Whiskey Journey Part Two: Our First Trail Ride

Lawson’s Welding. That’s where this story begins. The small owner-operated company in Aiken, SC was the local sponsor for our Dixie Youth T-ball team in the mid to late 1980’s. A kid who was born 5 days after me would walk on the field that day just like any other kid. Little did we know that we would grow up to be groomsmen in each other’s weddings. I would be the first non-family member to hold his first-born child. We would take countless road trips to SEC venues and bowl games across the south. We both had our different routes through college, none of which were conventional, but we graduated college the same day. We’ve even been arrested together as teenagers for dyeing Aiken’s main downtown fountain our school colors during homecoming week (was nice holding hands during the jail tour, but that’s for another day). Dyeing the fountain is a tradition of many years in Aiken, but that year our school colors permeated the clear water of the Lauren’s St fountain. It’s our contribution to the South Aiken High and Aiken High rivalry…suck it Hornets. When last fall rolled around, he approached me with a road trip idea to Kentucky to hit the bourbon trail. Something that we both couldn’t believe we hadn’t done before. I was a single husband/wife conversation away from continuing this journey with one of life’s great friends. I got the hall pass, and we hit the road in our 39th year. Like most normal people, all we needed to do was google where the closest Buccee’s was…

We had been a member of the Gamecock Bourbon Society since the beginning and had been to most events leading up to this trip, but we weren’t “with” them. GC had invited me on the Alumni Trip, but this trip was about me, my buddy, our Gamecocks, and Bourbon. When we rolled into beautiful downtown Lexington after our 7+ hour trip, we really were impressed with the bustle you often recognize in a smaller city on a Friday night. This was different though, as the Kentucky Wildcat football team and fan base is not what It was 10 years ago. From the moment I started caring about football at 10 years old, we were 16-4 against UK from 1994 until 2013, but coming into that game, we were 1-7 over the last 8 years. These fans were confident. So confident, that while we were waiting on dinner reservations at a local steakhouse, the valet approached and said with a smile, and I quote “Did y’all drive from SC?” Um, yeah. “Do you really think y’all even have a chance tomorrow?” Um…you think we would have driven 8 hours to come watch us lose?” Little did he know….yes, we would drive 8 hours to watch us lose, but we had no plans for that this time! We laughed, had a great conversation with him, and then headed to where the garnet clad Gamecock Alumni and GC were at the very accommodating Horse and Jockey bar. Being from Aiken and in SC’s horse country, we felt right at home. We had a couple drams, but the sun comes early while on the Bourbon Trail, so we hit the sack like kids at Christmastime.

Like most men I know, our plan the next day was bourbon, food, and football. That’s it. Keep it simple. Little did we know it would be Kentucky’s first frost of the year that morning (SC was still hotter than Hades) and the contrast of frost on the green & blue grasses mixed in with Red Maple trees was nothing short of breathtaking. The drive from Lexington to our first stop, Castle and Key Distillery, was as beautiful as any drive I’ve ever taken. The company was good. The tunes were perfect. We finally had jacket weather, and we were driving down scenic roads lined with multi-million dollar racing stables for miles. With few differences, it reminded me of driving through Ireland’s countryside and a quote I remember from the Irishman, Mr. O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, “Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” I felt that very quote while driving past 100-year-old rock walls, driving around a holler at the end of a field only to turn the corner and see a slow-moving river while simultaneously smelling the sour mash aroma piping from the roofs of a distillery. Was this Heaven?

I conveniently left out our first stop, which was not memorable to say the least, but that was our fault. Take the advice from us, when UK is playing football on the opening day of Keeneland, DO NOT go to Buffalo Trace Distillery. The parking attendant (yes, its that busy), said it was the busiest he had ever seen it in his 5 years. So we took a tour of the parking lot, and headed to meet G.C. at Castle & Key for their release of the first Wheated whiskey they have produced. 6/10 for me on that whiskey, but the experience was worth it. We waited in line talking with bourbon fans from all over the country, including just down the road. We were given some trail advice on what to do and where to go from there by some locals, and simply enjoyed our morning talking Gamecock football and Bourbon with some likeminded people. Their gift shop reminds me of an old dry good store, and had fantastic merchandise. If you’ve never been to Castle & Key, I recommend it. It’s a European style Castle distillery complete with sunken garden and classic springhouse. The best way to describe it is a 10 out of 10 destination wedding venue. It’s simply stunning. Go visit, walk along the river with bourbon in hand, and listen to the sweet songs the river sings as it rocks your soul.

