The American Whiskey Trail is a journey. An American pilgrimage — but instead of Mecca, we were headed to Nashville, where the men drink, the girls dance, and you only get stoned for it if you pay the man $20.
As we boarded the bus, and then the plane, Frank told the nearly 20 writers, bloggers and reporters to drink responsibly. But this is America and we were headed South. And when you’re headed toward that border, I’m told you cross the line.
The Keeneland Racecourse is breathtaking. Greener and prettier than its more-famous cousin, Churchill Downs, its emerald green paint, dutiful attendants and shaded stands are an exercise in luxury sporting. And it’s more than just a racecourse — it’s the world’s largest thoroughbred auction house. And it’s a bar. A great, big, giant, green, outdoor bar that breeds horses.
So we laid out a plan on the bus ride to the track: Let’s drink whiskey, smoke cigars, buy hats and gamble on horses. And upon arriving, things went just about that way:
Step 1: Get a bloody mary, no vodka, sub bourbon. Thanks. (This is delicious. Try it.)
Step 2: Look like a local.
Step 3. Light a cigar.
Step 4: Repeat step 1, in maturing variations until your waitress knows you want a double Woodford, rocks and a 6-pack of Kentucky IPA every time she sees you.
Oh, and if you can, good chap, get yourself an invite to the Brown-Forman executive box. And use your time there eating and teaching your elders how to take selfies.
But if you want to really experience a nice sporting event, you need to get out in the air. And the best part of being wicked important is the views the status affords.
And if you have the energy to walk through more double-guarded doors than the Death Star, you can even mingle with the masses.
Horse racing is a strange thing. For all the build-up, the races last a mere two minutes, with only one pass in front of whichever perch you’ve locked down. More than sporting, the point seems to be partying. Which we were fine with, professionals that we are. The full, immersive experience, if you will.
Stranger still are the fans. While the boxes teem with families and cocky, rich young men, the stands are a little more diverse, running the gambit from families to high school boys skipping class, from girls dressed to shine to the odd poor soul who really, really, really needs to win this one race. All have their place. And all are welcome at Keeneland. Though certain orders are, of course, afforded preferential treatment. We tried to hang with all the types. Lunch, a few wins and losses, and a dozen drinks later, it was back to the bus, where a sip of fine bourbon and one headphone playing Hank Williams set the mood for a relaxed and beautiful three and a half hours to Nashville.
See that castle?
But just before we got into the city, Alexandra, our guide, hollered “Stop!”
Rest time was over. We were going to drop by Dale Prichard’s Tennessee rum distillery first.
Phil Prichard is larger than life. The kind of guy who parks his Corvette in the bike lane.
Tall and booming, he just opened up a satellite distillery for his Prichards line of spirits in a garage near the Fontanel mansion.
Phil is an anomaly in modern Tennessee. Though rum, he reminds us, was America’s first spirit, distilling it in French-style alembic stills is less common these days. But Prichard’s entire distilling practice seems to be driven by his hobbies.
Prichard is a belligerent history buff. The first thing he said when our gaggle of reporters hobbled into his shop was “I hear an English accent!”
True, there was one, plus a few foreign colonists.
“You know we didn’t fight the revolution over some tea. It was over rum!”
That roughly translates as, “Are there any English in the room? F*** you.”
My kind of guy.
Prichard is a bit of a purist, too. His ancestor distilled whiskey with corn, and so will he. And he insists on white corn, telling me that Jack Daniels, David Crockett and Phil’s own ancestor, Benjamin Prichard, all used white corn in their whiskey – “because that’s all there was in Tennessee!”
“No one in Tennessee calls him Davy,” we’re also told, though the Davy Crockett buildings, shops and signs around the state seem to disagree.
Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey is 70 percent white corn, 15 percent rye and 15 percent malted barley. Golden brown, it doesn’t smell too sweet, but has a malty cereal scent with hints of nuts. On the tongue, what stands out most are nuts and cedar.
Duck hunting? Liqueur.
Prichard is also a bit of a story teller, and in the classic Southern tradition, he has a habit of projecting his reality onto the entire planet.
As is the case with his baby, Sweet Lucy bourbon cream liqueur:
“Y’all ever been duck hunting?” Prichard asked, quickly deciding, “Probably none of you, but you’ll get this. You know when you’re out in the cold, and it’s cold, and you shoot a duck, and your dog, he runs into that pond and he runs back out and he runs up to you and he shakes that freezing water all over ya and you need, you know, a little bit of something to warm you up, so you take a swig of that [bourbon cream liqueur] and you holler ‘Sweet Lucy!’”
