I consider myself a pretty simple guy who simply knows what he likes. I love my wife, a well-made drink, slow country drives on a beautiful day, local history, innovative chefs, and of course great food. No, this is not my Match.com profile, I’m just explaining why it's embarrassing having to admit that I’d never been to a single one of the distilleries which blanket the Kentucky landscape.
When offered a distillery, lunch, local seafood (?), a history tour, and the chance to meet local Chefs Jeremy Ashby & Ouita Michel, I played it so cool that I ran out and got a haircut and a new outfit. I was taking my wife to the Kentucky food prom.
We had been invited to review the “Flavors of Fall Luncheon” at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky. Being transplanted from New Orleans I believe I have a healthy appreciation for good times mixed with food & spirits and my wife has an intimate knowledge of the Woodford brand, so of course we excitedly accepted.
Versailles, KY is not that far from Louisville, I discovered (I may have been thinking of the one in France) and much to my wife’s chagrin since I was driving; we arrived over two hours early for lunch. After killing time in the gift shop and picking up a few Christmas presents we walked down to meet Chef Ouita Michel who although was very busy with prep was wonderful and accommodating enough to take the time to chat with us in the Dyer House Conference Center. She also explained the food and event and introduce us to Chef Jeremy Ashby who would be cooking for the event which peaked my curiosity and made a little drool slip out.
Needing to get back to work, Chef Ouita suggested we take some time to explore the grounds including the barn where the barrels are kept. She was likely trying to get rid of the early kids and get back to work, but we took her up on her suggestion.
Having never been to Woodford much less the ‘Barrel Barn’ before we headed for the historical, yet secured building. After ignoring the posted signs I explained to my wife that we could claim ignorance, or she could claim mine, and so into the barn we went. There are several stories of freestanding racks for the barrels of almost all of the Woodford Reserve hooch you see in stores.
The barrels are all made of wood from Kentucky, filled with Kentucky gold and the light streaming in rays between all the wood from cracks in the walls made me feel as if I was in the bowels of a pirate ship.
Now I’ve been to the Jameson’s “distillery” in Ireland, witnessed Absinthe recreations in New Orleans but both were more shine than substance. The Woodford Reserve Distillery, although not operating while we were there was obviously the real deal. I was happy that it was a Sunday because it allowed me to break boundaries and explore without any bothersome employees – at first.
Fighting the urge to climb the racks or go all ‘Black Beard’ we explored and enjoyed our surroundings for the better part of thirty minutes uninterrupted snapping pictures of the casks which I found out later was a poor idea (a flash could ignite the liquor in the air). The entire barn had a sweet woody smell, slightly damp, dimly lit, and I highly recommend you not experience it off the normal tour because the Woodford Army Reserve throws you out as they politely did us.
I learned a lot exploring on my own and even more when they asked us to take the typical tour. Personally I preferred my own version for excitement, but theirs was great for knowledge, history, a sense of home and avoiding security.
We returned to the Dyer Conference Center and were greeted with a wonderful local concoction that lay somewhere between a Long Island Iced Tea and a Mint Julep. Below is the recipe as it comes highly recommended:
Ultimate Southern Sweet Iced Tea:
- (1 very happy serving)
- 4 1/2 ounces unsweetened iced tea
- 2 1/4 ounces Ginger Syrup
- 1 1/2 ounces Woodford Reserve bourbon
- 1 1/2 ounces peach schnapps
- Juice of 1 small lime wedge
- 1 fresh peach wedge
- Combine the iced tea, syrup, bourbon, schnapps and limejuice in a cocktail shaker and shake to mix. Fill one 14-ounce tumbler 3/4 full with ice. Pour the iced tea mixture over the ice and garnish with the peach wedge.
Drink in hand, wife at my side, and draped in the sunlight of a beautiful Bluegrass afternoon, I anxiously and nervously awaited our lunch. CIA graduate and James Beard award winner Chef Ouita Michel returned from the kitchen to welcome us and to introduce Chef Jeremy Ashby.
I had heard of Chef Ouita many times, as she is the Chef-In-Residence at Woodford Reserve and a legend in Bluegrass culinary circles. Oddly I had heard of Chef Ashby not because of his much-loved Lexington restaurant, Azur. I actually first learned of Ashby from a friend who told me about this amazing Kentucky Chef who wowed the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans – A contest that stipulates you may only use fish from your own state’s waters. Naturally I wondered what Taylorville Lake Croppy burgoo might taste like.
Chef Ashby did not seem exactly comfortable speaking in public until the subject of “aquaculture” came up. I was hungry and he used a word I didn’t understand, and I began to drift. I almost snapped like a rubber band however when he mentioned “Kentucky Seafood”. (Now he was putting words together I DID understands that didn’t make sense together, but at least he was very personable and I could now follow his nonsense).
Over our appetizer of Ham Hock and Goat Cheese Wontons, 5 Pepper Jelly and Pickled Okra Chow Chow, Chef Ashby explained “Aquaculture” and it’s impact on Kentucky. Kentucky is the eighth largest producer of beef in the country, it’s so bo-fine and mad, cow it’s not going anywhere (sorry I had to). He wasn’t trying to preach or sell, but rather create awareness, which made him even more likeable (plus he was cooking our food).
