Fan photos from early in a beautiful Kentucky Derby day

May 2, 2015
Bob and Susan Syphax moved to Science Hill, Ky., from California seven months ago and were excited about seeing their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. "I always wanted to go to the Derby," she said. "I don't care where I sit. I just wanted to be here." They sat in the infield, watching a big-screen television.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Bob and Susan Syphax moved to Science Hill, Ky., from California seven months ago and were excited about seeing their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. “I always wanted to go to the Derby,” she said. “I don’t care where I sit. I just wanted to be here.” They sat in the infield, watching a big-screen television. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ohio State University students, left to right, Daniel LeHue, Elliott O'Flynn, Nicholas Kobernik and Kara Neff cheered for an undercard race in the infield Saturday before the 141st Kentucky Derby. This was their first Derby Day at Churchill Downs.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Ohio State University students, left to right, Daniel LeHue, Elliott O’Flynn, Nicholas Kobernik and Kara Neff cheered for an undercard race in the infield Saturday before the 141st Kentucky Derby. This was their first Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Photo by Tom Eblen

Damon Williams, left, of Stockton, Calif., and Zach Miller, right, of Austin, Texas, studied the racing program Saturday with James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo. Williams and Miller were among six friends of Robertson from around the country who gathered in Louisville for his early bachelor party. He is getting married Aug. 1. It was the first time any of them had been to the Kentucky Derby.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Damon Williams, left, of Stockton, Calif., and Zach Miller, right, of Austin, Texas, studied the racing program Saturday with James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo. Williams and Miller were among six friends of Robertson from around the country who gathered in Louisville for his early bachelor party. He is getting married Aug. 1. It was the first time any of them had been to the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Cathy Dewberry, left, and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, attended their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the infield. "We're all about the hats," Simpson said. "But we love every bit of it. We'll be back."  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Cathy Dewberry, left, and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, attended their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the infield. “We’re all about the hats,” Simpson said. “But we love every bit of it. We’ll be back.” Photo by Tom Eblen

Fans began gathering in the infield early for the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Fans began gathering in the infield early for the 141st Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Infield fans watched undercard races before the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Infield fans watched undercard races before the 141st Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

A case of Pappy helps add glitz to Derby wine auction and gala

April 28, 2015

The Lexington Cancer Foundation will have its 10th annual Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala at Donamire Farm on April 30. This photo was taken at the 2014 event. Photo Provided

The Lexington Cancer Foundation will have its 10th Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala at Donamire Farm on Thurday. This photo was taken at the 2014 event. Photo Provided


A bottle of hard-to-find Pappy Van Winkle has become a hit at many Central Kentucky charity auctions, sometimes fetching bids of $1,000 or more.

So here is one reason the Lexington Cancer Foundation‘s Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala is one of the state’s fanciest Derby parties: It will auction an age-mixed case of a dozen bottles of the high-priced bourbon, plus a limited-edition Scottish crystal decanter filled with even more.

Kristi Martin, the foundation’s executive director, wouldn’t say who donated the Pappy or how much she thinks it might sell for. But I would expect several five-figure bids from the 400 guests Thursday night. After all, tickets to this sold-out gala at Donamire Farm cost $700 per couple.

Other auction items may bring even more than the Pappy. There are University of Kentucky basketball season tickets; a U2 concert in Chicago; a breeding season with an Ashford Stud sire; a Breeders Cup package; golfing at Pebble Beach; and luxury trips to Rome, Argentina, Mexico, Napa Valley, Las Vegas and Wyoming.

The wine auction gala has become a popular fundraiser for the foundation, which by the end of this year will have made more than $3 million in grants and donations to cancer-fighting organizations throughout Kentucky since 2004, Martin said.

At least half the attendees will come from out-of-state, she said, including a large Silicon Valley contingent that includes Kevin Systrom, the founder and CEO of Instagram. Graham Yost, creator of the hit TV series Justified, also will be there.

But compared to some other Derby parties, this isn’t a star-studded event — unless you are a wine connoisseur.

“Some high-level groups are coming in now, and that’s wonderful,” Martin said. “But what we have found out over the years during Derby week a lot of celebrities want to be paid to come, and that’s something we would never do.”

Brenda Rice, the wife of Lexington attorney Brent Rice, started the foundation in 2004 after a family member was diagnosed with cancer. She talked with friends she had volunteered with for other causes over the years and discovered many of them also had been touched by the disease.

“I thought, how can we make the biggest impact?” Rice said. “I knew what these women were capable of when their hearts were in it.”

The foundation is run by a 50-member board of women volunteers, with help from another 50 “junior” board members. Each year since 2005, the foundation has made an average of more than $280,000 in grants to a variety of hospitals, researchers and cancer-related programs throughout Kentucky.

The private foundation receives no state or federal funds, but has attracted a long list of corporate and individual sponsors, whose donations significantly cut the cost of putting on the wine auction and gala.

A key to the event, Martin said, has been its ability to attract top vintners. Each year, more than a dozen wineries spend about $50,000 each from their marketing budgets to participate. This year’s vintner chair is Will Harlan of the Harlan Estates family in Napa Valley. He now has his own label, The Mascot.

“The event has grown over the years as word has gotten out,” Martin said. “The level of wineries that we’re able to attract is phenomenal.”

Festivities begin Wednesday with six private dinners for top sponsors at foundation patrons’ homes. Vintners have a trade fair for area restaurateurs and wine merchants Thursday morning to promote their products, which will be served that evening at the gala with food catered by The Apiary.

After a Friday breakfast at Keeneland, guests are offered tours of horse farms and Woodford Reserve Distillery before dinner for vintners and top sponsors at the Iroquois Hunt Club. For those who want to attend the Derby on Saturday, the foundation helps them arrange to buy tickets.

“They get a wonderful experience of Kentucky during the Derby season,” Martin said. “And they help us raise money for our mission.”

The foundation’s other major fundraiser this year will be the fourth annual Roll for the Cure, a bicycle tour Aug. 22 in partnership with the Bluegrass Cycling Club.

Before vacation season ends, experience wonders close to home

August 12, 2014

140731Maker'sMark0168This art glass installation in the ceiling of a barrel warehouse is the newest visitor attraction at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Marion County. Below, Ward Hall in Georgetown is a Greek Revival masterpiece. Photos by Tom Eblen 


There’s a chill in the air this week. Schools are back in session. Fall is beginning to arrive.

But if you want to stretch vacation season a little longer, here’s an idea: Find time to visit some Central Kentucky wonders. You know, the places tourists come from around the world to see but locals often forget about.

Here are a few suggestions. For more details on many of them, go to, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Horses. This may be the horse capital of the world, but when did you last see one? Spend a day at the Kentucky Horse Park ( or visit a Thoroughbred farm. Several farms welcome visitors who schedule in advance. Or you can do like out-of-towners do and book a horse farm bus tour.

Keeneland Race Course is the best place to see Thoroughbreds in action. The park-like grounds are open year-around. The yearling sales are Sept. 8-21. The fall racing meet is Oct. 3-25. More information:

Bourbon. More than 90 percent of this globally popular whiskey is made within a short drive of Lexington. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is becoming a major tourist draw. My favorite distilleries to visit include Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Wild Turkey and Four Roses near Lawrenceburg, Maker’s Mark near Lebanon and Woodford Reserve near Versailles. More information:

Country roads. Some of my favorite places to enjoy Central Kentucky’s beauty are the country roads that connect the region like a vast spider’s web. These are perfect for scenic drives. I like to go by bicycle, but it takes experience to know which roads are safe and comfortable for cycling. The Bluegrass Cycling Club has well-managed group rides each week. Check the calendar:

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comArchitecture and history. This was a rich agricultural region before the Civil War, and remnants of that era can be seen in Central Kentucky’s grand mansions. Architectural styles include Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic Revival.

Many historic homes are still private residences, but some of the best are open for tours. Among them: Ward Hall in Georgetown, White Hall in Madison County and these in Lexington: Waveland, the Hunt-Morgan House, the Mary Todd Lincoln House and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Other must-sees: Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Old Capitol in Frankfort.

Nature. Perhaps the least-known attractions in Central Kentucky are natural areas, but they can be spectacularly beautiful. I especially love the Palisades region of the Kentucky River, which stretches from Boonesboro to Frankfort.

Lexington’s Raven Run park is the most-visited natural area in the Palisades region. Others include Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve (, Floracliff Nature Sanctuary ( and Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary, all of which have more-limited public access.

Julian Campbell, a botanist and authority on native Kentucky plants, has begun leading monthly hikes to promote awareness and conservation of natural areas. More information: or email

But you don’t have to go hiking in the woods to see Central Kentucky’s oldest and most magnificent natural specimens.

A unique feature of the Bluegrass landscape is huge burr and chinkapin oak, blue ash and kingnut hickory trees, some of which are thought to be 300-500 years old. Tom Kimmerer, a forest scientist, has launched a non-profit organization to study how to better care for these “venerable” trees, as he calls them. More information:

Because Lexington has literally grown up around these old trees, they can be found in some strange places.

