Southern Comforts

The South rises again, y’all! Then again, did it ever really fall? Certainly not in any culinary sense, that’s for sure.

I’m just home from the first conference of the Midwest Travel Journalists Association, held in Frankfort Kentucky, with a full heart and a full stomach. In the past week, I’ve managed to consume plenty of bourbon and eat my weight in pimento cheese.

Liberty Hall served as the site of our opening night reception, the genteel historic home of John Brown, one of Kentucky founding fathers and the commonwealth’s first senator from 1792 to 1805. The handsome red brick home he completed building in 1801 still proudly stands (as does son Orlando’s residence on the same property) and holds original family furnishings and heirlooms. (A few quick fun facts — Margaret Wise Brown, who wrote the beloved children’s book “Goodnight Moon,” is a direct descendant, and the property is supposedly haunted by a friendly ghost known as the Gray Lady.)

pimento cheese biscuits.jpg

The patio behind the Orlando house overlooking the gorgeous gardens made a fine backdrop for mixing and mingling over small bites catered by Three Peas in a Pod washed down with Kentucky Distilled cocktails — Buffalo Trace bourbon, Ale8One ginger ale, orange bitters and fresh mint. Hors d’oeuvres included cravable pimento cheese/country ham sammies on garlic cheddar biscuits, bacon-wrapped chicken skewers and mini banana puddings.

Serafini Manhattan.jpg

Speaking of pimento cheese, I enjoyed a soulful pimento cheeseburger with crispy fries and a well-made Maker’s Mark Manhattan the night before at Serafini.


Bourbon, of course, is the flavor of the day (every day) here. You’ll find it infused into coffee, as I did at Kentucky Knows, where artisan owner Tony Davis ages Arabica beans from Antigua Guatemala in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels with spectacular results. I sampled the caramel barrel-aged variation in the store, but opted to take home half-pound bags of the straight-up bourbon and bourbon ball flavors instead.

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Quirky little Rebecca Ruth Candy Factory is credited with the original Bourbon Ball recipe around these parts — a bourbon-laced nougaty confection covered in chocolate and topped with a pecan. You can’t get in and out of Bourbon Country without tasting at least one, and good luck stopping there. Two childhood friends founded the business back in 1919, and locals loved their products so much, they gathered and donated their sugar rations during World War II to help keep the company going. The factory remains in Ruth’s family to this day; you can get a quick behind-the-scenes tour of the factory, but don’t expect to come away with any insider info. The secret recipe is fiercely guarded.

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If you want to cut right to the bourbon chase, beeline straight to Buffalo Trace, the oldest continuously operating distillery in the country since the late 1700s. The campus is absolutely beautiful with the distinctive smell of cooking mash floating through the air, populated with soaring red-brick warehouses housing barrels of bourbon in various stages of aging. Take your pick of five different tours, all are free and include a chance to sample some of the wares at the end. (Personally, I’m partial to the flagship Buffalo Trace brand for cocktails, but have been known to upgrade to Eagle Rare when I’m feeling fancy.)

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I was a little surprised — and pleasantly so — to discover authentic Vietnamese food in Frankfort’s quaintly walkable downtown. Mai Saigon satisfies cravings for ethnic cuisine with super fresh spring rolls filled with tofu, shrimp, rice noodles and cilantro served with peanut dipping sauce; huge fragrant bowls of pho with all the garnishes; and richly flavored noodle dishes studded with veggies and chicken.

Of course, I’m only scratching the surface here, but hopefully have whetted your appetite for a trip to Frankfort all your own! For more info on Kentucky’s enchanting capitol city, go to



A dinner of Titanic proportions

Another adventure in my I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-what-I-get-to-do-for-a-living life… last week, I traveled south to Lexington, Kentucky and my beloved Bourbon Country. A professional contact and friend invited me down for a preview of the new Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition opening this weekend at the Lexington Center Museum.

Titanic sign

This exhibit came through Indianapolis several years ago for a stint at the Indiana State Museum, but I somehow managed to miss it, so I was glad for this second-chance opportunity. So worthwhile. We’ve all seen the movie and heard the tragic tale, but looking first-hand at dishes, still-partially-filled bottles of champagne, postcards and personal effects collected from the actual shipwreck two and a half miles down in the north Atlantic is both chilling and amazing. Kids will love the chance to touch an iceberg, a self-regenerating block of ice that will stand throughout the exhibition’s run.

