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. 

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

UK frat brothers find a niche: The Bourbon Review

August 9, 2010

The four University of Kentucky fraternity brothers didn’t know much about writing or photography or advertising or marketing or magazine publishing. And all they knew about bourbon was that they enjoyed drinking it.

Sitting around a Lexington bar one night in late 2007, the Delta Tau Delta alumni were trying to come up with ideas for a business they could start together. They kept talking about the California wine magazine where one of them had done financial work.

“Wine magazines are a dime a dozen, so we were thinking, ‘What could be our niche?'” Seth Thompson said. “How about bourbon?”

That discussion led them to start The Bourbon Review, which is both a fan magazine for Kentucky’s native spirit and a visitors’ guide to the distillery region between Lexington and Louisville, where 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is produced. The Bourbon Review will soon publish its 10th quarterly issue.

Thompson said the four scraped together enough personal savings to print 10,000 copies of the magazine’s first issue in May 2008. The business has grown steadily since then to a press run of 25,000 copies.

Most copies are given away through advertisers and at selected shops and bars, or they are sold at Liquor Barn and Joseph-Beth Booksellers. The Bourbon Review also has more than 2,000 paying subscribers in 48 states and two foreign countries, Thompson said.

The four young men have earned respect within the bourbon industry, where distillery executives have started calling them the Bourbon Boys.

“We’ve been very impressed with those guys,” said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association. “The magazine is pretty well done.”

Bill Samuels, president of Maker’s Mark distillery, said the magazine is becoming an important player in efforts to leverage Kentucky’s bourbon industry into a major tourism phenomenon.

“What The Bourbon Review did early was give a focus to that content beyond just distillery tours,” he said.

Thompson said the magazine appeals to aficionados who want to know more about bourbon, including new ways to mix, drink and cook with it. Readers also want to know more about the people who produce bourbon, and how and where they do it.

“We want somebody to look at our magazine and say, ‘Wow, this is beautiful. How do I get there?'” he said.

Thompson, 28, who grew up in Powell County, handles much of the advertising and marketing. His brother, Justin, 30, is the magazine’s chief editor. Their fellow co-publishers, Lexington natives Bob Kenney Eidson, 30, and Brad Kerrick, 26, help manage the company. All four write and take pictures, with help from several freelance contributors.

Art director Josh Rubin designs the magazine, which is printed in Shepherdsville. All but Eidson now live in Lexington and work out of their homes full-time for the magazine. Eidson lives in California, where he also does financial management for other companies.

Distilleries are the magazine’s biggest advertisers, followed by restaurants, bars and other hospitality businesses. But as the partners try to make The Bourbon Review more of a lifestyle magazine, they are appealing to other advertisers, too, including real estate agents, physicians and even firearms dealers.

The partners say they put a lot of emphasis on social responsibility. The magazine’s masthead reports that the company contributes at least 50 hours of manpower and 1 percent of profits each year to philanthropic work, and it donates advertising space to promote Kentucky land and water conservation.

Thompson sees a lot of growth potential. Bourbon is developing the kind of national and international following that wine and Scotch whisky have had for decades.

The magazine’s current cover story is about bourbon culture in San Francisco. An upcoming issue will feature bourbon bars in Chicago.

The partners are redesigning their Web site, which they hope to turn into a major e-commerce destination for bourbon-related merchandise.

“It is an interesting and scary world in publications these days,” Thompson said. So far, though, The Bourbon Review’s success has exceeded the partners’ expectations.

The three who still live in Lexington are supporting themselves with the magazine. The partners own all of their company’s equity, and, so far, Thompson said, “we haven’t had to borrow a dime from a bank.”

The Bourbon Boys know a lot more about writing, photography, advertising and marketing than they did three years ago. And they know a whole lot more about bourbon. After all, frequent sampling is now just part of the job.

Maker's Mark Master Distiller Kevin Smith, center, poses with The Bourbon Review founders (left to right) Bob Eidson, Seth Thompson, Brad Kerrick and Justin Thompson. Photo Provided

Maker's Mark Master Distiller Kevin Smith, center, poses with The Bourbon Review founders (left to right) Bob Eidson, Seth Thompson, Brad Kerrick and Justin Thompson. Photo Provided

Old bourbon industry innovating, growing

January 18, 2010

Bourbon is one of Kentucky’s oldest products, and distillers have always cloaked themselves in nostalgia.

Even a century ago, distillers promoted their whiskey with images of log cabins and white-suited “colonels.” Brands included Old Crow and Old Barbee, which was made by a long-gone Woodford County distillery run by my wife’s great-grandfather.

Today’s brands include Old Forester, Old Fitzgerald and Old Weller. A glass of Pappy Van Winkle is about as good as bourbon gets.

But beneath this antique image is an innovative and growing industry.

The Kentucky Distillers Association last week released its first-ever economic impact study, prepared by University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes. Its findings may surprise some Kentuckians.

While other Kentucky manufacturers cut 20 percent of their jobs over the past decade, distilling employment grew by 6 percent.

The 19 distilleries in eight Kentucky counties employ 3,200 people with an annual payroll of $244 million, plus benefits. They represent 43 percent of all distilling workers in the United States.

Each distilling job creates more than twice as many spin-off jobs as other Kentucky “signature” industries such as horse breeding, tobacco farming and coal mining.