Recent brush-trimming has highlighted a magnificent burr oak that Kimmerer is conserving for Ball Homes beside a new subdivision at Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. In the 1990s, a parking structure for medical offices was built around another huge oak tree, near the corner of Harrodsburg and Mason Headley roads.

Other notable examples can be found in front of an Avis car rental office on South Broadway; on the lawns of Sullivan University and the mansion at Griffin Gate; and scattered among new buildings along Sir Barton Way in Hamburg.

Here’s an idea: as you drive around on your weekly errands, start an ancient tree scavenger hunt! Anything to make the lazy days of summer last a little longer.

140807Gainesway0018This burr oak tree on Gainesway Farm is likely several hundred years old. 

New book chronicles colorful history of Kentucky’s oldest church

August 5, 2014

140730Anders-TE0022Mickey Anders, the recently retired pastor of South Elkhorn Christian Church, in the 1870 old sanctuary. He recently wrote a book about the church’s history. Photo by Tom Eblen


Church histories are usually of little interest outside the flock. But when I heard about a new book telling the story of South Elkhorn Christian Church, I thought it would be worth a look.

The church has been located on the banks of South Elkhorn Creek — now 4343 Harrodsburg Road — since 1784. But the congregation was formed in Virginia in 1767, making it arguably the oldest in Kentucky.

“This church has an incredible story that needed to be told,” said Mickey Anders, who recently retired as pastor and is the author of An Ever Flowing Stream ($18, “I felt like this could be my legacy gift to the church.”

Earlier books, in 1933 and 1983, had told some of the history. But Anders thought he could do a better job with the wealth of information now available on the Internet. It helped that he had access to almost all of the church governing board’s minutes going back to 1817.

Lewis Craig started Upper Spotsylvania Baptist Church near Fredericksburg, Va., in 1767. But he and other Baptist preachers soon angered officials of the Anglican Church, the government-sanctioned religion of colonial Virginia.

Craig was jailed for his preaching, and Patrick Henry is said to have interceded to free him. Craig soon led his congregation over the Appalachian Mountains to Kentucky in what became known as “The Traveling Church.”

Colonial Virginia’s persecution of Craig and other Baptists was a big reason framers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 included the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedoms of speech, religion and the press.

Craig’s brother, Elijah, was also a Baptist minister who came to Kentucky. But he is more famous as an early distiller of bourbon whiskey. “We’re probably the only church with whiskey on display in our history cabinet,” Anders said, pointing to a couple of bottles of Elijah Craig bourbon amid other artifacts.

The church’s attitudes toward some social behavior have changed over time, Anders said.

South Elkhorn paid its second pastor on one occasion with 36 gallons of whiskey, and he was expected to keep an ample supply on hand for guests. A few decades later, the church dismissed members for excessive drinking. Now, Anders said, alcohol is usually “not an issue.”

Two South Elkhorn members were reprimanded for betting on horse races in 1895. A year ago, Anders preached the funeral of church member Robert Moore, a Thoroughbred trainer who broke four Kentucky Derby winners.

Lewis Craig and other early members owned slaves, who attended church with their masters. The 1819 minutes included this entry: “Lucy (Capt. Berry’s woman) charged with fornication and murdering her own infant. The church took up the matter and excluded her for the same.” Anders wonders: Was it her master’s baby?

South Elkhorn reached peak membership in 1801 during the so-called Second Great Awakening. The most famous of those revivals was at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, but on the same day, 10,000 people gathered at South Elkhorn.

Anders was especially fascinated by 19th century theological disputes, which now seem esoteric but then caused bitter divisions in congregations and even families. They led to a split in South Elkhorn’s congregation in 1822.

“Reading the minutes, it was difficult to tell what the fight was about,” Anders said. “It took me months to piece together that it was really over Calvinism and Arminianism,” two views of Christian theology.

The Elkhorn Baptist Association expelled its mother church over theological differences in 1831. South Elkhorn became an independent Church of Christ and later affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination. Over the next century, congregational disputes would involve everything from instrumental music to evolution.

After the 1830s, the area’s religious center of gravity moved to a growing Lexington. South Elkhorn spent the next 150 years as a “sleepy little country church,” Anders said. It didn’t even have complete indoor plumbing until 1961, when the men’s outhouse mysteriously burned down one Sunday morning.

South Elkhorn began growing again in the 1980s, when it was surrounded by Palomar, Firebrook and other new subdivisions. In 1985, a larger worship center was built beside the historic 1870 sanctuary.

“I think it’s a story worth telling,” Anders said. “It connects with so much of Lexington’s history, with the nation’s history, with the history of religion in the area.”


Derby Day at Keeneland: all that was missing was live horses

May 3, 2014

140503Keeneland-DerbyTE0124Derby Day at Keeneland was a laid-back affair. Photos by Tom Eblen


Billy Hargis of Danville got to Keeneland early on Kentucky Derby Day to stake out a bench and start studying the program in the hope of picking a winner.

“I’ve been coming to Keeneland for a long time, since I was 16,” said Hargis, 64, adding that it is his favorite place to be on Derby Day because of the family atmosphere and smaller crowd.

“I went to Louisville once,” he said. “All I saw was a horse’s tail.”

Before long Saturday, Hargis had plenty of company. A picture-perfect day brought 19,344 people to the Lexington racetrack, which had everything a Kentucky Derby fan needed — except actual horses.

The horses were on TV screens, including the big one across the track in Keeneland’s infield. Spectators gathered in the stands and on the plaza benches below, picnicked in the paddock and tailgated in tents and RVs outside the gates at perhaps the world’s largest Kentucky Derby party outside Churchill Downs.

Jeff and Lisa Kayes have been coming to Kentucky from the Buffalo, N.Y., area each first Saturday in May for 18 years to catch the Derby action. Only four of those years were actually spent at the Derby in Louisville.

“We’ve done that; the riff-raff in the infield gets old,” Jeff Kayes said of Churchill Downs. “This is more laid-back.”

Keeneland has long allowed people to gather at the track for Derby, but it started making a bigger event of it in 1995. Now, as many as 20,000 fans come each year, wearing fancy hats and toting picnic supplies.

There was a hat contest, children’s activities and plenty of beer, mint juleps, other refreshments and souvenirs for the adults. For $5 admission, it was quite a show for both horse fans and people-watchers.

Debbie and Bill Viney of Georgetown set up a family picnic in the paddock with son, Tom, who lives in Louisville, and his daughter, Allie, 10. They were all dressed up, enjoying the sunshine and games of corn hole until it was time to eat.

“This is great,” Tom Viney said. “I’ll come to Keeneland seven days out of seven vs. going to Churchill.”

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A few Kentucky business highlights; poetry not included

December 29, 2013

By newspaper tradition, each year at this time, business news highlights were recounted in rhyme. Well, maybe I’m dull. Maybe I’m lazy. But to read a whole column in verse makes me crazy.

So here are some things that made news in Kentucky, but none of them will rhyme, so count yourselves lucky:

■ Toyota announced in April that it would build Lexus vehicles in the United States for the first time on a new line at its 6,000-employee Georgetown assembly plant. The company plans to produce 50,000 Lexus ES 350 luxury sedans a year, beginning in 2015, adding 750 more jobs.

■ Kentucky’s hottest commodity in 2013 was bourbon, as more drinkers around the world developed a taste for this state’s native spirit. Especially popular were high-end boutique bourbons: single barrels, small batches and specially finished recipes.

Distillers put up more than 1 million barrels a year for the first time since 1973 and were expanding their facilities in every direction. Nine craft distilleries either were licensed or announced plans to build.

All of this fueled the popularity of tourism along Central Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience opened in Louisville, while Wild Turkey built a new visitors center that will open in 2014.

Bourbon’s popularity had some distillers worried about supply. Maker’s Mark ignited a customer backlash — and a lot of free publicity — when it announced in February that it would water down its bourbon a little, then quickly changed its mind.

Bourbon also figured into one of Kentucky’s most highly publicized crimes of 2013: the theft of $26,000 worth of coveted Pappy Van Winkle from a warehouse at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort.

■ Kentucky farm cash receipts hit a record $6 billion in 2013, just a year after topping $5 billion for the first time. Much of that was the result of the rebounding horse industry. Sales of Thoroughbred yearlings at Keeneland were up 28 percent in September, while sales of bloodstock were up 38 percent in November. Kentucky breeding rebounded for the first time since 2007, the Jockey Club said.

Also in agriculture, the local food movement gained more traction. St. Catharine College in Springfield launched a sustainable agriculture program, joining similar programs at the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University aimed at training a new kind of Kentucky farmer.

The Lexington Farmers Market expanded its calendar, and chef Ouita Michel, perhaps Central Kentucky’s highest-profile local food entrepreneur, opened her fifth restaurant, Smithtown Seafood, at the Bread Box development on West Sixth Street. Some of Smithtown’s fish and greens are raised in the next room by Food Chain, a sustainable agriculture non-profit.

