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Summer Travel | Globe Magazine

Top-notch whiskey and world-class thoroughbreds in Lexington, Kentucky

Distilleries, racetracks, and stud farms (say hello to American Pharoah) make for a one-of-a-kind getaway.

Maker’s Mark bourbon ages in rotating barrels in a warehouse  at its distillery.
Maker’s Mark bourbon ages in rotating barrels in a warehouse at its distillery. Bob Krist

THERE ARE PLACES in this country where geology has played an obvious role in creating a vacation destination — think of the Grand Canyon, for instance, or the volcanic Hawaiian Islands. Though you might not think it, the same is true of Lexington, Kentucky. Beneath its gently rolling hills, geology has exerted a subtle force that’s helped make this a spectacular place to spend a weekend.

Central Kentucky is unusually rich in limestone, which is obvious from the hand-hewn stone walls that line its country roads. But the rock’s most important work takes place underground. When water passes over limestone in local springs or rivers, it loses iron and gains calcium. Iron tastes bitter, so Kentucky’s low-iron water is exceptionally smooth — perfect for making whiskey. Chemicals from the limestone also permeate the soil, creating pastures filled with calcium- and phosphate-rich grass. When horses eat it, they develop unusually strong bones — ideally suited to handle the stress of horse racing.

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Whiskey and thoroughbreds are natural ingredients for a good time, and Lexington does a superb job of showcasing these resources to potential visitors. The region’s distilleries have banded together to create the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (502-875-9351, kybourbontrail.com), a tour of central Kentucky distilleries forming a loose triangle between Lexington, Louisville and Bardstown; the organization provides itineraries and tour-guide referrals that encourage people to visit multiple locations. Local horse farms open for daily tours and the city’s racetrack, Keeneland, provide affordable entertainment. During my visit, I encountered several bachelor parties, and I understand the appeal: If your idea of fun includes gambling and cocktails, Lexington offers a saner, more scenic alternative to Las Vegas — and, along the way, you may actually learn something.

Copper stills at Woodford Reserve distillery.
Copper stills at Woodford Reserve distillery.Bob Krist

THE LESSONS START in the local distilleries. I visited three of the Bourbon Trail’s nine; my experience, along with testimonials by locals, suggests the best option near Lexington is Woodford Reserve’s $14 tour (859-879-1812, woodfordreserve.com). Although this high-end brand dates only to 1996, its product is made in old stone buildings where people have been distilling bourbon since 1838.

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Woodford’s tour guide explains bourbon making in great detail. Milled corn, rye, and barley are combined with local spring water and cooked to create a thick liquid mash. The mash, combined with yeast, is pumped into fermenters — think gigantic, 100-year-old wooden hot tubs — where the yeast converts the sugars into alcohol, forming carbon dioxide bubbles on the surface. (It resembles boiling polenta.) The fermented mash cycles through three large copper-pipe stills, separating the alcohol from the mash. The resulting “white dog” — a potent, clear moonshine — is put into charred oak barrels and rolled into warehouses, where it sits for years absorbing flavor and colors from the wood. This basic process is used to make most whiskeys. But to be called bourbon, the spirit must be produced in the United States from at least 51 percent corn, aged in such charred oak barrels (which are used just once), and contain certain percentages of alcohol at each step.

At every distillery, tours end with a tasting. At Woodford, we’re seated around a table and given two small glasses and a piece of candy called a bourbon truffle. The guide tells us how to make the half-ounce bourbon samples last for three sips while trying to discern specific notes with each taste. Woodford’s Double Oaked, which undergoes a second round of aging in a new barrel, is sweet and smooth — my favorite bourbon of the weekend.

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Other bourbon tours have their high points. Four Roses (502-839-3436, fourrosesbourbon.com) allows visitors to dip fingers into the fermenting mash to taste it and gives everyone a take-home tasting glass. At Town Branch (859-255-2337, kentuckyale.com), a newer distillery in downtown Lexington, the tour also visits its adjacent beer brewery. Both tours are cheaper ($5 and $10, respectively) than Woodford’s and allow visitors to taste more varieties. But both Four Roses and Town Branch store their product elsewhere, so you’re seeing only part of the process. And compared with Woodford, their tasting rooms are cramped and require visitors to jostle up to the bar. No matter which one you visit, make a reservation: Most of the distilleries offer tours every hour, but walk-ins often have to wait.