Displays put a face on the Titanic story with lots of details about the folks who sailed on the ship that fateful night in April 1912. Visitors are given a “boarding pass” when they enter, detailing the name and background of one of the actual passengers; at the end, you consult a wall that contains the names of everyone who survived or perished to find out if you made it. Sadly, I was the only one of our group who didn’t.

place setting

Following our sneak preview, we enjoyed an elaborate Titanic-themed dinner in the attached Hyatt Regency. This was so cool — the chef and his staff recreated a four-course meal of period recipes that might have been served aboard the Titanic. We kicked off the repast with era-appropriate cocktails like Sidecars and Planter’s Punch, garnished with ice cubes shaped like the ship itself. Appetizers included mini beef Wellingtons and crab-stuffed deviled eggs that our small group couldn’t stop raving about.


potage of winter vegetables

After we took our seats, the chef came out to give us a quick primer on the menu as servers came around pouring wine and offering herb biscuits. First up, a delicious potage/soup made of winter vegetables like carrot and parsnip and garnished with two toasted bread croutons. Maybe not as visually appealing as what was still to come, but delicious with a spicy kick I wasn’t expecting. This is just the kind of thing I’d love to eat a big bowl of on a rainy autumn night with some cheese, some nice bread and red wine.


Waldorf salad

The salad course was a duo of traditional Waldorf salad and a few leaves of Bibb lettuce with candied pecans. Pretty as a picture, and very tasty. I remember my mom making a basic Waldorf salad on occasion way back when with chopped apples, celery and walnuts mixed with Miracle Whip. Chef’s dish elevated the recipe, of course. His Waldorf was more like a creamy apple slaw with halved grapes. So good, especially when I sprinkled the candied nuts over the top.


Filet Mignon Lili

For the main event, we got to choose from three entrees — Ballotine of chicken supreme, filet mignon Lili, and poached salmon mousseline. Everyone at our table ordered the filet, except for one brave gal who broke the mold and got the chicken.


Ballotine of chicken supreme

The tender, flavorful filet was cooked to order and served with a rich demi-glace, thinly sliced potatoes, a few spears of asparagus, and a tiny marrow bone filled with carrot hash. The woman who ordered the chicken sat next to me; her dish consisted of a chicken breast wrapped around a forcemeat filling and then poached, I believe? It looked good and she liked it.


“The Iceberg”

Dessert… ah, dessert. The menu described it simply as “the Iceberg,” and the chef was mysterious avoiding further description, so we were all immediately charmed when the plates arrived. We each got a sugar cookie decorated to resemble the Titanic herself, plated beside a scoop of bourbon ice cream that had been covered in toasted meringue to look like an iceberg. Both items sat in a small pool of coconut-ish blue curacao in lieu of the ocean. A little disturbing if you think about it too much, I suppose, but sooooo creative. And even though I was completely stuffed by that point, I could not stop eating that bourbon ice cream.

Titanic: the Artifact Exhibition is on now and running through Jan. 26, 2014 at the Lexington Center Museum right next to Rupp Arena. For more information, visit

I believe the Hyatt Regency (where I stayed) might be offering package deals in conjunction with the exhibit. The hotel is first-rate, located in the heart of lovely downtown Lexington and connects directly to the Center. If you’re looking for a great weekend away, definitely check it out —

Bourbon for beginners

I like bourbon, but I don’t know much about it. So for a novice like myself, last week’s crash-course visit to Buffalo Trace Distillery proved quite educational.

it wouldn’t be Buffalo Trace without a buffalo…

Indianapolis is really a beer town first and foremost (see recent past entries about our booming microbreweries). In fact, I can’t think of any local bars and restaurants that promote a bourbon selection. In Kentucky, however, it’s another story.

The process of ordering some bourbon here is enough to leave a person stammering and sweating. You can’t just go into a watering hole and request a cocktail. You’ve got to know what brand of bourbon you want; decide whether you want it straight up or on the rocks, neat, with water and how much; and any other number of other defining criteria. Bourbon is serious business, and these people do not mess around.