■ R.J. Corman started a dinner train from Lexington to Versailles in August. Sadly, soon afterward, the Nicholasville railroad magnate and philanthropist died at age 58 following a long battle with cancer.

■ Lexington saw several new stores in 2013, the biggest of which was a 159,000-square-foot Costco warehouse at Hamburg.

The city also got some innovative new restaurants, including National Boulangerie, a French-style bakery; Coba Cocina, a Mexican-inspired restaurant with Las Vegas-style architecture; and Athenian Grill, a former food truck. Alfalfa, the downtown restaurant that was organic before organic was cool, celebrated its 40th year.

But as the year ended, the venerable retailer Sears was having a liquidation sale at Fayette Mall and preparing to leave Lexington after 80 years. Before moving to the new mall in 1971, Sears was on Main Street, where the Chase bank tower now stands.

Miller & Woodward Jewelers, a Lexington institution since 1931, was closing its doors at the end of the year so owner Russell Pattie could retire. And Talbots Outlet, a popular women’s clothing store that moved from Victorian Square to Hamburg, announced that it would be closing in 2014.

■ Lexmark, Lexington’s biggest technology company, spent much of 2013 trying to show that it isn’t just a printer manufacturer anymore. The company is working to reinvent itself as a leader in various kinds of digital data manipulation services.

■ Lexington’s huge hospital industry saw the opening in September of a new $129 million, 300,000-square-foot Eastern State Hospital off Newtown Pike at the Coldstream Research Campus. It was a long-overdue replacement for one of the nation’s oldest mental hospitals, which had been located on Newtown Pike between Fourth Street and Loudon Avenue for nearly 200 years. That site is now the new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.


New Shorty’s owner sees opportunity in downtown Lexington

November 25, 2013


Bob Estes, the owner of Parlay Social nightclub who plans to reopen Shorty’s Urban Market by Christmas, also is planning a fourth-story addition to his Southern Mutual Trust Building at cheapside for a restaurant. From the restaurant’s future patio dining area, he enjoys the view of downtown Lexington. Photos by Tom Eblen


When the bar leasing the first floor of Bob Estes’ downtown building closed three years ago, he took a chance that he could reopen the space as a Prohibition-theme nightclub.

Thanks to his diverse business background and the experience his fiancée, Joy Breeding, had in hospitality management, Parlay Social has done well, recently adding lunch service on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Now they hope to build on that success by making more contributions to the revitalization of the Cheapside district behind the old Fayette County Courthouse.

Estes and Breeding are working to reopen Shorty’s Urban Market, 163 West Short Street, which opened in May 2011 but closed two months ago. They are doing minor renovations to the market, which they plan to reopen by Christmas.

They also are remaking the former Shorty’s wine shop next door into a cocktail bar and taproom featuring locally brewed beers. If business is good enough, they can use second-floor office space for additional food and beverage service.

Next year, they have more ambitious plans: add a fourth floor onto the historic Southern Mutual Trust Building, where Parlay Social is located at 149 West Short Street, and open a rooftop restaurant with an expansive view of downtown.

“It has been interesting to learn the hospitality industry,” Estes said. “It’s not easy, but I say a lot of times that this is not rocket science; I know what rocket science is.”

131121BobEstes-TE0085Indeed, he does. The 52-year-old Lexington native and Eastern Kentucky University graduate spent most of his career in the aerospace industry, working in satellite launch operations for companies such as Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas.

Estes was a mission controller for payloads carried on several NASA Space Shuttle and Space Station missions. During ebbs in the space program, Estes worked at a variety of other jobs. He built homes and spent time as Circuit Court Clerk in Jessamine County, appointed to fill his mother’s vacancy when his father became ill.

Estes was working as an aerospace consultant when he bought the Southern Mutual Trust Building in 2008, both as an investment and so he could convert the third floor into a low-maintenance condo where he could live when he wasn’t traveling.

He changed career paths after falling in love with Breeding and downtown living.

The city’s Courthouse Area Design Review Board last year approved Estes’ proposed design for adding a fourth floor to the Southern Mutual Trust Building. But it will be a big job — including cutting into his third-floor condo so the elevator shaft can be extended upward.

“Can you imagine eating up here on a nice evening with this view of downtown?” Estes said as we stood on his roof.

131121BobEstes-TE0078Estes, who is president of the Cheapside Entertainment District Association, thinks there is a lot of opportunity downtown for entrepreneurs with a disciplined business approach and good customer service.

“I’m big on processes and standard operating procedures,” he said. “I learned that in the space program.”

Estes said he has received a lot of support in reopening Shorty’s from city officials, the building’s landlord, Brian Hanna, and the market’s original investors, led by Lee Ann Ingram of Nashville. Estes said Ingram left him a beautifully renovated building to work with. So how does he plan to succeed where others failed?

“We’re going to focus on quality, but watch the price point,” he said. “I don’t want to make it such a boutique place that I eliminate customers.”

Estes plans to stock a lot of Kentucky Proud products, especially things such as Sunrise Bakery bread and Lexington Pasta. He is talking with Lexington Farmers Market about its growers supplying produce for the market and its deli. Estes also plans to offer take-home dinners.

“I’m really trying to find some great cooks,” he said. “I’m looking for a grandmother type who’s used to cooking for a big family and knows how to spice food.”

Cheapside’s bars and restaurants have done well for several years, and Estes said he thinks downtown is ready for retail.

“I’m getting the feeling out there that there’s a village of people who want Shorty’s to be successful,” Estes said. “In my lifetime, there’s never been a more exciting time to be downtown.”

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A beautiful state, forever challenged to live up to its potential

September 28, 2013

Indian Fort Mountain, Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

The view from Indian Fort Mountain near Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen


Every state is unique. So what makes Kentucky so special?

To begin to answer that question, you must go back to 1750, when the first land-hungry white Virginians crossed the Appalachian mountains to see what was on the other side. What they found created quite a buzz.

John Filson, who published the first book about Kentucky in 1784, boasted that it was “the new Eden … like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey.” A frontier preacher is said to have explained heaven to his flock as “a Kentucky of a place.”

Of course, this was long before strip mining and strip malls.

Still, people continue to be awed by Kentucky’s beauty: lush mountains, rolling meadows, scenic rivers, vast limestone caves and manicured horse farms.

Kentucky’s fertile land has always made it an agriculture powerhouse. The Bluegrass region’s karst geology and calcium-rich soil is the foundation for two signature industries: strong-boned horses and pure water for bourbon whiskey.

Originally, Kentucky was considered the West. When the Civil War came, this citadel of slavery remained in the Union. Once the Union won, many Kentuckians sided with the Confederacy. Go figure.

But Kentucky has often been a paradox. For example, 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey (and, really, all that’s worth drinking) is made in Kentucky. Yet, you can’t legally buy it in more than one-third of the state’s 120 counties. Of course, that doesn’t mean a lot of it isn’t consumed there.

Kentuckians love to eat, too, from spicy Western Kentucky barbecue to the delicately flavored cucumber spread of Louisville known as benedictine. Ask people on the other side of the world what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply: “Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”

Kentuckians tend to be friendly, independent, fun-loving, stubborn and resistant to change. The local cultures we have created vary widely from the Cumberland mountains to the Jackson Purchase. The common denominator seems to be a passion for basketball.

Unless we are from one of the state’s larger cities, Kentuckians tend to identify themselves by their native county. And we have more and smaller counties than almost any state.

But we still love our little towns. We have given many of them colorful names, such as Red Bird, Hi Hat, Cutshin, Mousie and Fancy Farm. Occasionally, imagination has failed us and we have copied the names of European cities, but we have insisted on pronouncing them differently.

During its first decades of statehood, Kentucky was often a national leader and innovator. But the state seems never to have fully recovered from the Civil War and the human slavery that caused it. For a century and a half, Kentucky’s progress has always seemed like three steps forward, two steps back.

Still, some of us think Kentucky is capable of being a national leader rather than a persistent laggard. Kentuckians are hard workers, blessed with a central location, abundant resources and a beautiful place to live — when we don’t insist on messing it up.

The name Kentucky is derived from languages of the American Indian tribes we took this land from, but nobody is sure what it really meant. Some say it meant “dark and bloody ground.” Others say, “the land of tomorrow.” While a lot has happened to support the first theory, I choose to believe the second.

Now, would somebody please pass the barbecue and freshen my bourbon? We have a lot of work to do after dinner.


Abandoned since 1972, the Old Taylor Distillery awaits restoration

August 31, 2013


The Old Taylor Distillery at Millville in Woodford County near Frankfort was built in 1887 and has been essentially abandoned since 1972.  Photos by Tom Eblen


MILLVILLE — When Col. E. H. Taylor Jr. built his distillery along Glenn’s Creek in 1887, he had more in mind than a place to make good bourbon whiskey. He wanted to create an eye-popping showplace.