Unless you’re a bourbon fanatic, touring multiple distilleries is probably overkill. One good tour will explain the basics, and while each distillery does things slightly differently, the nuances aren’t exactly spellbinding. (After touring three facilities, I think I could passably ad-lib my way as a guide if I visited a fourth.) And after a day in the distilleries, I’d tasted so many bourbons that, at dinner that night, I scan the bourbon menu but ultimately opt for a beer.

WITH 95 PERCENT of the world’s bourbon distilled within an hour’s drive of Lexington, it’s no surprise you can get a good drink in the city. But you can also eat well, too.

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National Provisions (859-303-4763), located in a revitalizing neighborhood east of downtown, is a strange establishment: The large warehouse combines a brasserie, a beer hall, a prepared-foods market, and even a section selling small antiques — but the mishmash works. The bartender makes me an Old Fashioned with Rittenhouse Rye and uses a lighter to carefully toast the orange garnish before tossing it into the glass. “It releases the essential oils,” he says. Is this just a hipster mixologist’s affectation? I’m not sure, but the drink pairs wonderfully with a small plate of West Coast oysters.

Manchester Farm is among the thoroughbred nurseries near Lexington.
Manchester Farm is among the thoroughbred nurseries near Lexington.Bob Krist

My favorite meal is served at OBC Kitchen (859-977-2600, obckitchen.com), in a strip mall south of downtown. Its bourbon menu contains almost 200 brands, listed in colorful pages on the iPad menu. Each is available in 1-ounce and 2-ounce pours; the most expensive, John E. Fitzgerald, goes for an eye-popping $155 an ounce. (For an even longer bourbon menu, head downtown to the Bluegrass Tavern (859-389-6664, thebluegrasstavern.com), but be prepared for a mostly twenty- and thirtysomething crowd and no food service.) The most striking thing about the menu at OBC Kitchen is how many dishes include bacon. “Bacon goes great with bourbon, and we want the food to pair well with the drinks,” the server explains. So I start with Bacon in a Glass — five thick slabs, standing upright, glazed with bourbon, honey, and sugar and served with a peanut butter dipping sauce. My entree, a grilled hanger steak in a cabernet onion marmalade, makes for an especially carnivorous, and satisfying, meal.

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The quirkiest dish I encounter is a panko-crusted fried avocado appetizer at Cole’s 735 Main (859-266-2000, coles735main.com). The avocado is halved, pitted, peeled, and dusted with Japanese bread crumbs, then flash-fried, with tidy swirls of crabmeat salad piled into the indentations left by the pits. It’s a crunchy/creamy/warm/cool concoction, and if you’re going to throw something in a deep fryer, why not a healthy fruit?

Lexington features a compact downtown dominated by Rupp Arena, best-known as home court for University of Kentucky basketball. It also attracts a solid roster of concerts. (During a single week this spring, it hosted James Taylor, Pearl Jam, and Amy Schumer.) UK’s campus sprawls across the southern part of the city and is dotted with casual restaurants perfect for student budgets. After dinner one night, we walk these blocks and grab a six-pack (cookies, not beer) from Insomnia Cookies (877-632-6654, insomniacookies.com), the national chain whose locations, nearly all near colleges, deliver warm cookies and cold milk until 3 a.m.

AS HOBBIES GO, horses have a reputation for being ungodly expensive. That may be true for owning them, but all around Lexington, you can explore equine culture at low (or even no) cost.