But as many tobacco farms dry up many farmers are turning to aquaculture. Yes, Chef Ashby admitted that it is a young industry and there are less than a hundred farms which dot the Kentucky landscape and he’s got a real point. Our home of course is known for among other things; bourbon, horses, baseball bats and basketball, but if you mention aquaculture anywhere in the world Kentucky State University will come up as a pioneer in bass and fresh water prawn farming. Fish products such as prawns, striped bass, large-mouth bass, catfish, tilapia, paddlefish (which produces great caviar) crappie and trout are abundant in the Bluegrass – and the pollutions from oil spills are much easier to contain.
I won’t rattle on anymore about such a young industry that I know so little about, but if you’re into Kentucky Proud shopping and eating and enjoy seafood I highly recommend the Kentucky-bred brand. To read more about Kentucky aquaculture, you can stalk Chef Ashby, or get hooked via the links at included below.
The rest of our meal was magnificent and I present it with my actual notes included:
- Bourbon and buttered popcorn shooter, mushroom foam, fennel pollen dust: (Notes: it was served in a shot glass and I thought I’d hate but now hate to love it. Think mushroom Cheese-Whiz from a can, but better.)
- Chef Ashby signature woven shrimp, lemon pepper and quince: (Notes: Like a cake you think is too pretty to eat. A huge Kentucky prawn wrapped in a nest of fried strips of phyllo dough. Find the brand Katafifi and cook everthing with it.)
- Bourbon smoked Kentucky striped bass stuffed with Kentucky freshwater prawn and shiitake mushroom Mousse in a sweet potato-tangerine volute with vanilla oil (in photo): (Note: order two, your wife will not like you taking hers without injury.)
- Sour cream blueberry cake with vanilla bourbon anglaise and toasted almond gelato: (Note: order two because your wife will eat yours and you can't say anything without injury.)
Hungry yet? All of these dishes may be enjoyed at Azur in Lexington which comes highly recommended, but you can enjoy many more culinary experiences at Woodford Reserve year-round too. Here are some upcoming events:
OCTOBER 22nd & 29th: Woodford Reserve Brunch with Keenland Handicapper$35.00/per person and reservations required.Private tours at 9:30 AM & 9:45 AM. Brunch offered at 11:00 AM. Menu includes:
- Baby Spinach Salad
- Baked Three Cheese & Sausage Frittata
- Bourbon and Honey Orange Glazed Ham
- Roasted New Potatoes
- Extra Creamy Wisenberger Cheese Grits
- Sweet Pastry Basket
- Seasonal Fresh Fruit Cornucopia
NOVEMBER 25th-DECEMBER 23rd: Holiday Lunch at the Woodford Distillery$25.00 per/person and reservations requiredWednesday-Saturday 11:00 AM-2:00 PM and Sunday 12:30 PM-2:00 PM
Guided tour of the distillery including a warm holiday menu by Chef Ouita Michel and a holiday buffet of seasonal Kentucky specialties. It wouldn’t hurt to visit the gift shop being this near to the holidays…they sell booze.
DECEMBER 9th-DECEMBER 11th: Holiday Open House at the Woodford Distillery
Free admission but bring in two or more boxed/canned goods and get 10% off in the gift shop.Special activities in the Visitor Center on Saturday, December 10th, 10:00 AM-1:00 PM
Saturday, December 11th: Carolers, artisans, and holiday purchases from the gift shop like engraved bottles of Woodford Reserve.
Sunday December 12th (My Recommendation):
Chef Ouita Michel will provide White Cheddar Bourbon Cheese Balls rolled in Parsley, Warm Artichoke Spread with Crackers, Creamy Spinach Dip wit Dill and Greek Yogurt with Crudités, Bowls of the Flavor Wheel Snack Mix, Cranberry Orange Icebox Cookies and Ginger Whoopie Pies with Bourbon Vanilla Filling. If you’re thirsty there will also be gourmet hot chocolate and mango-iced tea (they also sell really good bourbon).
Bourbon Barrel Foods will be demonstrating how to prepare delicious finger foods all with the help of very local bourbon, and if you’re feeling artistic and festive the gift shop will show and allow you to create your very own Woodford Reserve Grain Bottle ornament.
If all of that ain’t enough to get you in the spirit, the world famous Tim Laird, Brown Forman’s Chief Entertaining officer will be signing copies of his cookbook, "That’s Entertaining!”
I'll be back to The Woodford Reserve Distillery for sure, but in the meantime I plan to enjoy all of the local wonders right under my nose and I feel guily taking for granted.
Please if you’re already working on a New Year’s resolution try this; Eat local, enjoy our landscape, and if you haven’t been to The Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, please do because after all, if you don’t go you’ll never know.
But don’t wander around inside the Barrel Barn without approval – they will love you at Woodford, but their Reserve doesn't like that.Woodford Reserve: www.woodfordreserve.com AZUR: www.azurrestaurant.com KSU Aquaculture: www. Ksuaquaculture.org Bourbon Barrel Foods: www.bourbonbarrelfoods.com 
(Photo: Kit Helton)