The Old Taylor Distillery was built from hand-cut limestone to resemble a castle, complete with turrets and ramparts. A spring where water was drawn to make bourbon was surrounded by an elegant pergola with stone columns. The property had elaborate sunken gardens and fish ponds.

Old Taylor’s 83-acre complex became a popular tourist attraction and a place for gatherings and weddings. Bill Samuels fondly remembers trips there as a child in the 1940s.

“It was the most fascinating place in Kentucky,” said Samuels, who grew up to build his father’s Maker’s Mark bourbon into an international brand. “I was taken to a lot of distilleries when I was a kid. That’s the one I remember.”

130828OldTaylor-TE0201But since 1972, when the distillery shut down, the property has been vandalized, neglected and reclaimed by nature. It is now one of Kentucky’s most fascinating industrial ruins.

I have been taking bicycle rides past this out-of-the-way spot between Versailles and Frankfort for years. And I have often wondered: With bourbon tourism booming, why hasn’t some distillery bought and restored Old Taylor as its showplace, just as Brown-Forman Corp. did with the Labrot & Graham distillery down the road?

E.H. Taylor, a longtime Frankfort mayor and descendant of Presidents James Madison and Zachary Taylor, was a bourbon industry leader and visionary. He died in 1922 at age 90. The distillery was sold in 1935 to National Distillers Corp., which later consolidated it with the adjacent Old Crow distillery.

Jim Beam later bought the distilleries, but shut them down in 1972 when bourbon sales slumped. Whiskey barrels continued to be aged in Old Taylor’s warehouses until the early 1990s. Old Crow’s warehouses are still in use.

A group of Atlanta-based investors bought the Old Taylor property in 2005. They took down a couple of the big warehouses to salvage and sell brick, stone and valuable heart-pine lumber.

The investors created an elaborate website that said profits from the salvage business would go toward restoration of the distillery. But when the housing boom went bust, the restoration never happened.

The property is now for sale, with an asking price of $1.5 million. Last week, I toured the ruins with Realtor Hill Parker and Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association and an avid preservationist.

“I actually had a dream the other night that we had a Kickstarter campaign and restored it,” said Gregory, who estimates it would take $30 million or more to fix up the place and turn it back into a distillery and entertainment venue.

At the moment, the Old Taylor Distillery is more of a nightmare than a dream. Vandals have done significant damage over the years, smashing windows, throwing stone blocks through the roof and generally trashing the place. An on-site caretaker now tries to prevent further damage.

Where vandals left off, nature did its work. The property includes a brick-and-stone warehouse that is one of the largest in Kentucky — four stories high and the length of two football fields. But trees, vines and weeds have swallowed the huge building, all but hiding it from view.

“The first thing you would have to do is come in with a tanker truck of Roundup and see what you have under all this,” Gregory said, referring to the powerful herbicide.

Surprisingly, most of the buildings look structurally sound. The brick and stone walls are solid and crack-free. Old-growth timbers and woodwork seem to have suffered little decay despite decades of neglect. One exception is a brick office building across the road. Its façade might be saved, but the interior has crumbled since most of the roof collapsed.

Parker said several groups of investors wanting to start small “craft” distilleries have recently inspected the property. The morning we were there, technicians for one potential buyer were assessing the lead paint and asbestos hazards.

“It’s a great property,” Parker said. “But there are significant challenges.”

Gregory said Old Taylor would make a great “boutique” distillery and could have considerable cache as a tourist attraction. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail of distillery tours attracted 509,000 visitors last year.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a buyer soon,” Gregory said. “Someone who will fix this place up and put it on the Bourbon Trail.”



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Cynthiana museum like a well-organized community attic

March 5, 2013


Harold Slade, 93, straightens one of many buildings he made from old picture mat board for a scale model of downtown Cynthiana in the late 1800s. Photos by Tom Eblen 


CYNTHIANA — There is a lot of history in this little town, and more of it than you can imagine is stuffed inside a former movie theater and roller skating rink.

The Cynthiana-Harrison County Museum is like a well-organized community attic. A hodgepodge of treasures are displayed alongside relics from everyday life, things that otherwise might have been sold off, thrown away or lost to time and change.

This museum has been a 19-year labor of love for Harold Slade and a group of his neighbors, who have lived a good bit of Harrison County history themselves.

“There’s not many things in the museum older than me,” said Slade, 93, a retired factory worker who never liked history in school but has made it a second career.

130205CynthianaMuseum-TE0104The museum opened in 1994. By 2007, it had outgrown its first home and was moved to the long-vacant Rohs Theatre, which also once housed a skating rink. The museum’s collection now fills almost every square foot of the place. Still, the all-volunteer staff always finds room for more.

Cynthiana has had a few brushes with history, including two Civil War battles, both involving Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Battle-related items include a state historical marker that stood along a roadside until a schoolboy noticed that one of the battles’ date was wrong.

“They made a new one for the highway,” Slade said. “We got this one.”

The museum has artifacts from all aspects of Harrison County history and life. There is the oldest known copy of a Cynthiana newspaper, The Guardian of Liberty from July 14, 1817, and a wicker body basket once used by a local undertaker.

Harrison County schools are represented with dozens of school yearbooks, trophies and class photos. A mannequin wears a uniform from Harrison County High School’s marching band.

On one wall is a framed letter written by statesman Henry Clay. On another, a giant Kentucky map made of buttons. There are lots of old tools, including the stone axes of prehistoric Harrison Countians.

WCYN Radio’s old control board is preserved here, as are spare pipes removed from the Methodist Church organ when it was renovated in 1935.

130205CynthianaMuseum-TE0120The museum includes some of Slade’s own history, from his World War II Army uniform to the attendance book he kept as a scoutmaster. Among the Boy Scouts’ names is one Joe B. Hall, the future University of Kentucky basketball coach.

Hall isn’t Cynthiana’s only claim to fame. The museum has the black robe worn by Mac Swinford, an influential federal judge who died in 1975, and an exhibit of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls. The children’s storybook characters were created by Johnny Gruelle, whose father was born in Cynthiana.

Local business memorabilia includes tobacco artifacts and items from the Webber sausage plant, which started here in 1930. The company was later bought by ConAgra and left town in 1994 after the factory was destroyed by a grease fire.

Harrison County once had more than 30 bourbon distilleries, making whisky under such names as Old Tub and Belle of Harrison. The prize of the museum’s bottle collection used to be an unopened bottle of Old Van Hook from before Prohibition. Then, one day, it disappeared from its display case.

“A few weeks later somebody brought the empty bottle back to us,” said Mary Grable, secretary of the non-profit trust that owns the museum. “We think we know who drunk the whisky.”

Perhaps the museum’s most interesting piece is a huge scale model of the town as it looked in the late 1800s. Dozens of buildings were accurately recreated from bits of colored picture frame mat board by Slade and Neville Haley, who died in 2009.

Each building is an amazing work of intricate detail. The layout includes a model of the long covered bridge that for more than a century crossed the Licking River that runs through Cynthiana.

Donald Hill made the bridge from wood salvaged from the real bridge, which was demolished in 1948 after it was replaced by a new concrete bridge named for Morgan, the Confederate cavalry raider.

“Didn’t make a lot of sense,” said Randall Boyers, 86, a museum volunteer. “The man burns the town and they name a bridge after him.”

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Maker’s Mark quick change earned barrels of free publicity

February 25, 2013


Rob and Bill Samuels at the Maker’s Mark distillery, March 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen


I’m not saying Bill and Rob Samuels planned this all along, but I sure wondered last week when I heard they had quickly canceled plans to water down Maker’s Mark whisky to make supplies go further.

Maybe I wondered because Bill Samuels is one of America’s sharpest marketers, or because I was a business editor at the Atlanta newspapers when the New Coke affair was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

Whatever the case, the Maker’s Mark affair was anything but the “debacle” some media reports called it. In case you weren’t paying attention, here’s what happened:

Rob Samuels, who has been taking over the reins of the Beam Inc. brand from his father, announced Feb. 9 that there just wasn’t enough Maker’s Mark to keep up with demand, despite the distillery’s frequent expansions in recent years.

So, he said, they had decided to dilute their bourbon from 45 percent alcohol, or 90 proof, to 42 percent alcohol, or 84 proof. They said the decision was made after much testing to make sure that a tad more water wouldn’t change the taste.

Nine days later, Rob Samuels reversed course, saying, “You spoke. We listened.” He said the company, which has its offices in Louisville and its distillery near the Marion County town of Loretto, got thousands of complaints from loyal customers who didn’t want their favorite bourbon messed with.

The Samuelses had to know there would be pushback, because bourbon lovers are a tradition-loving bunch. There’s a reason Kentucky bourbon has been marketed for more than a century under labels of “old” this and “old” that.

Bourbon’s popularity is booming around the world, and a big reason is that so much good stuff is now being made. A few decades ago, when many bourbon distillers were producing mediocre stuff, Maker’s Mark was one of the few quality choices. Now, the top shelf is a crowded place, with dozens of great bourbons to suit every taste.

