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports

The Twin Towers of Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky, are recognized worldwide as symbols of horseracing.
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The Twin Towers of Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky, are recognized worldwide as symbols of horseracing.

Kentucky is perhaps best known for the oldest continuously run sporting event in the nation. The first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875 at the legendary Churchill Downs, recognized by the grandstand’s Twin Spires, worldwide symbols of horseracing.

The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports is preceded by two weeks of excitement and entertainment during The Kentucky Derby Festival. Over 1.5 million people attend Kentucky’s largest single event, run by a non-profit corporation and thousands of volunteers. With a Derby Queen and Princesses, it opens with Thunder over Louisville, an air show with America’s largest pyrotechnics display. The Pegasus Parade has been led by such notables as John Wayne, Muhammad Ali, and General Norman Schwarzkopf. The festival includes the Derby Ball, an old-fashioned Great Steamboat Race, marathons, concerts and shows, sporting events, and hot air balloons—over 70 events in all, most of which are free.

Win, place, or show...could be judged by a nose, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky
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Win, place, or show…could be judged by a nose, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky

Then, on the first Saturday in May, the bugle blares and top thoroughbreds are led onto the track in an emotional moment as the state song, “My Old Kentucky Home”, is sung to music by the University of Louisville marching band. Dapper men and elegantly dressed women with elaborate hats sip mint juleps. Then they’re off! It’s the pounding of hoofs. The crowd is spellbound. Thrill and tradition reign as three -year-old thoroughbreds race for the first jewel of the Triple Crown. This one and one-quarter mile “Run for the Roses” is named for the blanket of red roses awarded to the winner.

examples of the best hats from the derby contest, Kentucky Derby Museum, Louisville, Kentucky
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examples of the best hats from the derby contest, Kentucky Derby Museum, Louisville, Kentucky

By first gate of the newly-remodeled and expanded Churchill Downs is a top attraction–the Kentucky Derby Museum– the world’s largest equine museum. The centerpiece is a 360 degree, high definition video presentation, first such production in the world. “The Greatest Race” puts the visitor in the midst of it all– from the birth of foal to the Kentucky Derby Winner’s Circle.

Silks of the jockeys are showcased at the Kentucky Derby Museum, Louisville, Kentucky.
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Silks of the jockeys are showcased at the Kentucky Derby Museum, Louisville, Kentucky.

The museum contains fine arts, memorabilia, and high-tech interactive exhibits that bring the history and excitement of thoroughbred racing to life. Insider’s Tours including Churchill Downs’ Millionaire’s Row and seasonal Backside Tours of the stables take you right to the center of the action.

“Horse Capital of the World”

The Bluegrass region of Kentucky is the Horse Capital of the World.
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The Bluegrass region of Kentucky is the Horse Capital of the World.

The picturesque rolling hills and plains of northeast Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region has deep calcium-rich springs and lush bluegrass– ideal grazing and breeding grounds for champions. Horses for racing, show, and riding –thoroughbreds, American Saddlebreds, Standardbreds– flourish here in picture book settings.

Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, the Horse Capital of the World, is a 1200 acre working horse farm, the “only theme park in the world dedicated to man’s relationship with the horse.”

Bluegrass country is ideal for a leisurely drive along tranquil country roads. Contact the Lexington Visitor’s Bureau for a driving tour of places filmed for such movies as Seabiscuit, Elizabethtown, and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story were filmed.

Bourbon, the drink of gentlemen

Nearly all of this American native whiskey is distilled, aged, and bottled in Kentucky. A visit to a distillery will reveal why all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.

Reverend Elijah Craig is said to have invented this new taste in whiskey—using corn, rye, barley malt and water. With hot summers for aging and native white oaks for the storage barrels, the Master Distillers of Bluegrass Country have been producing bourbon using the same process and ingredients for over 200 years.

Three copper pot stills are used to make Woodford Reserve, official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.
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Three copper pot stills are used to make Woodford Reserve, official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.

Amidst some of the most picturesque horse country and majestic equine farms are the historic stone buildings of Labrot and Graham’s Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles (pronounced Ver-sales, not Vare-sigh, as in France), the oldest and smallest bourbon distillery in Kentucky.

New white oak barrels are charred to make bourbon sweet and aromatic at The Woodford Reserve Distillery, Versailles, Kentucky
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New white oak barrels are charred to make bourbon sweet and aromatic at The Woodford Reserve Distillery, Versailles, Kentucky

 

Using the area’s sweet iron-free spring water, a triple distillation process to make it smooth, and American-made white oak aging barrels charred to make it sweet and aromatic, they produce a super-premium bourbon. In 2005, it won the prestigious Double Gold Medal for Straight Bourbon once again at the World Spirits Competition, and it is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail connects six additional working distilleries that can be toured–each with its own character– Jim Beam, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and Maker’s Mark. To savor the flavor, 90.4 proof Bourbon should be sipped on the rocks, with a little water, or in a mint julep, a combination of bourbon, mint leaves and sugar syrup, the perfect complement to Kentucky’s culinary temptations.

Food — Finger Lickin’ Good

No vacation is complete without foods to remember, and Kentucky has them — all-time favorites and recipes all their own. The Colonel was not the only one with a secret recipe. Henry Bain Sauce is an undisclosed formulation for beef. Derby Pie, a chocolate nut pie, was the specialty of the Melrose Inn, and the recipe is a patented trade secret. In 1873, Louisville’s John Colgan invented, but didn’t patent, the first chewing gum, known as “Taffy Julie”.

And it’s said that many other American favorites started here. The cheeseburger originated at Kaelin’s Restaurant in Louisville. Mazzoni’s Café serves the original rolled oyster with crackermeal coating deep fried —offered free to those 80 and over accompanied by their parents. The Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich with a bubbly cheese sauce, first appeared at Louisville’s Brown Hotel. Louisville restauranteur Jennie Carter Benedict created Benedictine, a green spread of cucumbers and cream cheese.

If you like Louisiana’s gumbo, you’ll love Kentucky’s Burgoo, a thick meat and vegetable stew. And what could be better than a dry-rubbed country ham?

Barbeque is said to have been perfected in Kentucky, and hickory-smoked is a perennial favorite. Owensboro is considered the barbeque capital of the world, and its Moonlite Bar-B-Que Inn has been voted best in the state.

Beyond the bluegrass

You can head for the hills or delve underground.

Spelunking is best in the network of caves in south central Kentucky. Mammoth Cave in western Kentucky is the longest known cave system in the world, with 360 miles of crystalline passageways past stalactites and stalagmites.

Inspired by the antebellum mansion “Federal Hill” in My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Stephen Foster wrote what became the state song. The house may be toured, and “Stephen Foster—The Musical” featuring his old-time classics, like “Oh, Susanna”, “Old Folks at Home” (“Swanee River”), “Camptown Races”, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”, and “Beautiful Dreamer” can be enjoyed as you reminisce under the stars in the park’s amphitheater.

Markers along the hills and hollows of US Route 23 in eastern Kentucky, the Country Music Highway, honor 12 major country music stars who grew up in this area—including the Judds, Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle, and Tom T. Hall. Turn on the radio to some toe-tappin’ country tunes and drive through Appalachian coal mining company towns, stop at a honky-tonk or the Kentucky Opry, or go to the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum. Herman Webb, younger brother of Loretta Lynn, runs a nearby general store and gives tours of the family homestead in Butcher Hollow.

With one of the finest park systems in the country, campgrounds, and cottages, you can hike, ride horses, or go boating or fishing in pristine lakes. On a clear night with a full moon you may see a moonbow, or night rainbow, at the base of the “Niagara of the South”, Cumberland Falls, one of only two places in the world where you can witness this phenomenon.

Whether it’s the excitement of the city and the races, or a slower pace and wide-open spaces, a step back to and days gone by, or a visit to August’s State Fair, head for the sights, the sounds, the tastes, the scents and a sense of Kentucky. It’s the place to set your spirit free.

 

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