No, I had no idea, nor did the Japanese or Australian or English or Chinese or Indian reporters I was with. But we believed it. Every word. And the duck is on the label, after all. Still, something in the back of my mind doubted all that was a universal duck-hunting experience.
And that’s when he introduced Sweet Lucifer bourbon-cinnamon liqueur: His answer to Fireball (though he started distilling it before Fireball got nearly as big as it is).
I pondered what kind of thinking it takes for a marketing manager to allow a man to base a brand off of a brand he based on a thing only he and a buddy have ever experienced. But I suspect Phil Prichard is a man who gets what he wants.
And then I had a sip. And if you’re a fan of Fireball, and you have the option to take a Sweet Lucifer instead, drink the Sweet Lucifer – you’ll love it.
Hanging out with Phil was the first time I’d seen our DISCUS hosts a little nervous, and I can see why. The man doesn’t hold back much. And I respect that. In between “stop kicking me [under the table], Frank!,” “I know Frank is going to hate this story,” and resigned sighs from the lovely Mrs. Prichard, Phil entertained dinner that night with gems like, “Mac is kind of my alter ego — he’s a Democrat,” and the following toast, which I added to my repertoire:
“I want all the men to stand up,” Phil hollered as dinner wrapped up. “Just the men. Stand up.”
“Now you women just cheer them on,” he implored. “Now raise your right hand. Repeat after me:”
“That I will never give Sweet Lucy.”
“That I will never give Sweet Lucy.”
“To a woman I don’t want to see naked.”
“To a woman I don’t want to see naked.”
Phil’s wife rolled her eyes. She’s heard this one before. But the men took a shot and prepared to spend their first night in Nashville, Tennessee. And boy what a town. Once you get to the good parts, at least.
Nashville by Night, Pt. I
Pinewood Social, we’re told, “is where the locals go.” It’s got a bowling alley, I’m told. And great cocktails, he says.
Well screw the locals because one hour later we’d been to the worst hipster bar in the damn world, complete with terrible, terrible bartenders and a pain-in-the-ass manager.
It’s hard to forgive a flock of men in fancy aprons, “Boardwalk Empire” haircuts and old fashioned mustaches unless they make a mean cocktail or re-enact a mean Civil War. But if they clean espresso machines instead of getting me a beer, we’re not going to get along.
And 15 minutes later, when that one and only beer has finally been had, this guy is not going to take well to being told he has to sit down if I wanted to stay in the bar. So instead, I posited a quick Q: “Which one of these 6-feet-tall, 140-pound mustaches are you going to get to throw me out?”
We finished our beers on our own two feet, we didn’t wait for a cab, and we walked to find us some music. There was me, Benny and Raj, a reporter from the Hindustan Times who was this Boston-born reporter’s greatest ally in “finding some damn bluegrass.”
We walked to Bootleggers, where the country was killing it and a stripper bachelorette party was lighting the place up. Tall boys of PBR got the hipster taste out of out of our mouth, and we were quick to discover that one Nashville, Tennessee is the bachelorette party capital of the United States.
And while we recovered, the tattooed stripper bachelorette party raged, dancing up and down the bar like a couple of tattooed strippers at a bachelorette party dancing up and down a bar. Benny was bold enough to have a dance off, introducing our fellow patrons to the strange and forbidden art of Iowa line dancing that at least managed to baffle the bride until he fell over a bar stool.
By then, a harried Moody had escaped Pinewood, and a tall glass of whiskey and round of PBR later, we were ready for historic Tootsies, where top-20 country covers, white-people dancing and 2:1 girls are king. I admit I’m a stranger to modern courtship, but I recall thinking that when I scold my grandkids someday, It’ll go a little something like this: “Back when I was young, when a girl liked a boy, she’d slam her buttocks against his privates for a few minutes, and if he could keep up with her up and down slams, he might buy her a beer and she might ask his name, but it’d be a risky move that might frighten away the quarry.”
And I did learn a little advice for future Tootsie’s revelers, as well: There are three levels of live music, and if pop country and “Sweet Home Alabama” gets old, there just may be a beautiful fiddle player killing classic country with a punk rock twist 20 feet below.
And it’s there that I met my first Hobo-looking, Willie-Nelson friend of the night. He had a lot of theories about the government, so I gave him my card, took a selfie, and told him to email me.
He never did.