The Maker’s Mark affair will go down in marketing textbooks as another stroke of Samuels genius. Think about it: if nobody had complained, the distillery would have had more bourbon to sell. When, predictably, customers raised hell, Maker’s Mark got a barrel full of free publicity.

Expert helps me taste-test a 112-year-old bottle of family bourbon

January 2, 2013

Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell prepares to taste some Old Barbee, distilled in 1901 and bottled in 1914. Photo by Mollie Eblen


You don’t have to be a bourbon whiskey expert to know that age is good and more age is usually better. But how old is too old?

I have pondered that question for 25 years, ever since I was given a pint of Old Barbee. It was distilled in 1901 when my wife’s great-grandfather was president of the company that made it.

This bourbon was aged for 13 years in a charred, white-oak barrel to acquire its color and flavor, just as bourbon is made today. It was bottled at 100 proof in 1914, according to the tax stamp, but never opened.

I always wondered: Would this Old Barbee still taste good? Or, after almost a century in a bottle, would it be nasty — or even poisonous?

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to find out.

I took my grown daughters, Mollie and Shannon, to Anderson County to open and taste my Old Barbee with one of Kentucky’s bourbon experts: Jimmy Russell. The third-generation distiller has worked at Wild Turkey for 59 years and been the master distiller there since 1966.

Russell explained that bourbon does all of its maturing in the barrel. Once bottled, the process stops. As long as the amber liquid remains clear, he had told me, my Old Barbee should taste as good as the day it was bottled.

The cork stopper and celluloid wrapper had started to disintegrate in recent years, causing nearly half the bottle’s contents to evaporate — distillers call it “the angels’ share.” As Russell readied some snifters, I removed the cork carefully.

I had heard about Old Barbee since the late 1970s, when my wife, Becky, and I began dating. According to her family lore, it was a smooth bourbon with excellent flavor.

My wife’s great-grandfather Herman Volkerding was born in 1869 to a German family in Cincinnati. He moved to Louisville and worked for John T. Barbee & Co. By the early 1890s, he was the distillery’s president.

The company’s offices were on Louisville’s Main Street, then known as “Whiskey Row.” The distillery was in Woodford County, along Griers Creek near the Kentucky River, within two miles of where Wild Turkey is made.

John T. Barbee & Co. prospered, and Volkerding and his wife, Mary, lived in a West End mansion with their eight children. But he died in 1912 at age 42, and his partners sold the business to the Weller distillery.

When Prohibition came in 1919, the remaining stock of Old Barbee was sold as “medicinal whiskey,” which required a doctor’s prescription. The Woodford County distillery was abandoned and reclaimed by nature.

I have researched Old Barbee over the years, and that led me to the person who, in 1987, gave me the unopened bottle.

My daughters and I watched as Russell poured small samples into four snifters. He swirled his glass and held it up to the light.

“It’s got a great color, that good, bright, which means it should still be a good-tasting product,” he said. “When it stays that same color all those years you know it’s well-made, been aged well.”

Russell took several deep sniffs. “It’s got a great nose on it,” he said.

Then he took a sip, rolling it around his mouth for several moments as Herman Volkerding’s great-great-granddaughters and I held our breath.

“Typical old-fashioned bourbon,” Russell finally said with a smile. “It’s got the sour mash, it’s got the caramel, vanilla, the sweetness. And that age it’s got a lot of woody, oaky taste to it.

“The thing I really like about it is the finish. It’s got a great finish on it. To me, that’s one of the most important things is the finish. What kind of taste does it leave in your mouth?”

With Russell having pronounced Old Barbee good, my daughters and I took sips.

Then, as if drawn by a sixth sense for special bourbon, Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, and Rick Robinson, Wild Turkey’s distillery director, walked in, and I offered them a taste.

We all agreed that the oldest bourbon any of us had ever had was mighty good stuff.

When Becky’s family came to our house for Christmas, I put eight small glasses on an Old Barbee serving tray she had inherited and poured everyone a taste. Then we offered a toast to Herman Volkerding for a job well done.


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A short history of Kentucky bourbon, sip by sip

September 22, 2012

Aging bourbon at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort. Photo by Tom Eblen


What is the best way to end a fine Kentucky day?

Try this: A front porch with a pleasant view. A comfortable rocking chair. A friend with interesting things to say. A glass with enough fine Kentucky bourbon whiskey to float an ice cube or three.

The first sip should burn, but not too much. Hints of caramel and charred oak bounce off the back of your tongue. It is an intoxicating mixture of corn, barley, rye or wheat, limestone-rich water and a lot of Kentucky history.

Legend has it that bourbon was invented in Scott County in the late 1780s by Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher. That may not be true, but it makes a great story: Nectar of the gods created by minister to teetotalers.

Bourbon has become a Kentucky icon, a signature state industry. What makes bourbon unique? First, it is the mixture of grains: at least 51 percent corn, malted barley, rye and/or wheat. It is aged in new, white oak barrels that have been charred by flame. The char is what gives bourbon its distinctive amber color and smoky flavor. That happens as clear whiskey is drawn in and out of the wood with the change of seasons.

Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon — and all that’s worth drinking. And don’t confuse bourbon with that charcoal-filtered whiskey that Jack Daniel and George Dickel make in Tennessee.

Bourbon has been big business in the Bluegrass since before Kentucky became a state in 1792. Settlers found the rich soil good for growing corn and the limestone water good for turning it into whiskey.

Why was it called bourbon? Again, there’s more legend than proof. But it probably had something to do with early Kentucky whiskey’s biggest export market: French New Orleans.

Bourbon making became a popular Kentucky enterprise. My great-great-great grandfather inherited a Jessamine County distillery from his father, according to an 1825 will. In the early 1900s, my wife’s great-grandfather was president of a Woodford County distillery that had its offices on “Whiskey Row” on Louisville’s Main Street.

Prohibition in 1919 was a kick in the gut to Kentucky’s bourbon industry. Only a few distilleries survived by making “medicinal” whiskey for people with enough connections to get a doctor’s prescription.

Bourbon distilling rebounded with Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, but as the industry consolidated, quality suffered. Sales plummeted in the 1960s and 1970s. Bill Samuels thinks it was because most bourbon then wasn’t very good.

About that time, Samuels was building his father’s Maker’s Mark distillery into an industry powerhouse by focusing on better quality and marketing. That sparked an industry turnaround.

Soon every Kentucky distillery was making high-quality bourbons — unique recipes that began attracting new fans around the world.

When friends used to ask me to recommend a good bourbon, I would offer a few suggestions. Now, I tell them that almost any Kentucky bourbon costing more than $20 a bottle will be good, so it’s just a matter of personal preference.

There is a lot of variety in bourbon, as there is in the way people drink it. Many bourbonistas turn up their nose at sweet mint juleps, and laugh out loud when someone mixes good bourbon with a carbonated soft drink.

Many purists like their bourbon on ice or “neat” — straight or with a few drops of water at room temperature. Some people keep their bourbon in the freezer to avoid diluting it with melting ice.

Bourbon is likely to remain trendy so long as creative distillers come up with tasty new recipes. But, please, let’s not get all snobbish like some of those wine and Scotch connoisseurs.

I once met a legendary distiller, a guy who helped developed some of Kentucky’s best-tasting bourbons. He even has a fine bourbon named for him. So I had to ask: how do you drink your bourbon?

He mixes it with Sprite.

Kentucky bourbon baron’s great-grandsons trying to save his Lawrenceburg mansion from ruin

June 12, 2012


Thomas Beebe Ripy completed this Queen Anne-style mansion in 1888.


LAWRENCEBURG — When cousins Tom Ripy and George Geoghegan were boys in the 1940s, their great-grandmother’s home on Main Street was the center of activity for their large extended family.

Sallie Ripy was then a spry woman in her 90s, and she shared her 11,000-square-foot mansion with several of her 11 children and their spouses.

On Christmas Day, the great-uncles would give each child in the family a silver dollar. One great-aunt kept a drawer full of candy and taught all of the children how to blow bubble gum, “much to our parents’ disgust,” Tom Ripy recalled.

The biggest treat of all was climbing up into the house’s four-story tower, which offered a commanding view.

“It was a very happy place,” Ripy said. “We all felt at home there.”

So it was with great alarm that Ripy and Geoghegan watched in recent years as the house, which was sold out of the family in 1965, fell into extreme disrepair. In 2010, the cousins, both retired government lawyers, pooled their resources and bought it at foreclosure.

“There were rumors that somebody would buy it and sell it for salvage,” said Ripy, who lives in Arlington, Va. “So I left my wife in Virginia and brought her checkbook.”

“That’s literally true,” confirmed his wife, Minnie Sue Ripy.

