A Day at the Races…Keeneland

There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man. ~ Winston Churchill

Welcome to Keeneland
Welcome to Keeneland

When in Kentucky, the horse capital of the world, spending a day with thoroughbreds is a must in my book.  Keeneland moved to the top of our must-see list as this satisfied my desire to see some magnificent horses and Terry’s interest to go the races for the first time.  It was also Keeneland’s final race weekend of the year.  In 2009, the Horseplayers Association of North America ranked this track the number one thoroughbred race track in North America so it seemed the perfect place to get our fix.

Keeneland was founded in 1936 as a non-profit, dedicated to racing and auctions, on a gorgeous piece of Lexington property that had been owned by Jack Keene. Much of the profits from the racing and auctions are used to further the thoroughbred industry and support the surrounding community.  In 1986 Keeneland was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark.  They have two racing seasons here, the month of April and that of October.  April races contain several preps for the Kentucky Derby and October races focus on the Breeder’s Cup.

We arrived at the track early to explore the property, in the hopes of seeing some horses being prepped for the big race day.  The surprise of the day was encountering Tom, one of Terry’s fellow high school football players, who worked at the track.  He generously allowed us into the inner track, giving us the opportunity to watch the race from the rail, up-close and personal, right next to the winner’s circle (be still my heart).  Our escort was a warm, engaging man of 86, Jim “JR”, who has volunteered at Keeneland for 20 years, and is quite the ladies’ man I soon learned.

Me and my good buddy JR.
Me and my good buddy JR.

Having purchased tickets at the last minute, our seats were in the grandstands so we thought we would be watching the races from the monitors, for which we were quite content.  Imagine our excitement to watch from the rail, horses flying by, thundering hooves reverberating in our ears.

For those who think the thoroughbreds here run on a dirt track, you would be mistaken.  Although it looks to be exactly that, it is Keeneland’s own proprietary Polytrack, a mix of silica sand, recycled synthetic fibers, and recycled rubber/PVC, which they converted to in 2006.

I was ecstatic to think I would be so close to the winner’s circle, watching horse and jockey being brought in, almost close enough to touch.  Riding on Dream Softly, Joseph Rocco, Jr. was to claim the first win of the day.

Dream Softly, ridden by Joseph Rocco, Jr. in the winner's circle
Dream Softly, ridden by Joseph Rocco, Jr. in the winner’s circle

We didn’t realize at the time that we had snapped a shot of him before entering the tunnel to head onto the track.  And I was not prepared for the surprise my good buddy JR had for me immediately after the race.

JR, me, and jockey Joseph Rocco.  I'm a happy girl!
JR, me, and jockey Joseph Rocco. I’m a happy girl!

After leaving Keeneland, we decided to drive part of the Bluegrass Driving Tour, where beautiful rolling hills and pastures and the trademark black picket fences of the horse farms can be found.  It was a perfect way to end the day.

Time permitting, I would have loved to explore Old Friends Farm for Retired Thoroughbreds just outside of Lexington, an organization dedicated to giving these magnificent, gentle beauties the respect they deserve after their careers have ended, much preferred to the slaughter auctions that so many face.

Right on the Mark…at Maker’s Mark

Given our plans to go back to Ohio for the Christmas holiday, we have elected to maintain a slow pace for the next couple of months. Although our hearts are in the West, having both grown up in the Midwest we’ve decided it is time to explore some states right outside our childhood backyard.  We suspect that the culture of some of the small towns we plan to visit will fit well with this slower travel pace.

Beautiful autumn day at Maker's Mark
Beautiful autumn day at Maker’s Mark

Kentucky is the first state on our list, birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, horse capital of the world, and home to the world-famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Thanks to the government shutdown :(, which has closed the gates to national parks and landmarks, we have literally been driven to drink (hehe).  Terry decided the first order of business was to hit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.   This delighted him to no end, but the prospect of sipping bourbon quite frankly made me shudder, not one to imbibe in whiskey.

Meandering down narrow country roads, we came upon Maker’s Mark, a small-batch bourbon distillery outside the tiny town of Loretto.  The grounds, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980, are quite picturesque and a feeling of serenity sets in as soon as your toes touch the ground.

Serene grounds mark this National Historic Landmark
Serene grounds mark this National Historic Landmark

Be forewarned, should you decide to go, if you want a taste, you’ve got to take the tour, and if you are lucky enough to snag Aggie as your guide, you are in for a treat.

Quart House, designated America’s oldest remaining “retail package liquor store”
Quart House, designated America’s oldest remaining “retail package liquor store”

President Lyndon Johnson’ specifications, dubbed the “Bourbon Laws”, are the gold standard today for classifying whiskey as bourbon:

  • Grain mix must be at least 51% corn
  • Must be stored in new, charred white oak barrels
  • Must be no more than 160 proof (Maker’s Mark is 90 proof)
  • Aged at least 2 years
  • No added ingredients to color or flavor it
  • Must be made in America

Maker’s Mark is a 4th generation distillery, with an interesting family story and some very unique qualities.  William Samuels Sr. is credited with the original Maker’s Mark recipe, determined to use red winter wheat instead of the rye that most other distillers were using.  During the planning stage he didn’t have time to distill and age each batch for tasting, so instead opted to make a loaf of bread from each recipe.  The bread baked with no rye was the hands-down winner, hence no rye in this bourbon.

S IV ~ Samuels 4th-generation Distiller
S IV ~ Samuels 4th-generation Distiller

The Maker’s Mark trademark name was created by William’s wife Margie, who also designed the signature label.

It was a very hands-on process when production began in 1954, and remains so to this day.  Its uniqueness can be summed up by four W’s:

  • Water – pure limestone spring water, absolute best for making bourbon
  • Wheat – replaces rye used by most distillers
  • Wood – 150 to 200-year-old cypress barrels to store the sour mash
  • Wax – distinctive hand-dipped red wax seals

Maker’s Mark uses the same old roller mill they always have to slowly crush the grains, which are then mixed with limestone-laden water to begin the distilling process.  This grain and water mix is placed into 150-year old cypress barrels to begin the fermenting process, breaking down into a sour mash.

Fingers in the sour mash?  Just all part of the tour.
Fingers in the sour mash? Just all part of the tour.

Fast forward to laying the whiskey to rest, where it is poured into white oak barrels that have been charred on the inside for 40 seconds, to open the pores in the wood and caramelize the natural sugars.  These barrels are now ready for the rickhouse, a warehouse several stories tall, where they are stored for aging. Maker’s Mark is one of the few distilleries that hand-rotates its 500-pound barrels from the upper to lower levels of the rickhouse during the aging process to even out differences in temperature on the various floors.

In the rickhouse
In the rickhouse

After three years a tasting committee samples the bourbon to determine which barrels are ready to be rotated down to a more humid, cooler floor of the warehouse, to reside for the rest of the aging process.

And now for the moment most have anticipated during the tour, the tasting room.

Bourbon tasters
Bourbon tasters

After all this schooling on the distilling of bourbon, I have worked up a thirst and my curiosity has been peaked.  Not bad, but have I become a spirits’ convert? Nope, give me a glass of red wine any day!  Terry, however, enjoyed it so much a bottle of their special Maker’s 46 came home with us, but not before he sealed his own bottle.

Terry gearing up!
Terry gearing up!

For those who have ever played cards with Terry, dealing blackjack in Vegas is not in his future (hehe) but he may be onto something with this dipping gig. 😉

Terry's dip of perfection
Terry’s dip of perfection

Some of Maker’s Mark profits go to Habitat for Humanity and the preservation and development of new public parklands.  Now that is something I can raise a glass to!