Taste trails, festivals and feasts reveal surprising diversity in the Bluegrass State.
My first trip to Kentucky in 2015 just whetted my appetite for this lush, sprawling state. Further investigation has led to a smorgasbord of wineries, breweries, distilleries and festivals that tantalize the taste buds and showcase an assortment of cultures against a splendid tapestry of history and nature.
HAPPY WINE TRAILS
Kentucky’s 200-year-old wine industry is surging back after the decline of the tobacco industry, which had replaced virtually all vineyards. Today, more than 100 wineries around the state offer robust experiences to please any sensibilities. The Arts and Wine Trail Destinations map combines “master crafters of art and agriculture,” interspersing more than 100 art studios, theatres and music stages along the trail.
I wouldn’t want to miss any of Kentucky’s other libations, however, so I would sign up for some combined tours. These include the Wine & Spirits Circle Tour of the Bluegrass based in Frankfort, a half-hour’s drive from the state’s largest winery and 50 per cent of the bourbon distilleries. The self-guided Wine and Bourbon Tour of Bullitt County near Louisville takes participants to Four Roses Bourbon, Jim Beam Distillery and four award-winning wineries: Brooks Hill, Forest Edge, MillaNova and Wight-Meyer.
Craft breweries are popping up everywhere as well, many along Lexington’s Brewgrass Trail. Foodies can combine their explorations with any of a number of culinary trails bearing names such as Hot Brown Hop and Urban Bourbon in Louisville. Bon Appétit Appalachia takes in farm tours, farmers’ markets, farm-to-fork restaurants, festivals and events, vineyards, wineries and craft breweries.
Several tour operators offer a variety of packages. For example, Kentucky Wine & Bourbon Tours (bestkywinetour.com) provides options that can include tastings and meals. Visitors who prefer to navigate on their own can download a Kentucky Wine Trails app and a virtual passport from kentuckytourism.com.
BBQ AND BLUES
While any kind of meat can be barbecued, Kentucky’s regional style is mutton-based. In the mid-1800s, when wool production became profitable and farmers increased their sheep herds, they ended up with an unlimited supply of aging sheep that no longer produced good wool. While this became a major food source, the meat was tough so had to be slow-cooked and well-seasoned.
The annual International Bar-B-Q Festival in Owensboro (May 12–13, 2017) features a series of hilarious “Mutton Glutton” events and competitions complete with elaborate awards ceremonies. These include a cook-off, keg toss and pie-eating contest.
Henderson’s annual W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival (June 14–17, 2017) is one of the largest free music festivals in the U.S. It celebrates the life and legacy of Henderson resident and “Father of the Blues,” William Christopher Handy by booking big blues names from Kentucky and beyond. Festival participants can enjoy a variety of local food at the opening-day “Taste of Henderson Barbecue,” then follow the food and fun trail through a Mardi Gras-style Street Strut while rocking to the beat of all types of music, including zydeco.
Chicken lovers will enjoy the World Chicken Festival in London, home of the first KFC restaurant in the 1940s. On the last full weekend in September every year, volunteers serve fried chicken dinners cooked on the World’s Largest Stainless Steel Skillet. Since the skillet’s inauguration in 1992, it has cooked more than 120,000 fried chicken dinners.
Culinary trails are a great travel menu item. The Western Kentucky BBQ Trail boasts more than a dozen eateries offering slow-roasted beef, pork and mutton. For snowbirds driving through, the I-65 and I-75 Culinary Trails present myriad options for wine, BBQ and song.
Some unusual festivals and events this spring might coax snowbirds and spring visitors to stay awhile. From April 19–24, for example, the 22nd annual Festival of Faiths in Louisville will feature talks by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on universal human values and nonviolence. Theologian Richard Rohr has dubbed the festival “the Sundance of the Sacred,” and the Huffington Post included it among America’s top seven spiritual travel destinations. The interfaith event combines music, poetry, film and art with internationally renowned spiritual leaders.
Following in May is the Kentucky Derby Festival (kdf.org), built around Louisville’s classic horse race. It offers the world a chance to celebrate one of the state’s oldest traditions with food, festivities, competitions, concerts and countless family-friendly activities. Hot-air balloons splash the sky with colour, Celebrity Day at Churchill Downs brings out the selfies, and the Pegasus parade sends the whole family into a festive mood. Over the years, many celebrities have marched in the parade, from John Wayne and Loretta Lynn to Muhammad Ali and William Shatner.
In Lexington, Keeneland exudes a very different sort of culture that includes thoroughbred breeding, racing and “horse-trading.” Many families have created a tradition around weekends and holidays there, picnicking and roaming on the sprawling grounds to pet the horses and watch them exercise, meet the trainers and just enjoy a galloping good time. In 2016, Keeneland hosted the Breeders’ Cup for the first time; the 2017 Spring Race Meet runs from April 7–28 (keeneland.com).
And for lovers of all things artistic, Kentucky Crafted: The Market from April 21 to 23 in Lexington is one of the nation’s top-rated events. It boasts nearly 200 exhibitors of fine art, crafts, books and specialty food products. Music performances include Americana and bluegrass (artscouncil.ky.gov).
The Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea showcases the works of more than 700 artists and artisans with cultural and heritage exhibits and cuisine. Educational demonstrations and workshops throughout the year add flavour, as do the menu items in the Café and Grill: Comfy Cow ice cream, Kern’s Derby Pie, Weisenberger Mills Corn muffins and hush puppies—and an assortment of traditional dishes. Kentucky’s tastes and sounds ensure there’s never a dull moment.
Air Canada (aircanada.com) flies directly from Toronto (YYZ) into Cincinnati (CVG), which is the main hub for Ohio and Kentucky. Lexington is about a 10-hour drive from Toronto.
For a comprehensive summary of events and travel ideas, visit kentuckytourism.com.