One thing we love about living in Cincy is its proximity to a wide variety of interesting places. Earlier this week, Michael had the idea that we start visiting some of the nearby destinations. We decided to make a mini trip this weekend, and I got to pick our first city. I picked Lexington, Kentucky. My mother-in-law had told me about all the beautiful horse farms and sites to see, and I had been looking forward to visiting the places she described. It only took us an hour and forty-five minutes to drive from our house (which is forty minutes north of Cincinnati) to Lexington. Part of the fun of a mini trip is the anticipation and planning of it. Once we decided where we were going, I created a Pinterest board and found some spots that looked like they would be worth a stop. I soon realized the Lexington area is full of historic homes, Civil War sites, antique stores, distilleries, horse farms, and horse facilities like Keeneland Racecourse, where they host the Bluegrass Stakes and other Kentucky Derby and Breeder’s Cup prep races. Our visit on Saturday barely scratched the surface!
Our first stop was Keeneland. Most of the racing scenes in the movie Seabiscuit and some from Secretariat were filmed here. Saturday’s weather was not ideal for outdoor activities; the temperature hovered around 30 degrees and a light but steady frozen mix made it feel even colder. We were practically the only visitors at the track. However, it was still exciting to walk around such an impressive and historical track. We were happy to find almost every part of the complex open, and a lady in the gift shop told us, “If it’s unlocked, you can go in.”
Above is a picture of a race at Keeneland from Tim Holahan’s blog.
In addition to the racetrack, Keeneland is home to the biggest Thoroughbred sales and auction barn in the world. If we had visited the sales barn on Friday, we would have been able to watch an auction taking place. The building was empty, but we enjoyed exploring the auctioneer’s podium and floor where horses are walked in front of potential buyers and seeing the reserved buyer seats. Every seat had a designated occupant.
The sales barn had a very 70’s vibe. The room above was circular, and it was bordered on the outside by lounges, bars, a restaurant, and a holding area for the horses. The decor reminded me of the inside of a Brooks Brothers store. An inspection area with booths for veterinarians was located in the room behind the auctioneer’s podium. Everything was very vintage, kind of like the way things look in scenes from Secretariat or Seabiscuit, when the actors are inside the buildings at the racetracks.
After visiting Keeneland, we drove along the Kentucky Scenic Byway, which takes you through bluegrass country past sprawling horse farms with imposing mansions and stunning horse barns. The horse farms seemed to go on forever, and some had manned guard stations at their front gates. I’ve never seen so much horse country in one area. It was beautiful, and I can only imagine how stunning it looks in the spring when the trees fill out and flowers begin to bloom.
When we were finished gaping at these splendid properties, we made our way into downtown Lexington for lunch. I had found a top-rated barbecue place called Blue Door Smokehouse when I was looking up Lexington eateries earlier in the week. A sign on their window proudly boasted “Texas BBQ.” You order up front at the register, and then they bring out your barbecue selections neatly arranged in paper dishes on a personal metal tray. I was relieved to see each table had a roll of paper towels. When dining out, me and barbecue sauce are usually a disastrous combination. There was limited seating, but Michael spotted a table open up, and I quickly commandeered it. A line began to form shortly after we sat down. We could tell it was a popular place, and after we tasted our meat, we knew why. The brisket was tender and moist with a flavorful bark. We had three sauces to choose from at our table: spicy, sweet, or tangy. Michael suggested I try out their sweet sauce, and I loved it. I usually go for spicy or regular, but this sweet sauce was delicious. I even had some of it on top of my tasty potato salad, which reminded me of my mom’s German variety. We were both in heaven at the Blue Door Smokehouse.
Michael picked our next stop in Lexington, the Barrel House Distillery. It’s located a few blocks from downtown on Manchester Street, in the old Lexington distillery district. This distillery is aptly named because its located inside an old barreling house. The Barrel House gives free tours which conclude with a sampling of their bourbon. Our tour guide was one of the owners of the small distillery. He walked us through the entire process, from buying the sugar and wheat to fermentation, barreling, and finally bottling. Their bourbon has to remain in the barrel for several before it is ready to be bottled. We saw a special barrel that will remain sealed for ten years before it’s opened. Michael pointed out to me that the selling of the first bottle was a long time coming. They sold their first bottle in 2015, but the bourbon had been in the barrel for two and a half years. This explains why they also produce vodka, moonshine, and rum, which do not require years in a barrel before they’re ready for consumption. I appreciated the small scale of the Barrel House compared to what we would probably see on a Jim Beam or Wild Turkey tour. You can visit the Barrel House website here.
Warmed up by the vodka, rum, moonshine, and bourbon samples, we headed outside the distillery and stopped by the shop in the warehouse next door, called Kentucky Knows. Their sign caught my eye. Coffee!
As the sign explains, the coffee beans are aged in a repurposed bourbon barrel. We each had a sample of their bourbon coffee, and I really enjoyed it. The bourbon flavor is the perfect addition to an afternoon coffee in the winter. I could also smell the bourbon in the jars of coffee beans. Kentucky Knows gets their barrels from the historic Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY. The coffee store also sells these unique wooden coffee scoops handmade in Kentucky from bourbon barrel bungs. You can visit the Kentucky Knows website here.
The photos above are from coffeetimescoffee.com and the Kentucky Knows website.
Still feeling cozy from the bourbon and coffee, we headed back into downtown Lexington to visit some sleek four-legged beauties. Located at the intersection of East Main and Midland Avenue, Thoroughbred Park is devoted to honoring Kentucky’s horse legacy. The life-size bronze statues of thoroughbreds and jockeys were skillfully sculpted with the utmost attention to detail.
Our final stop on the way out of Lexington was the Mary Todd Lincoln House on West Main Street. It was the family home of the wife of Abraham Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln lived in this house until 1839. She returned to the home with her husband and children to visit family. The house was closed for the season, but we still stopped by to see the outside.
We were able to see a lot on our first trip to Lexington, but there are still many places left to explore, including the Kentucky Horse Park and the UK campus. We will definitely return soon. It was a perfect day trip from Cincinnati.