More than $1.5 billion worth of bourbon is produced in Kentucky each year. It accounts for 26 percent of the value of all distilled spirits produced in the United States. Kentucky bourbon is exported to 126 countries.

Kentucky now makes 95 percent of all bourbon, although it is seeing new competition from micro-distilleries elsewhere.

Bourbon’s fortunes have improved considerably since the 1970s, when “brown” spirits declined in popularity and many young adults saw bourbon as an “old people’s” drink.

Innovations such as super-premium brands in the 1980s and fresh marketing made bourbon popular again and fueled an international following that has caused exports to soar.

In the past decade, distilleries have invested millions to turn their factories into successful tourist destinations on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Distilleries have recorded more than 1.5 million tourist visits during the past five years.

“The best thing we can do is bring a tourist to Kentucky and give them a pleasant experience,” said Louisville hospitality consultant Peggy Noe Stevens, who comes from a famous bourbon family and worked 17 years in branding for Brown-Forman. “We create, in essence, ambassadors for Kentucky.”

The economic impact study was commissioned last year after the bourbon industry was slapped with yet another tax in the General Assembly’s scramble to balance the state budget.

The study notes that Kentucky spirits production and consumption produce $125 million each year in state and local taxes.

Kentucky has the highest distilled spirit taxes of any open-market state except Alaska. About 60 percent of the price of a bottle of bourbon bought in Kentucky is some form of state, federal or local tax.

“With the legislature actively talking about comprehensive tax reform, we would like to have a seat at the table,” said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. “We think we’ve earned a seat at the table.”

Bourbon industry fighting back on new tax

May 13, 2009

Bill Samuels’ speech to the Bluegrass Hospitality Association was a lot like the Maker’s Mark bourbon his company produces: smooth with a distinct flavor — and a kick.

Samuels talked Wednesday about how Kentucky has a monopoly on making premium bourbon. How it is a growing industry, which has doubled production since 1999. How it directly employs 3,200 people, has made $100 million in capital investment and creates $3 billion in gross state product.

Then he talked about how bourbon is creating a spinoff tourism and hospitality industry with huge growth potential that could rival Scotland’s whisky trail and California’s wine country.

Samuels unveiled a new logo and souvenir passport for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a 10-year-old marketing effort that he said has brought millions of tourists to the eight participating distilleries.

Then he delivered the kick.

Samuels blasted state officials, accusing them of trying to kill the bourbon industry with excessive taxes and unfair sales restrictions. And he signaled that the industry will be fighting back.

“We’re not looking for subsidies from our commonwealth,” Samuels said. “But we’re sure as hell not looking to be thrown under the bus.”

The bourbon industry is smarting over the General Assembly’s eleventh-hour move earlier this year to balance the state budget by adding the 6 percent sales tax to alcohol.

On Kentucky Derby weekend, a group of industry players ran full-page newspaper ads in Lexington and Louisville demanding that the governor and legislature reconsider.

“Kentuckians already pay the second-highest taxes on beverage alcohol in the U.S. We say enough is enough,” the ad said. “If you see the governor or one of our legislators during the Derby Season, let them know what you think of their unfair tax policies because it’s time to restore common sense to the Commonwealth.”

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association is working on developing a legislative strategy, President Eric Gregory said. He said the industry wants to make sure it has “a seat at the table” when lawmakers discuss much-needed tax reform.

“There are now seven different taxes on bourbon,” Gregory said. “That’s insane.”

Why is liquor so heavily taxed? Because it’s an easy political mark, especially in a state where many Christian denominations consider drinking a sin. Forty-nine of Kentucky’s 120 counties ban alcohol sales, and an additional 41 counties restrict them. A big reason for that is church folks and their legislators.

“I travel all over the world, and the only place I have ever heard the signature product, the signature industry, referred to as sin is in Kentucky,” Samuels said.

“If the majority of our elected officials believe that what we’re producing is sin, we need to confront it. And if they win, we need to shut all this stuff down, because we wouldn’t want to embarrass them. I would contend that’s an issue that needs to be dealt with. We’ve got to call their hand on it. We’re going to force that issue.”

Last year, Rep. Steve Riggs, a Louisville Democrat, suggested that only “wet” counties should receive the benefits of future alcohol taxes. In a General Assembly dominated by legislators from those mostly rural “dry” counties, the idea went nowhere.

Samuels suggested legislation removing all local-option restrictions and forcing counties that want to ban alcohol sales to vote “dry” again. And, he said, those that did should not get any alcohol tax revenues.

“It was estimated that to do that would have raised twice as much money as adding the tax, which took our product, of this signature industry, to the second-highest in the country,” he said.

State tax receipts on distilled spirits dropped by more than half last month as the new tax took effect. But it’s too early to know if that was because of the tax, the overall economy, or simply because people stocked up before the new tax went into effect.

Samuels had two points to make to the tourism people. One was that the bourbon industry is a major, growing contributor to Kentucky’s economy. The second was that bourbon-related tourism and hospitality has huge growth potential.

“This is the cheapest economic investment that the state could make,” he said of lowering taxes on the bourbon industry. “In my judgment, (bourbon-related tourism) has every bit the potential for being for Central Kentucky what Napa and Sonoma are for California. But if the industry itself is not viable, it has no chance.”