Minnie Sue Ripy, Tom Ripy and George Geoghegan

The bank gave them a good price — $186,000 — because the Thomas Beebe Ripy mansion wasn’t just any house. Completed in 1888 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the Queen Anne-style house might be the grandest of a string of mansions that bourbon barons built along Main Street when this was a center of Kentucky’s whiskey industry.

T.B. Ripy (1847-1902) bought, sold and ran several distilleries, including the one on the Kentucky River at Tyrone where Wild Turkey is now made.

“He was a wheeler-dealer, alternately well off and broke,” Ripy, his great- grandson, said. “Frankly, I’m not sure I would have wanted to do business with him.”

Ripy, 73, and Geoghegan, 69, bought the family homeplace with the hope of finding someone with the resources to restore it and put it to good use. “We certainly didn’t buy it to live in,” Geoghegan said.

Until they find a suitable buyer, they are trying their best to clean up the place, which has been quite a chore.

They hired a crew to clear five acres of brush and trees that had almost swallowed the house.

“I was going to recommend it for the next Jurassic Park movie,” Geoghegan said. “It was that bad.”

They hauled out tons of junk. They replaced roofing and gutters that had let rain flow into the house. Mildew was everywhere, but, fortunately, the thick brick and plaster walls had kept out mold, Geoghegan said.

The cousins brought in a bee keeper to remove an active hive, 8 feet wide and 2 feet thick, in the grand second-floor hallway. They continue to battle bats, which fly in from the attic through holes in ceiling plaster.

With cleanup almost complete, the next step is a costly restoration. There is a lot to work with: sumptuous woodwork of mahogany, walnut and cherry, and amazing stained-glass windows. The main floor has 14-foot ceilings and a grand mahogany staircase.

“At this point, we’re doing it with our own money, but retired government lawyers are not exactly members of the 1 percent,” Ripy said. “Before I die, I would like to see this place restored as an asset for the community.”

The most likely scenario is for someone to buy the mansion for a commercial use, which would make the property eligible for federal and state tax credits to help with restoration costs.

Lawrenceburg is now an important stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a successful effort by the Kentucky Distillers Association to attract tourists to distilleries. Association members will discuss the Ripy mansion’s potential at their June 26 meeting, said Eric Gregory, the executive director.

“It’s a treasure,” said Gregory, who has restored several old houses. “As fast as our industry is growing, there is always a need for event space. Mansions like this with ties to the bourbon industry don’t come around very often.”


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Bill Samuels leaves his mark on Maker’s Mark

April 18, 2011

LORETTO — Bill Samuels Jr. didn’t get his family into the whiskey business. His great-great-great-great grandfather did that.

He didn’t create the recipe for Maker’s Mark bourbon or the marketing philosophy behind it. His father did that.

Samuels didn’t think up the name Maker’s Mark, design the bottle and label or add the iconic red wax that drips down each bottle’s neck. His mother did that.

And he didn’t start bourbon tourism by restoring the old Marion County distillery and inviting customers to visit. His parents and sister did that.

But as Samuels steps down as president and chief executive of Maker’s Mark, there is a lot he can take credit for. He turned his parents’ little company into an icon and helped create a more flavorful version of their bourbon. Along the way, he rewrote the rules of marketing and set Kentucky’s bourbon industry on a path to growth and success.

Samuels will hand over the reins of the company to his son after Friday’s running of the Maker’s Mark Mile at Keeneland. Rob Samuels, 36, has led the distillery’s international growth efforts for five years, after a decade of sales and management experience with other liquor companies. He also has done business graduate studies at Harvard and the University of Chicago.

A father-to-son transition might seem strange for a company that hasn’t been family-owned since 1981, when high inheritance-tax rates prompted the Samuels family to sell to the first of three corporations that have owned it. Fortune Brands, like its predecessors, sees no reason to mess with the Samuels family’s success. The company has had annual double-digit sales growth for more than two decades.

“His grandparents created the gem,” Samuels said as his son sat across an antique table in the distillery’s office. “I was able, with a lot of help and some luck, to take it to icon status in the United States. His job is global icon status.”

Global icon status is quite a leap from what Samuels found when he joined the company in the early 1970s, after law school at Vanderbilt and a couple of years working in the aerospace industry.

The Samuels family had been making whiskey since Robert Samuels came to Kentucky in 1784. After their distilleries were shut down during Prohibition and World War II, Bill Samuels Sr. and his wife, Margie, decided to get back into the business in 1951 with a new recipe.

He created a smoother bourbon by using wheat instead of rye. She chose the name and created the packaging. They restored the historic distillery and invited customers to visit. By the 1960s, Maker’s Mark had a loyal following in Kentucky, but it was unknown and unavailable almost everywhere else.

When Bill Samuels Jr. became president in 1975, he knew Maker’s Mark needed to grow. But there were two big problems: Bourbon had lost national popularity, and his father refused to advertise.

His father wanted customers to discover Maker’s Mark themselves, then recommend it to friends. An excellent product, he was certain, would sell itself. “I was convinced he was an old fuddy-duddy,” Bill Samuels Jr. said.

With help from Jim Lindsey of Louisville’s Doe-Anderson advertising agency, Samuels studied his father’s business philosophy to try to create a growth strategy they could both live with.

That strategy paid off in August 1980, when The Wall Street Journal published a front-page feature about the craftsmanship of Maker’s Mark. The article generated thousands of letters and phone calls, giving the distillery an interested customer base that the senior Samuels was comfortable appealing to.

Maker’s Mark promotions are now considered landmark examples of relationship marketing. They have a personal feel, from advertising copy written like friendly letters to humorous plays on the bottle’s patented red wax.

Samuels not only changed advertising theory; he changed bourbon. Once other distilleries noticed the success that Maker’s Mark was having with a better-tasting product, they developed their own premium brands. Bourbon, like single-malt Scotch, increasingly attracts connoisseurs around the world.

As he neared retirement, Samuels decided he wanted a greater legacy “than not screwing up what my parents created.” He began wondering whether it would be possible to create a bourbon that brought out more of the natural flavors of the charred American white oak barrel without getting bitter.

“We wanted the Maker’s taste profile on steroids,” said Samuels, who worked secretly for a couple of years with master distiller Kevin Smith and cooper Brad Boswell.

The result is Maker’s Mark 46, which went on sale last year. To achieve Samuels’ goal, seared French oak staves are inserted into a barrel of Maker’s Mark during the last two or three months of the six-year aging process.

That achievement made Samuels feel better about retirement — not that he really plans to retire. At age 70, Samuels is a bundle of nervous energy that he tries to keep hidden behind a folksy, laid-back demeanor.

“I told Rob I would help around here,” he said. “And I told my wife I wouldn’t stay home, since she wasn’t going to tolerate it anyway.”

Samuels plans to work at least 30 hours a week as a brand ambassador.

“My first job was to write Bill’s new job description, which was interesting,” Rob Samuels said.

Bill Samuels, who has long been active in civic and charitable efforts, has a couple of big ones on his to-do list: he is chairman of the Bridges Coalition, a group lobbying for renovation of the Ohio River bridges at Louisville, and he is leading a $100 million capital campaign for Bellarmine University.

Bill Samuels Jr. said he thinks his son will be a better leader than he was. His fascination was always with ideas, he said, whether related to marketing or product development. “I’ve never considered myself a creative person,” Bill Samuels said. “But I am spectacular at giving creative direction.”

But will Samuels struggle with his son the way he struggled with his father?

“Dad always said that even when he was boss, I was trying to tell everybody what to do,” Samuels said. “People say, ‘You’ll never be able to take a subordinate role,’ but I’m going to prove them wrong.”

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Milestones in Maker’s Mark History

1784: Robert Samuels begins distilling in Kentucky; each generation of his descendants follows suit.

1840: T.W. Samuels opens the family’s first commercial distillery in Nelson County.

1951-1954: After the family’s distillery is shut down during Prohibition and again during World War II, Bill Samuels Sr. gets back in business. He ditches the family recipe and creates a new one, using wheat instead of rye to give his bourbon a smoother taste. Samuels and his wife, Margie, buy and restore an old distillery near Loretto. She names the bourbon Maker’s Mark after the craftsmen’s marks on the fine pewter she collects. She designs the bottle and label, and she creates the dripping red wax seal that becomes the Maker’s Mark signature.

1959: Maker’s Mark goes on the market for $7 a bottle.

1967: The company makes its first profit.

1968: Samuels Sr. hires his daughter, Leslie, to develop a visitor program at the distillery. The concept eventually grows into the Kentucky Bourbon Trial.

1975: Bill Samuels Jr. becomes president and CEO. He and Jim Lindsey of Louisville ad agency Doe-Anderson begin creating a marketing strategy designed around Bill Sr.’s dislike of marketing. The strategy emphasized craftsmanship and personal recommendation.

1980: The Wall Street Journal publishes a front-page feature about Maker’s Mark, which Samuels credits with creating national interest in high-quality bourbon.

1981: Fearing then-high inheritance taxes, the Samuels family sells the distillery to Hiram Walker & Sons.

