As I made my way into the Bluegrass State, I asked all of my Facebook friends what thoughts came to mind when someone mentions the word “Kentucky”. Some things, like bourbon, bluegrass, fried chicken and horse racing come quickly to mind, but some people went deeper and came up with things I hadn’t even considered – like the fact that every Corvette in the world rolls out of a factory in Bowling Green or that Kit Carson was a Kentuckian. I even had one friend from Europe who said quite honestly that he didn’t think much about it at all – that it was just another boring state in Middle America. For my part, I had an amazing month in the Bluegrass State, learned a lot about Kentucky history and culture and met some wonderful people along the way. While I have moved on into Georgia at this point, I wanted to write one final post wrapping things up from Kentucky.
Kentucky is a beautiful and varied state, but if you look hard enough, it is really defined by one word: water. Kentucky has more miles of running water than every state but Alaska, and just about every major town and city is connected to water somehow. Whether standing on the shore of a major river like the Ohio or Mississippi or paddling along on a smaller one running through a beautiful state park, it seems there is water everywhere you look in Kentucky. Water once covered the whole state, which led to the limestone deposition which now defines much of the geology of the state. The state’s many caves formed because of this limestone deposition, and then it was more water that hollowed out the cave passageways for us to explore. Water percolating through limestone comes out clean and clear and perfect for making bourbon. It also helps feed the bluegrass which, in turn, feeds the horses. Water is definitely the most important feature in the state and everything Kentucky would be different without it
I referred to Kentucky in my podcast as “the far north of the Deep South”, and I think that is a pretty good description. Most Kentuckians consider themselves Southerners, but most people further south tend to think otherwise. While the Mason-Dixon Line doesn’t stretch that far west, Kentucky is definitely south of it. Kentucky was also a slave-holding state, one of our key indicators in this regard, but it stayed neutral during the Civil War or at least that was the plan. In reality, most people in Kentucky picked a side, and there were two separate governments set up in the state, one Union and one Confederate. Kentucky has a star on both the Union and Confederate flags and many men fought on both sides. This seems fitting seeing as both Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis were both from the state. Kentucky is an industrious but genteel place combining the best assets of both regions.
From a food perspective, Kentucky definitely leans towards the south, with menus full of biscuits and grits and barbecue and collard greens. On the other hand, if you ask for hot sauce, you’re likely to get a bottle of Frank’s Hot Sauce, which is a northern staple. I had a lot of wonderful meals in Kentucky, and even some things pretty unique to the Bluegrass State. I’ve had a hot brown before, but never at its point of origin: the Brown Hotel in Louisville. Essentially an open faced turkey sandwich, smothered in cheesy Mornay sauce and topped with bacon and tomatoes and then baked, what’s not to love about a hot brown? I had mine with a mint julep and enjoyed every bite and sip. Benedictine is another uniquely Kentucky dish. Essentially a cucumbery cream cheese spread, it is delicious as a dip, spread or sandwich topper. I enjoyed it on a sandwich with bacon and tomato at La Peche in Louisville. I checked off two other Kentucky specialties in Owensboro with some mutton barbecue and burgoo. Mutton barbecue is delicious and is smoked similar to other meats. Burgoo is a hearty stew similar to Brunswick stew. I tried both at two places: Moonlite Bar-B-Q and Old Hickory, and both were worth a visit. A slice of Derby Pie for dessert is a must, found all over but be sure it’s from Kern’s Bakery, and wash it down with a cold Ale-8-One, a uniquely Kentuckian soda which is like a citrusy, caffeinated ginger ale.