After saying goodbye to G.C. and the Gamecock Alumni tour, we set out for our next distillery. Keep in mind that this is a football Saturday, and we are already starting to feel the pressure. We both knew before 10:00 AM that we should have come a day early and enjoyed the trail even more, but this was our first go at it. So I am passing that lesson along to you so that you don’t make the same mistake. We drove down the road towards Woodford Reserve, another beautiful spot on this trip, but quickly realized we had to narrow down what we wanted to do before heading back to Lexington for the game. We finally needed a plan…my wife would have smiled and gave me the look as if to say, “Told ya.” Having only enough time for 2 more to fully enjoy, we skipped Woodford for this trip and went straight to Four Roses. Unlike Caste & Key, Four Roses gift shop dominates the landscape. It’s a great gift shop with plenty of options for less than MSRP bottles. Get there earlier than we did, and they release unicorns daily. Unicorn is a term many enthusiasts use for impossible to find bottles. You’ll know the feeling when we see one, and the more whiskey knowledge you gain, the crazier the unicorns become. It was here that we tried one of the better whiskies of the weekend: Four Roses 2021 LE (Limited Edition). It’s a bottle I’ve never seen for purchase in the wild, but they had it for us to enjoy for $20-$25 a glass, and it was a generous pour. We met some great Gamecock fans, talked to them about their amazing purchases throughout the week….wait, week? Yes, they said throughout the week. It was right there that my buddy and I felt like Pawns in someone else’s game. Everyone else is moving all over the board with ease, and we were reduced to moving up one spot at a time. Don’t try to do this in one day with a football game on tap. You’ll be lucky to enjoy 4 distilleries. We enjoyed 3.

Which leads me to my last and most memorable stop: Wild Turkey. We didn’t take tours of each of these facilities, we drove around them to take in the sights, went to their gift shops to buy bourbon and sercies, and talked to those around us while enjoying Kentucky brown water. It was here that we got lucky. Although each distillery we went to was sold out of any unicorns offered that day, Wild Turkey was offering a whiskey by the glass that I hadn’t heard about until that moment. It only comes in 375ml bottles and is called W.B. Saffell. It was by far the best whiskey we tried that trip, and it’s always fun to find a new one learn that you thoroughly enjoy. My buddy and I both love history, and the Baron’s series from Wild Turkey was something we learned about that day. I’m so glad I learned what I did because while in Jacksonville a few months later for the Bowl game with Notre Dame, I found a honey hole of 12 W.B. Saffell’s. As much as I wanted to be a terrible bourbon steward and human, I didn’t. I bought 1 for my buddy who went on the trip with me, one for my brother, and 2 for me. I could have bought them all and convinced myself it was alright, but that’s not what I would want you to do. Do unto others….

After having our fill of Wild Turkey (extremely underrated distillery top to bottom), it was time to make our way towards a stadium we had never been to. We got lucky and parked in a neighborhood for free, and walked the equivalent of 5-6 NYC blocks to get there. Being treated kindly by everyone there, we made friends with some women who invited us to their tailgate complete with a full spread and 40+ somethings doing keg stands. Ladies and Gentleman…we have made it! The kindest people and the warmest welcome can not be understated. Had I known that UK has a dry stadium, I would have had 1 or 2 more. Wont make that mistake again.

We get to our seats ( Thank you Franklin Buchanan and Post-Up Careers) and guess who is right next to us? G.C. and the Gamecock Alumni. We had a blast throughout the game chirping as our Gamecocks held the line all night long. At the end of the game, I turned to Andy Brown, my good buddy, for a high five and he was picking his ear. So I turned to G.C. and we gave a high five to one another that is now a GIF as it was caught on live TV with the final score….complete with Andy picking his ear. We laugh about it today and Andy will never live it down; but that’s what life is all about. Laughing at yourself, enjoying the moment, waving bye to the home team leaving their stadium before you, and leaving with the feeling you cant wait to do it all again in 2 years.

All in all, it was as memorable as either of us wanted it to be. It was a trip full of good whiskey, good lessons learned, new friendships formed, and a solid win against the enemy. Some would say that’s priceless. I would agree.

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