Located on a Kentucky River bend in the heart of beautiful bourbon country near Frankfort, Buffalo Trace is the oldest continually operating distillery of its kind in America, dating back to 1787. I drove down to attend the annual White Dog Days party, a celebration commemorating the first seasonal fall barreling of the newly distilled whiskey. According to lore, the freshly minted un-aged spirit is called “white dog” because it’s clear and it definitely has a bite. (I believe it’s the same thing as moonshine, but don’t hold me to that.)

one of the massive Buffalo Trace warehouses

The Buffalo Trace property is massive, taking in some 130 acres and around 100 buildings, many made from handsome weathered red brick. There are more than 300,000 barrels of whisky aging on site here at any given time, and each barrel contains 53 gallons. That’s a LOT of hooch.

a pre-tour cocktail

We were greeted with a signature white dog cocktail made with lemon juice, orange juice and grenadine, then herded up for a tour of the grounds. The smell of roasting grains permeated the air, a distinctive aroma sort of like roasting coffee beans, but gamier and earthier. A few interesting tidbits I learned along the way — bourbon is a distinctly American product with strict defining guidelines. It has to be at least 51 percent corn-based; it has to be aged in new charred oak containers for at least two years; and no flavorings or preservatives can be added. A great trivia item — the round piece of wood that plugs each barrel is known as the bung, and the round slot it fits into is called the bunghole. Go ahead and say it a few times. You know you want to.

The aging process is what adds flavor and that distinctive honeyed brown color to the liquor. The inside of each barrel is toasted to caramelize the wood, just as you’d caramelize onions in a pan to bring out the natural sweetness. The longer the bourbon ages, the more of that flavor and color it picks up. Ten percent of the volume is lost in the first year; that evaporation is called the “angels’ share.”  When you stop to consider that bourbon is aged anywhere from two to 20 years, you start to get an idea of what a long-term commitment it is to make this stuff.

just in case you were tempted…

We walked through the campus to get a look at the mash house cookers, the gigantic fermentation tanks, the stills and warehouses packed to the gills with barrels.

As a White Dog Day tradition at Buffalo Trace, everyone gets to sign his or her name on the first barrel of the season. Kinda cool to think that my name is now on a barrel of bourbon aging away somewhere down there.

making my mark for posterity

With much pomp and ceremony, the Buffalo Trace folks hammered out the bung with a big mallet and suctioned out a sample of the white dog, then everyone toasted to the new distilling season and downed a shot. A festive catered barbecue dinner followed.

The next morning, I attended a bourbon tasting class. At 9 a.m. This made me more than a little nervous, especially when I entered the clubhouse room and saw each place was set with no fewer than eight — count ‘em, eight — samples. I was really glad I’d made sure to pad my stomach with some breakfast beforehand.

The glasses were arranged on a paper placemat grid by age and ingredient, and it was immediately interesting to note the color variations.

Buffalo Trace’s signature tasting grid

Here’s a quick walk-through in order of tasting:

1)    Rain vodka. In addition to bourbon, Buffalo Trace also produces a nice organic white corn-based vodka twice a year. It’s got a slightly sweet fragrance and a mild, smooth flavor.

2)    White dog wheat. Fragrant with a heady, yeasty smell. If you’ve ever smelled sourdough bread starter, that’s what it reminds me of.

3)    White dog rye. Slightly spicier and stronger than the wheat. Have to say after tasting these and the cocktail the night before, I’m not a white dog fan. It’s got an unusual flavor profile that I just didn’t care for. I much prefer my bourbon on the aged side.

4)    7-month-old rye whiskey. Light golden in color, little bit of a smoky sweet flavor.

5)    3.5-year corn whiskey. Also light in color, made from 100 percent corn. No real depth of flavor here because it was made in a previous used barrel and most of the caramelized wood flavor and color had already been stripped out.

6)    W.L. Weller Special Reserve. Pretty color and a smooth taste.

7)    Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Now you’re talking. This was my favorite of the bunch. Aged between eight and ten years, it manages to be full-bodied and complex, but also mellow.

8)    Salzerac Straight Rye Whiskey. Darkest in color, it’s made with less corn than any other sample, so it’s technically not bourbon. This one makes you sit up and take notice with a heavy nose, strong bite and sharp smoky taste.

Buffalo Trace product inventory

As it turned out, the tasting wasn’t quite as hardcore as I’d feared. I could have easily gotten drunk, mind you, if I’d downed all the samples. Fortunately, I got away with not having to taste every single one, and just barely sipped the ones I did try.

It was really interesting to learn more about Kentucky’s state beverage, and although I am still far from an expert, at least I won’t feel like a total idiot next time I want to order some bourbon.

* A fun side note, Ghost Hunters just filmed an episode at Buffalo Trace; watch for it to air on Syfy in November.

For more information about Buffalo Trace Distillery: