Also, I swear there are pictures in this post. I promise.
It’s been a while since we’ve taken a family vacation. And my sister and I aren’t getting any younger, and we’re old enough now where we can travel on our own with friends instead of our parents, and Mom wanted one last family vacation. Stephanie and I could only get a few days off of work, so we did what people who only have a few days of paid vacation time do: we took a road trip.
Our destination was Nashville, Tennessee, but because it was a real road trip, not just a long drive from point A to point B (with a few stops to go to the bathroom), we actually drove the car around and stopped to do things!
We left the house around 6:30 that morning. Somewhere around 9:00 a.m. we stopped in Ohio for breakfast. It wasn’t a bad breakfast, but the fact that we were in Ohio kept me from really enjoying it. (Maybe here’s the point where I tell you that people from Michigan and Ohio don’t really like each other–why, I don’t actually know. I just have fun with it.)
Then I made a big deal about driving past Wapakoneta, OH. When Mom and I go to Kentucky, we take I-75 the whole way, and Wapakoneta is just a landmark to us by now. Wapakoneta is famous for being the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Neil Armstrong hated being in Ohio so much, he had to go to the moon to get away. Little did he know that when he got back to Earth, Wapakoneta, Ohio was so happy to have been his birthplace they brought the moon to him. You can see it from I-75.
So I made this big deal about driving past the moon in Wapakoneta–“It’s coming up! You can’t miss it. It’s the moon!” and my sister (who has made this drive before, I don’t know why she doesn’t remember it) was fascinated.
…Until she saw it. It’s not very big. It’s part of the Armstrong Air & Space Museum.
Even less enthused than Stephanie was my dad, who commented, “Well, that was anti-climactic.”
There are a few other Ohio landmarks that I see when driving through:
- quilt barns (which I incorporated into a game–slug the person next to you and yell “Quilt barn!” when you see one)
- the aborted fetus barn (there is a barn with a picture of an aborted fetus and a broken heart painted onto the side of it, right on I-75)
- Dayton (my mother hates Dayton, OH)
- Cincinnati (I love Cincy so much I pretend it’s part of Kentucky so I don’t associate it with Ohio)
- road construction EVERYWHERE along I-75 (if you are from Michigan, then you understand that our state bird is the road construction barrel–but no, I’m telling you that you won’t believe it any more if you drove through Ohio. Except Ohio actually takes care of their roads. Michigan doesn’t. The only good thing about Ohio is how nice their roads are.)
The fun road trip stuff really started in Kentucky, though. Part of why my mother decided to visit Nashville is because on the way, we could visit some of the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Bourbon is my personal spirit of choice, but prior to this trip, I didn’t know much about it. Now I could tell you at the very least what defines a spirit, by law, as bourbon. Lyndon B. Johnson is the one who wrote that law. It’s pretty cool. Here’s what bourbon is, by law:
- Made in the United States of America. To be considered “bourbon” it must be made on American soil. It is our national spirit.
- Corn. Many spirits are made from corn (and a variety of other grains, including wheat and rye), but the mash bill for bourbon must be at least 51% corn.
- Oak. All bourbon must be aged in a a new, charred oak barrel. You can reuse the barrel, but the product from that reused barrel is not going to be bourbon. It will be whiskey.
- Distilled at no more than 160 proof (that’s 80% alcohol).
- Furthermore, it can’t have entered that new, charred oak barrel at more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol).
- Bottled no lower than 80 proof (40% alcohol).
I learned all of that on the first day of our trip, when we went to the Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont, KY. We took a tour of a warehouse where they age the barrels of bourbon. We stepped in and immediately got a whiff of the “Angel’s Share” which is what they call the evaporating water and alcohol. Then we had a tasting where we each got to try two shots of whatever Jim Beam product we chose. Being familiar with Jim Beam’s white label, I decided to try the black label. Then I tried the Jim Beam Green Apple thing, which I didn’t like at all.
Also, the trees in Clermont, KY, are all drunk. Not really. They’re covered in this black moss–it’s non-toxic and naturally occurring, according to our tour guide–that feeds on the evaporating alcohol. That was so cool.
Bourbon all around me
The warehouse was 7 stories tall. And it was packed with 7 stories’ worth of barrels of bourbon
Statue of Jim Beam Master Distiller Booker Noe
Oh, and if you go to Jim Beam, you’ll notice a bunch of wooden rocking chairs around. Sit in them. My dad has back problems and even he liked those rocking chairs.
Then we stopped in Bowling Green, KY before crossing the Tennessee border because I wanted my family to experience the wonder of Chaney’s Dairy Barn. They’d never been, although I have. Last time I went, they had Mint Julep ice cream (made with Maker’s Mark bourbon!), but this time, I settled down and enjoyed my coffee-flavored ice cream.