For early risers, the fun starts just after sunrise at Keeneland (800-456-3412, keeneland.com), the racetrack located 6 miles west of downtown. During spring, summer, and fall, visitors are welcome to watch the horses run practice laps between 6 and 10 a.m. It’s free, and it’s a serene, uncrowded opportunity to explore the track; afterward, eat breakfast among barn hands at the Track Kitchen, the facility’s cafeteria, where $5 gets you a plate of eggs, grits, sausage, biscuits, and gravy.

To understand the art and science of breeding thoroughbred horses that can compete at tracks like Keeneland, visit one of the region’s famed stud farms. More than a dozen offer tours (book online at visithorsecountry.com) and most cost just $20. The most popular at the moment is Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud farm, home to American Pharoah, who in 2015 became the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown. Tickets to Coolmore sell out weeks in advance, but the site maintains an e-mail list to alert people when new reservations open up.

The author, Daniel McGinn, with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
The author, Daniel McGinn, with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

The Coolmore tour is astonishingly good, mostly because the tour guide — a lanky guy named Billy isn’t really a tour guide. He spends most of his day working in the breeding shed and barns, so the 3 p.m. tour feels unscripted and authentic — more of a Q and A with an expert rather than a canned walkabout. After our group of 20 signs the liability waiver, a handler brings out American Pharoah, who’s been living at Coolmore since his retirement last fall. Pharoah is currently one of the world’s most valuable horses, so I expect the handlers to keep us at a distance. Wrong. The tour guide grabs our cameras and invites us to pet the thoroughbred’s shoulder while he snaps away: “Just keep your fingers away from his mouth — he’s hungry.”

When Pharoah isn’t doing photo ops, he’s often busy in the breeding shed, mating two or three times a day with handpicked mares whose owners pay $200,000 for the privilege. (The fee is payable only if the coupling results in a live foal that is able to stand and nurse.) Racing rules prevent artificial insemination, so this farm’s 13 active stallions will collectively “cover” 1,800 mares during the five-month US breeding season before some of them travel to Australia or South America to spread their genes abroad. It’s a laborious operation, with ultrasounds to determine precisely when mares are ovulating, a half-dozen attendants guiding the copulation to limit the risks of injury, and a video camera rolling so the mare’s owner has a legal record that the deed was done. If all goes well, Pharoah will sire between 130 and 140 foals next spring — and when they start racing, the world will see if he’s as good at breeding as he is at racing.

Horses near the finish line at Keeneland racetrack.
Horses near the finish line at Keeneland racetrack.Daniel McGinn

Back at Keeneland, the first race usually goes off at 1:05 p.m., and tickets are just $5 for general admission or $10 for the shady grandstand. On weekends, the crowd is heavy and all decked out, but on a Friday afternoon I wear jeans and a polo shirt and don’t feel out of place. (Weekdays are also more family-friendly: Acquaintances who visited on Saturday complained the crowd was rife with college kids who had tailgated excessively.) I’m a neophyte bettor, but the $3 program and helpful betting-window attendants offer an assist as I make small wagers. In the early races, I make “across-the-board” bets, which pay off if my horse comes in first, second, or third. After a few races, I realize that though I’m experiencing the thrill of victory, I am effectively spreading my bets too thin — wagering $12 on one race, for instance, and getting back $5.

So I switch tactics, putting a few dollars each on a favorite and a long shot to win. In one race, I watch excitedly as my 20-to-1 horse goes out to an early lead, but after a fade in the stretch, my two picks are the last to cross the line. Tired of losing money, I head upstairs to the bar and order a Keeneland Breeze — Maker’s Mark bourbon, triple sec, and ginger ale.

As I nurse the drink and watch the next race on a TV, I recognize that limestone isn’t the only thing connecting the bourbon and the horses. Kentucky whiskey also acts as the perfect salve when one is consistently betting on the wrong horses. But on a sunny afternoon, as the bugler sounds the “call to the post,” those few lost wagers seem unimportant — and Lexington has proved itself a solid bet.

Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

MORE FROM A SPIRITED SUMMER TRAVEL ISSUE:

■  An American beer snob in Munich.

■   A down-to-earth wine tour in Sonoma Valley.

■   New England’s best summer festivals for food and drink.