If a soda isn’t what you had in mind, bourbon is definitely a must-try while you are in Kentucky. I found out a lot of interesting things about bourbon on my travels. It is a uniquely American spirit, but doesn’t have to come from Kentucky although most of it does. While it must pass into and out of a charred oak barrel to be called bourbon, there is no minimum aging requirement. If you want something aged at least two years (and you do), be sure you look for “straight bourbon whiskey” on the bottle. Most of the better bourbons can be hard to find in the store as bourbon has become such a hot item in recent years. When some of the more exclusive ones get bottled, they go straight to bars around the state that have ordered them in advance. The high demands and slow production time can mean certain brands aren’t available for years at a time, something I hadn’t even really considered before. My friend Beau treated me to a snifter of Pappy Van Winkle, one of the most exclusive bourbons in the world. I have to admit it was pretty amazing and worthy of its reputation. Another friend, Dean, turned me on to Weller, a “wheated” bourbon (wheat being used instead of rye) which was fantastic as well and equally hard to find outside of a bar. Amusingly, both are distilled at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, which was my least favorite distillery I visited while in the state. As far as tours go, I really liked Maker’s Mark who seemed to understand the tourism value of their distillery and made for a great experience. For a state so enamored with bourbon, I have to admit I was disappointed by the surprisingly small number of breweries around - it seems like this is an industry ready to take off in Kentucky. What it lacked in number of breweries, it definitely made up for in the quality of beer they produced though. I really liked Henderson Brewing Company, Paducah Beer Works and Flywheel Brewing Company in Elizabethtown.
Kentucky has some beautiful regions from the mountains in the east to the Mississippi River in the west. I was particularly inspired by Red River Gorge, Mammoth Cave, Land Between the Lakes, Big South Fork and the imposing mountains of the Southeast corner of the state. Kentucky has a wonderful state park system which manages parks across the state. Parks don’t charge an entrance fee and make their money on accommodation and concessions. Beyond that, just going for a drive in Kentucky is a treat. Many of the small towns are cute and bustling and the roads are generally in good condition.
The people of Kentucky were remarkably friendly, and southern hospitality was apparent everywhere I went. Everyone seemed outgoing and ready to strike up a conversation with a stranger at any time. This may be because Kentuckians love to talk, and I do mean love to talk. I often found myself in conversations which went on for hours and during which I barely said a word. This isn’t a bad thing, but I found it amusing that I could say “hello” to someone on the street and they could launch into an hour long filibuster at the drop of a hat. For someone like me who prefers listening to talking, I was fine with this as long as I didn’t have somewhere I needed to be. Beyond their gift of the gab, Kentuckians were warm and welcoming. They, in general, seemed well-educated and well-versed on current events. The state definitely leans strongly to the right, but not blindly so. I could pick up NPR across most of the state and felt most people were at least open to listening to a different perspective (if you could get a word in). Kentuckians were, in general, excellent drivers, something which I don’t take for granted. The people of Kentucky are proud of their state, and rightly so, and they’d be happy to have you and tell you all about it.
In addition to Corvette, many things you may not think of as typically Kentuckian come from the Bluegrass State. Dollar General, Papa Johns Pizza, Fruit of the Loom and Jif peanut butter are all Kentucky brands. So to are Post-It Notes, Dippin’ Dots, Airheads Candy, Dixie Cups, Reynolds Wrap and Hot Pockets.As coal becomes a smaller part of their economy, the state seems ready to replace it with tourism, something which is better for the environment and more sustainable. Music plays a big role in Kentucky culture, and there are some great places to see live music and learn more about the state’s music history. Bill Monroe’s Homeplace is a must, to learn about the history of bluegrass and the man who made it famous. Combine a visit with the Friday Night Barn Jam and you’ll be all set. Renfro Valley is another place you should go to see a show - either for their weekly Barn Dance, or to see some of the major acts that come to play in the New Barn. If you can find someone pickin’ on a porch, it’s probably worth a listen.
In short, Kentucky is a pretty amazing place filled with beautiful scenery, great food and wonderful people. From the big cities of Lexington and Louisville to small towns and state parks, there is definitely something for everyone in the Bluegrass State. If it’s not already on your travel radar, it should be.