1987: Hiram Walker sells Maker’s Mark to what becomes Allied Domecq.

2005: Allied Domecq sells Maker’s Mark to Fortune Brands, where it becomes part of Beam Global Spirits & Wine.

2006: Samuels Jr.’s son, Rob, joins the company as global brand manager after working for a decade in sales and distribution for other liquor companies.

2010: Maker’s Mark 46 goes on sale. Maker’s Mark begins a $110 million expansion that will increase capacity by 50 percent. Sales surpass 1 million cases after double-digit sales growth every year since 1980.

2011: Samuels Jr., 70, hands over the role of president and CEO to his son, Rob, 36, but will continue working as a brand ambassador.

Sources: Bill Samuels Jr., Maker’s Mark,, news reports

Distillers take steps to protect ‘signature’ industry

February 6, 2011

For a century, Kentucky seemed to have a virtual lock on two signature industries: horses and bourbon.

We have heard a lot about what is happening with the horse industry. Other states are luring away Kentucky’s Thoroughbreds with breeder incentives and higher race purses, mostly subsidized by casino gambling.

Things have been different with bourbon. The past three decades have seen a bourbon renaissance with big Kentucky distillers successfully selling new premium-priced brands to a growing international market of spirits connoisseurs.

But just as craft brewers are taking a bigger slice of the beer market, craft distilleries are the hottest trend in liquor. Kentucky’s spirits monopoly is threatened because many of these small distillers are setting up shop elsewhere.

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association has taken a couple of steps to support craft distillers in the state — and to try to attract more of them. “Our craft distillers are very important to what we’re doing as a state and as an industry,” said KDA President Eric Gregory.

The association decided, after 131 years, to admit craft distillers as members. The first is Alltech, the biotech company that brews Kentucky Ale and recently branched into distilling. Alltech last year began selling a malt whiskey, Pearse Lyons Reserve, named for the company’s founder and chief executive. It also makes a bourbon-and-coffee drink called Bluegrass Sundown and is working on a bourbon.

Later this year, Alltech will begin construction of a distillery building beside its brewery, off Maxwell Street west of downtown Lexington. It also has created a charming visitors center in a former ice house.

A few blocks west on Manchester Street, Barrel House Distilling Co. is making Pure Blue vodka and waiting for its bourbon and bourbon-barrel rum to age. Corsair Artisan Distillery in Bowling Green makes a range of spirits including Vanilla Bean Vodka and Pumpkin Spice Moonshine. MB Roland Distillery near Hopkinsville makes corn whiskey, spiced rum and flavored moonshines. It also has a bourbon on the way.

The KDA also wants to help craft distillers — and its other members, too — by cutting the industry’s state taxes. Kentucky has the nation’s highest distillery taxes.

“That’s the big issue,” said Bill Samuels, president of Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto. “I know most of the craft distillers around the country, and they just laugh when you talk about Kentucky.”

Kentucky is the only state with an ad valorem tax on spirits aging in barrels. Distillers don’t want to repeal the tax because the money goes directly to counties where they operate. But the KDA is backing legislation to provide a credit to offset the tax.

“The main thing it would do is give us a fighting chance to compete for craft distilleries,” Samuels said. “If you’re starting off a craft distillery and you have problems with cash flow anyway — where you make it and you don’t sell it for five, six, seven years — the last thing you need is for it to be taxed like a finished product when it’s not a finished product.”

Kentucky has lost 20 percent of its total manufacturing jobs since 2000, but distillery employment has grown by 6 percent during the decade, to more than 3,200 direct and several thousand more spinoff jobs. That’s according to an economic impact study the KDA commissioned last year by University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes.

Samuels said Maker’s Mark employment has grown more than 40 percent in the past three years, from 80 to 117. Multimillion-dollar facilities expansions are underway at Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey distilleries.

“I think the legislature needs to think about us as a signature industry rather than a demon,” Samuels said. “And then I think we could continue to serve the commonwealth with lots and lots of jobs and taxes.”

Kentucky now makes 96.5 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey. “If we don’t get a lot of these new craft operators, it’s going to be a whole lot less than that,” Samuels said. “When something gets going, people are willing to take risks and invest. And bourbon’s going. So why not keep it here in the commonwealth?”

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Kentuckians crave taste of home at the holidays

December 5, 2010

If you can’t be home for the holidays, you can at least bring a taste of home to you. The folks at Ale 8 One and other companies that produce some of Kentucky’s signature food and drink see it every year.

The Ale 8 One bottling plant in Winchester, which distributes only in parts of Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, does a healthy mail-order business all year in soft drinks and souvenirs. T-shirt sales have been especially strong, thanks to Orlando Bloom wearing one in the 2005 movie Elizabethtown and rock climbers from all over the world who come to the Red River Gorge and leave with a taste for the sweet, gingery drink in the distinctive green bottle.

But when the holidays roll around, Ale 8 One sales spike, and most of it comes from homesick Kentuckians living far away. Direct sales rise by about one-third each November, and triple in December, compared to other months.

“It’s a familiarity, a nostalgia, a memory for people,” said DeAnne Elmore, the company’s marketing director. “It’s a connection to home, and the holidays trigger all of that. We have people who tell us they toast with it on New Year’s Eve.”

It can cost as much as $30 to have a 12-pack of Ale 8 One shipped to the West Coast. “The shipping costs a lot more than the product, but we don’t have any control over that,” Elmore said.

At Harper’s Country Hams in the Western Kentucky town of Clinton, the last 60 days of the year account for nearly 40 percent of annual sales.

Harper’s ham is easier to find outside Kentucky than Ale 8 One, owing to a distribution network that includes most of the Southeast. But Kentuckians elsewhere who yearn for that salty goodness can go to and order gift packages and even whole country hams, which range in price from $43 to $83. “Sales are getting bigger every year because of the Internet,” Harper’s spokesman Mike Morgan said.

Morgan said orders come in from all over the world, but shipments to some countries can be tricky because of cultural and religious biases against eating pork. When a Harper’s employee was serving in the military in Iraq a few years ago, his colleagues here cooked up a batch of country ham jerky to send him, and it managed to get past the pork police, Morgan said.

Rebecca Ruth, which has been churning out bourbon chocolates since 1919, does a large percentage of its business through Internet and catalog sales. Sales rise dramatically around the holidays.

Many orders come from families that have been customers for generations, said owner Charles Booe, whose grandmother, Ruth Hanly Booe, started the company with partner Rebecca Gooch.

“The fourth quarter is the best time for buying chocolates for a variety of reasons,” Booe said. In addition to holiday feasts and gift-giving, the weather is cooler and safer for shipping.

The holidays also bring more tourists to Rebecca Ruth’s kitchen, located in an old house near the state Capitol in Frankfort. How many tourists?

“A lot,” Booe said. “I don’t count them, but they come in every day.”

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail promotion has created a dramatic increase in visitors for distillery tours.

Maker’s Mark Distillery will have special free candlelight tours of its decorated grounds near Loretto in Marion County on Dec. 4 and Dec. 11 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Liquor laws prevent distilleries from selling mail-order bourbon, but all of them do a brisk business in souvenirs. Besides, most popular brands of bourbon are now available in liquor stores just about everywhere.

Each year, Kentucky distillers roll out special bottles and gift packs that include glasses or flasks. The flasks offered with Four Roses Single Barrel this year celebrate the 100th anniversary of its distillery building near Lawrenceburg.

Some distilleries also produce special whiskeys. Buffalo Trace’s 2010 Antique Collection includes five limited-release whiskeys of various recipes and ages. Woodford Reserve’s annual Master’s Collection this year features a limited bottling of what it says is the first bourbon finished in a maple, rather than oak, barrel.

Alltech expects big holiday sales of its Lexington-made Kentucky Ale, which has been around for a decade.

Some of that is because its Bourbon Barrel Ale gained an international following during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

As with bourbon, bourbon chocolate, Ale 8 One and country ham, Kentucky Ale isn’t just for homesick Kentuckians anymore.

Equestrian Games’ opening day is a hit

September 26, 2010

Note: Because of newspaper deadlines, this column was filed Saturday night before Opening Ceremonies began. For a full report on that, click on these links for stories by Rich Copley and Linda Blackford. Click here for a photo gallery.

The first day of WEG was a WOW.

That seemed to be the consensus among locals, visitors, athletes and officials at Saturday’s opening of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

The weather was perfect. The crowd was large, but never uncomfortably so. The facilities were beautiful, the pavilions were impressive, the events ran smoothly, the glitches were minor and everybody seemed to be having a good time.

I took the LexTran shuttle to avoid traffic. It was a quick and easy ride from downtown to the Kentucky Horse Park where there was … no traffic. In fact, Iron Works Pike was so clear I couldn’t believe how many people I saw in the park.

Even for those who didn’t attend the reining competition, the only event Saturday, there was plenty to see and do. The Horse Park has been transformed into a horse-themed world’s fair, with exhibits and horsemanship demonstrations at the Equine Village, more than 300 vendor booths and pavilions and the impressive Kentucky Experience and Alltech Experience complexes.