Then we went to Nashville and had barbecue at Rippy’s and went and saw some live bands playing in the bars on Broadway. Country music really isn’t my thing, but one of the nice guys playing at Rippy’s (except he covered a lot of Elvis, and his buddies covered a lot of the country stuff) asked us (after learning we were from Michigan), “Sparty or That Other School?” So we gave him the right answer (Sparty, of course!). Couldn’t convince him to play the MSU fight song, but he said at least he knew we were “decent folks.”
On Day Two of the trip, we left Nashville and went back to Kentucky! Moreover, we went back to Bowling Green! Not for ice cream, but to do what was hands-down my favorite thing on this trip: Lost River Cave.
It’s so cool. Loads of history. Evidence of human activity dating back to the Paleo-Indian era, lots of Civil War history (both Confederate and Union troops hung out there), and so on and so forth. It was America’s first “air conditioned” night club, and even Ella Fitzgerald sang there. Also, it’s beautiful. And apparently, deadly (if you pay attention to those Civil War stories).
Friends of the Lost River is a nonprofit organization; they make their money from boat tours, gift shop sales, and memberships, and the proceeds then go back to preserving the cave. We took the boat tour, which is $17/person for adults, but I loved it. I sadly have no pictures that are very good of the boat tour. I was trying to be inconspicuous and so there was no flash on my camera. I don’t know why. I was definitely not the only person who was taking pictures on that boat.
One of the “blue holes” at Lost River
The reconstructed dance floor of the old night club at Lost River Cave. They have weddings there now
On the way back to Nashville, we stopped at Sumner Crest Winery in Portland, TN. We had a tasting there. I had no idea how much it was going to cost, as on their wine list it just says “Ask us about our tasting experiences!” and doesn’t give a price. So I was pretty conservative compared to the rest of my family, because I tasted 4 wines and they tried as many as they wanted. All were heavenly.
And then I found out the tastings were free. Free! The kind ladies working there explained that the company believes it is important to give free tastings to show that they believe in their product.
I believe in their product. I brought home a bottle of their Bonnie Blue (blueberry wine!) and it’s gone, a week later. All by myself. Mom and Dad got a bottle of their sweet Tennessee blackberry wine (only to find out when we got home that Mom’s friend Pam just gave her a bottle of it less than a month ago). I don’t remember what Stephanie got, but she didn’t leave empty-handed, either.
When we got back to Nashville, we saw Pam and went to Ted’s Montana Grill. Dad and I ate bison burgers. Bison is a little more lean than beef burger, and thus a little more dry, but overall it wasn’t bad at all. We drove through Bicentennial Park, where they were getting ready for Shakespeare in the Park, and then we went back out and saw a band with a badass girl playing the fiddle.
We left the hotel at eight the next morning and hit the road back to Kentucky (and Michigan). We stopped at the Bourbon Heritage Center at Heaven Hill, in Bardstown, KY. There are actually three distilleries in Bardstown, but we only did Heaven Hill. My uncle has done the Bourbon Trail before and he’ll argue that Heaven Hill had the best tour, information-wise. We took the short tour, which was more expensive than the long tour, but we drank some really good bourbon, in addition to learning the taste differences between wheat bourbon and rye bourbon.
Stephanie was the star of the tour, because Herb, our tour guide, saw her making a face after the first taste of bourbon made a point to ask her after each one what she thought of it. She was a good sport about it. Herb was fantastic! We made a point to write that in the guest book because he was so friendly with us all. And he knew his shit about college sports, because he could talk to my dad (who was wearing his Michigan State t-shirt) about MSU football and basketball, even though Herb himself had gone to UVA.
Then it was back in the car, and we didn’t get out again until we had gotten to Woodford Reserve in Versailles, KY. I’ll argue that this was the prettiest distillery, even though I’ll also tell you that I think Kentucky is by far the prettiest state in the union (that I’ve been to, anyway). But Woodford Reserve is right in the middle of horse country. It’s got a horse farm on one side, and a horse farm on the other, and it is just gorgeous. The tour and tasting were just okay, but by that point, I’d heard that information twice before. Although it was cool to even just see how they made bourbon in the old days. And we got chocolate during our tasting. Not a bad thing.
A quick snap I took of the horse statue out front at Woodford Reserve to send my college roommate, who said “I love the contrast in materials!” the wood components are from used barrels
Then we drove home to Michigan.
Overall, it was a great trip. It was short, but I really enjoyed it and recommend any of those things if you think they’ll appeal to you. If there’s a next time, I’ll definitely take more pictures to share! My family tends to enjoy taking vacations where they lie on a beach and soak up the sun, and I enjoy doing things, but I think they enjoyed it, too!