Eat + Drink

Bourbon is Sacred in Kentucky Horse Country. Here’s Where to Drink Up

To know the origins of bourbon, take to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in the middle of horse country, or sip the good stuff at Griffin Gate. (Photo: Getty Images)

Bourbon is definitely having a moment. Maybe more than a moment as bars, all around the country, are dedicated to high-end and small-batch whiskies to be tasted in flights or slowly sipped over a well-crafted globe of ice. But bourbon has always been big in Kentucky. More than big: A way of life.

A trip along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a triangle of distilleries between Louisville, Lexington and Elizabethtown reveals the history of a truly American spirit that has been groomed for its big moment for hundreds of years, much like the thoroughbreds found here. The staff at the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa, in Lexington, has made it their business to know this history inside and out while serving expertly crafted cocktails as a part of its bourbon program.

SEE ALSO: Mixing It Up: Bartender Chino Lee on Portland’s Cocktail Savvy Drink Scene

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The lobbybar at the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa (Photo: Dan Sirrine)

“People are looking for an experience when they travel. The story behind the story,” says Dan Sirrine, director of operations at Griffin Gate. “Whether or not they get to go on a distillery tour during their stay in Kentucky, we want to give them a chance to learn about bourbon here and what went into making that bourbon.”

Griffin Gate has taken the part about knowing what goes into making bourbon seriously. The hotel partnered with Maker’s Mark to create its own private select bourbon, based on the bourbon brand’s Maker’s 46 distillation process that adds wood to the final months of aging, building unique flavors.

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Engineering the perfect bourbon at Marker’s Mark Distillery. (Photo: Dan Sirrine)
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The flavor profile of Griffin Gate’s Private Select Bourbon. (Photo: Dan Sirrine)

The hotel bar staff visited the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, Ky., to participate in tastings and engineer the traits of its new Griffin Gate blend, selecting 10 wooden staves to add to the final 10-weeks of aging: four Baked American Pure 2 staves to deliver sweet brown, vanilla, caramel and brown spice flavors from American oak toasted in a slow convection oven; four Roasted French mocha staves from French oak, followed by two toasted French spice staves with a smoke, coumarin and spice flavor profile.

“We wanted to make a bourbon with an interesting flavor that would want to make people order another cocktail,” Sirrine says. “Not overpowering, but just a little different than a regular Maker’s or Maker’s 46.”

To make the experience extra special, each member of the bar staff got to sign the signature barrel and initial their own bottle once the bourbon was uncasked.

“Our barrel experience was so special; we created it; we were the masterminds behind it all. So that, to me, is what makes it so cool,” says Ashley Sherrow, a bartender at Griffin Gate. “We wanted to create a bourbon so smooth you could drink it neat or with a couple cubes or even mixed in an Old Fashioned or Manhattan. I personally like to drink it with just a couple of ice cubes.”

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Ashley Sherrow, Griffin Gate bartender, competes in Marriott Hotel’s first Bourbon Battle. (Photo: Dan Sirrine)
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Ashley Sherrow poses with spirits expert Heather Greene after winning the first round of the Bourbon Battle. (Photo: Dan Sirrine)

Sherrow definitely knows her way around a good bourbon as winner of Marriott Hotel’s first Bourbon Battle, a “Chopped”-style competition where local bartenders were challenged to make craft cocktails on the spot. Sherrow will join other winners from battles around the country to compete for final bragging rights in Brooklyn on National Bourbon Day. Her winning sip: an Old Fashioned with a touch of maple syrup.

It’s the kind of twist on a classic that Sherrow says is trending on the bourbon scene.

“Adding fresh juices or even egg whites to a Whisky Sour, whatever you can do to ‘show’ while making your bourbon cocktail,” she says.

Besides showcasing these trends at Griffin Gate, Sherrow says another highlight of its bourbon program are the flight selections, featuring tastings of three unique bourbons.

“I love the fact that our bourbon program has even taught the true Kentuckian a thing or two. We think we know it all when it comes to bourbon.” she remarks.

Another spot that knows its bourbon: Lexington’s OBC Kitchen. Sherrow says she and her husband love their smoky Manhattans, and that’s not just the flavor. They, literally, light the bourbon on fire.

“They truly have the best bourbon selection I’ve ever encountered,” Sherrow says.

Both Sherrow and Sirrine note, if you want a true taste of Kentucky, you have to get out on the bourbon trail, even if you only hit one distillery, like Buffalo Trace. They also say you can’t miss Kentucky’s other big draw – the horses.

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Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa in Kentucky horse country.

“First-timers in Lexington should plan a trip in April or October, when Keeneland is open and the track is running horses,” Sherrow says.

The historic track serves as springboard to the famed Kentucky Derby and is where Lexingtonians celebrate the Derby outside of Churchill Downs in Louisville. Sherrow recalls watching the Derby there with her family.

Griffin Gate works with Horse Country to design Derby-inspired journeys to local horse farms that could be grooming the next Triple Crown winner. In fact, Coolmore, home to retired Triple Crown Winner American Pharaoh, is just outside Lexington.

It’s one of the perks of being in Bluegrass Country, where bourbon and horse racing intersect.

“You could be driving along on a bourbon tour and pass by a grazing Shackleford or American Pharaoh,” Sirrine says.

Ashley’s Bourbon Tips

  • Keep the Julep classic! The only thing I recommend is some powdered sugar on top. Make sure the mint is fresh and, of course, always use crushed ice.
  • First-time bourbon drinkers should just try a lot of different bourbons. Mix it, if that’s what makes you try it. Even mixing with a little ginger ale is not frowned upon. I always recommend a couple of splashes of water to tone the bourbon down a bit for beginners.