“It has exceeded my expectations, even though I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Doran Bradford of Lexington, who was there with his wife, Anne, and their two young sons. “We’re having a good time.”

A Chinese vaulting competitor sat beside the Bradfords at lunch and told them all about her sport. “That was really neat,” he said. “I’ll probably be more interested in these sports now after coming out here.”

The Kentucky Horse Park drew rave reviews from some international equestrians. Having all of the venues in one place is an advantage over previous Games, although they noted the park’s size makes it a challenge to navigate.

“It’s a fabulous facility, but it’s huge,” said Francesca Sternberg, a reining rider from Great Britain who will be competing Sunday but spent Saturday taking her children around the trade fair. “The show grounds are outstanding. They’ve done an impressive job.”

Many international teams had golf carts and bicycles to help them get around. For spectators, though, the Games mean a lot of walking — and dodging golf carts and bicycles. (Some shuttles are available for elderly and disabled visitors, but you can’t bring a bicycle into the park.)

“It’s a fantastic place, and the people are so nice — friendly and helpful,” said Jenny Champion, who had hoped to be on the New Zealand endurance team but ended up coming as a spectator. “The park is so big you need a map.”

But Eduardo Tame, a Mexico team official and tour operator, complained that the prices he had to pay for buses, hotels and other necessities for the 120 people he brought to the Games were outrageous.

“I have been to every Equestrian Games and Olympics, and this is the most expensive of all of them,” he said. “I’m really surprised with these prices.”

Spectators complained a little about food prices but noted the food was quite good and prices weren’t out of line with other special events. The main food tent, staffed by Rotary Club volunteers from across the country, had so many food and checkout stations that there was rarely a line.

“I’m genuinely delighted to see everyone’s hard work coming together,” said Alltech President Pearse Lyons, the driving force behind the Games, who spent the day greeting visitors at the 4-acre Alltech Experience.

“This has all been in my head so many years it’s nice to see it happen,” added his wife, Deirdre, who designed much of the Alltech Experience.

The Kentucky Experience pavilion also was a big hit, as much with Kentuckians as with those from elsewhere. Visitors could hear bluegrass music, see exhibits about all parts of the state, sample Kentucky’s “unbridled spirits” — bourbon and wine — and sit behind the wheel of a Corvette.

“People keep asking, ‘Can I have it?'” said Coni Sheppard, who was watching over the Bowling Green-made sports car. “I tell them that, for $75,000, I’m sure they can fix you up.”

“These Games are going to be wonderful for this state,” said Gov. Steve Beshear, who toured the pavilion after a ribbon-cutting ceremony and joined Beam Global Spirits CEO Matt Shattock in dipping souvenir Maker’s Mark bottles in red wax.

“What fun!” Roger Leasor, the president of Liquor Barn, said as he wandered the trade fair. “I’ve always liked being in places where you hear a lot of languages and accents, and now you can do it in Lexington — at least for the next 16 days.”

A quick introduction to Lexington for our visitors

September 19, 2010

Welcome to Lexington. We thought you would never get here.

We have been getting ready for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games for five years — and thinking about them even longer.

The Kentucky Horse Park opened in 1978 with the World Championship Three-Day Event. Each year since then, the park has played host to what is now called the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Years of improvements have made the Kentucky Horse Park perhaps the world’s finest equestrian facility. It is a big contributor to the local economy, with museums, horse shows and other events. But we have always had something bigger in mind, and that is what brought you here.

After the first World Equestrian Games were held in Sweden in 1990, we considered going after the second Games four years later. We competed for the 2006 Games but lost to Aachen, Germany. Our 2004 bid for this year’s Games was chosen over Normandy, France, which will host the 2014 Games.

Over the past few years, Lexington’s city motto may as well have been, “Clean up! Company’s coming!” We have raced to complete many long-deferred highway, street and sidewalk improvements. Be careful: some of the cement may still be wet.

As you can see, our natural landscape is gorgeous. John Filson, one of the first people to visit and write about Kentucky, described this place in 1784 as a “new Eden.” But much like Adam and Eve, we have not always appreciated it.

Lexington has tried for a half-century to control urban sprawl, with mixed success. Only recently have most people in the Bluegrass realized it is not a good idea to continue paving over the landscape that makes us unique. It gives me hope that eventually more people will realize that blowing up Kentucky’s mountains to extract coal isn’t such a good idea, either.

The Bluegrass has many beautiful, old buildings. The oldest ones date from a time two centuries ago when Lexington was the most progressive city on what was then America’s western frontier. We would have many more of those old buildings, but we spent the last half of the 20th century demolishing them, often to make way for nothing more special than a parking lot.

And how, you may wonder, did Lexington end up with a fenced pasture in the center of town? Don’t ask; it’s too embarrassing.

Central Kentucky is filled with good, friendly people who genuinely want you to enjoy yourself while you are here. There are many fine restaurants, museums, galleries and other attractions, although they are not always easy to find. Ask one of us for recommendations.

Kentuckians are proud of their home, but we have a bit of an inferiority complex. That’s partly because many of us are afraid of change, suspicious of new ideas and wary of taking risks. We have always been too quick to settle for second-best.

But that’s not just a Kentucky trait; transplants often have a clearer view than natives do of a place’s worth and potential. A good example is Pearse Lyons, an Irishman who came to Kentucky three decades ago and started Alltech. His energy and money are a driving force behind the Games you are about to see.

Kentuckians are working hard to show you a good time, but glitches are inevitable. Be patient. And if you get anxious, try a bottle of Alltech’s Kentucky Ale or a few sips of Kentucky wine or bourbon. (By the way: 95 percent of the world’s bourbon whiskey is made within a two-hour drive of Lexington. Most distilleries offer free tours. Some even give samples.)

So, welcome to Lexington. You love horses. We love horses. This should be fun.

Kentucky bourbon a growing ‘signature industry’

September 13, 2010

Before the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games begin later this month, there will be a big celebration of another Kentucky signature industry.

The annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival begins Tuesday in Bardstown with events every day through Sunday. Last year, the festival attracted 55,000 people from 43 states and 13 foreign countries. An even bigger crowd is expected this year.

Bourbon is on a roll. While Kentucky manufacturers overall cut 20 percent of their jobs during the past decade, distillery employment grew 6 percent, according to an industry study published early this year. Nineteen distilleries in eight Kentucky counties employ more than 3,200 people.

Kentucky distilleries are expanding to meet rising worldwide demand for bourbon. Just last month, Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown announced a $4.2 million project to build two new barrel storage warehouses.

Thanks to Kentucky’s central location, distillers of other drinks are shipping more of their product to bourbon distilleries here for bottling, which is creating additional jobs.

Bourbon’s popularity is splashing over into the rest of Kentucky’s economy, too, thanks to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The six distilleries that offer tours as part of the promotion organized by the Kentucky Distillers Association recorded more than 400,000 visits last year, and expect to shatter that record this year, said association president Eric Gregory.

Although no longer an official part of the Bourbon Trail because of a dispute with the distillers association, the huge Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort also has seen tour attendance skyrocket.

Bill Samuels, president of Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto and perhaps the industry’s best marketer, isn’t surprised. He said his off-the-beaten-path distillery in Marion County had 13,000 visitors in July, and they spent $300,000 in the distillery gift shop. “It’s not a big profit center, but it does allow us to give visitors a first-class experience,” he said.

As a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s, Samuels said he saw how tourism began in California’s Napa Valley wine country. Since then, it has blossomed into a huge economic engine for that state.

Samuels thinks the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has similar potential. “It could become the most important new tourist attraction in the middle part of the country,” he said. “And without any state incentives.”

Samuels thinks it is time for communities near Kentucky’s distilleries to capitalize on the Bourbon Trail with new festivals, restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns and other hospitality businesses.

What made Napa Valley tourism take off was when local chambers of commerce and public officials got behind the effort. “We need that same kind of community leadership to make it happen here,” Samuels said.

“A signature industry ought to be able to be leveraged for the benefit of the people of Kentucky,” he said. “And the spirits industry is in a position to do that.”

As with the horse industry, though, Samuels worries that Kentucky could lose out on a lot of economic growth because it has taken the bourbon industry for granted, punishing it with high taxes and onerous sales restrictions. Those have been driven largely by opportunistic politicians and anti-liquor church folk.

Kentucky now has the nation’s second-highest liquor taxes. More than half the cost of a bottle of bourbon bought in Kentucky is federal, state and local taxes.

How is that hurting economic growth? For example, Samuels said, only two of the nation’s 16 recent startup spirits distilleries are in Kentucky, largely because this is the only state with an ad valorem tax on spirits aging in warehouses.

Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon now. “But if we don’t do something about that ad valorem tax, it’s going to be a hell of a lot less than 95 percent,” he said.

Bourbon aging at Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort. Photo by Tom Eblen