Part southern, part horse country and part Bourbon, Lexington is all Kentucky, from its thick-and-tall oak trees and black wooden fences keeping the beautiful, galloping thoroughbreds from racing your car along the highway.
Lexington isn't your typical southern city, such as Charleston, Atlanta, New Orleans or Louisville, for that matter, all of which streamlined metropolitan ways with southern fare. Lexington is far more country, not fully buying into the urbanism culture similar cities have. Oh, Lexington has great food, such as Azur, a very local-forward menu that cannot be defined by traditional culinary standards - its tropical guava sauce being a little more Caribbean, and deviled eggs with barbecue shrimp slightly southern. In a sense, that's Lexington, more southern country with flairs of the world.
Lexington beats to the tune of its own drum, loving its national championship basketball team at University of Kentucky (go to a game and you may just see actress Ashley Judd) and its unique fashion that includes cowboy boots, rain boots, crop pants and starch-pressed jeans, hats and lots of plaid. And of course, more than anything, it's horse country, where any road can lead to a Kentucky Derby winner's past or present home. One can visit Coolmore America's Ashford Stud, near Versailles, and home to 2015 Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, as well as 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch. In case you're wondering, American Pharoah fetches more than $200,000 per stud visit. Other great farms, with very happy horses, to visit are WinStar Farm, Jonabell Farm and Taylor Made Farm.
That's the Lexington story the world has always known - unique local culture and horses. Often hidden in the conversation of Lexington's charm is its deep Bourbon roots.
Despite being in the heart of Bourbon country, Lexington really lost its distilling prowess. The Henry Clay Distillery, named after the Kentucky statesman, the James E Pepper Distillery, the Ashland Distillery, Tarr Distillery, and Lexington Distillery were among the companies that spread Bourbon throughout horse country in the 1800s. Fires and Prohibition decimated Lexington's distillery community, but its neighbouring towns - Versailles and Frankfort - helped bring the spirit back into the conversation with Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace respectively.
In the new wave of distilling, Town Branch Distillery looks to restore the rich heritage to Lexington.
Named after the underground creek flowing through downtown Lexington, Town Branch Distillery is a subsidiary of Alltech, a renowned agricultural company that produces animal feeds. Before Town Branch existed, Irish businessman and Alltech founder Pearse Lyons purchased the Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company in 1999. Lyons resurrected the business and launched Kentucky Ale and eventually Town Branch. It's now poised to regain the distilling history Lexington had lost.
Town Branch stands tall and wide, displaying Bourbon's most-beautiful pot stills and with single malts, Bourbons and rye, as well as Kentucky Ale. Town Branch's Bourbon is a mashbill of 72 per cent corn, 15 per cent malted rye, and 13 per cent malted barley, yielding a grain rich flavour profile that's spectacular at cask strength.
Opening later this year is the James E Pepper Distillery, whose parent company, Georgetown Trading, has sold the 1776 James E Pepper rye and Bourbon labels for the past few years. When this site was announced, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said, "Our authentic history is distilling new jobs..."
There's also Barrel House Distillers and Bluegrass Distillers in Lexington, both helping to restore a once proud distilling city.
Much of Lexington's distilling history is returning, but it never lost its hospitality. Outside of the University of Kentucky, pristine Keeneland Racetrack showcases America's best racehorses and pours plenty of Bourbon, but especially Bulleit and Maker's Mark - two brands that have forged unique relationships with the racetrack. Keeneland's antique clocks, lush greens and blooming purple and pink flowers make for incredible backdrops to the paddocks.
For hotels, you can stay at the art-centric 21c, where an art museum meets the hotel, or the more Lexington-classic Griffin Gate Marriott with towering oaks and a neighbouring southern mansion. At 21c, you're hip and urban; at Griffin Gate, you're a time traveller, getting the sense of how Lexington once appeared before roads and skyscrapers. Both hotels have great bars with private barrel selections and savoury cocktails, but for the bar crawl, these are the top Lexington bars:
On nearly every list as one of the country's top Bourbon bars, you'll find several hundred Bourbons at any given time and a knowledgeable staff who understands the differences between 110-barrel entry proof and 125 and can eloquently explain why it matters.
Old Bourbon County Kitchen
With one of the largest overall whiskey lists in Kentucky, Old Bourbon County Kitchen delivers great flights, cocktails and fare to appeal to any whiskey lover. But what truly makes it special is its courtesy shuttle. If within 15 miles, they'll pick you up and take you home. Now that's responsibility in action!
Belle's Cocktail House
Curated by Bourbon writers, Belle's is a laidback Bourbon haven, with Lexington's only rooftop bar and posh decor. You feel like dancing, but sitting back and sipping is just fine, too.
More neighbourhood bar than contemporary whiskey bar, you'll find all the whiskey you need and one of the few pool tables in Lexington.
Enoteca Wine & Tapas
If in a diverse crowd, meaning there's a non-whiskey lover in the bunch, Enoteca gives you a creative menu and good wine and whiskey selection. My picks are the Marcona almonds, perfectly roasted and salted, and the green peppercorn sauce over the beef tenderloin. Its Spanish-influenced American tapas won't disappoint.
A little known fact, Lexington is home to Kentucky's best breweries. Alltech, Blue Stallion, West Sixth and Country Boy Brewing present renowned and award-winning craft beer, from Bourbon barrel aged ales to clean lagers, offering up a subtle reminder that the talent in this city exceeds more than the basketball court.
Indeed, Lexington is the town many forget when travelling to Kentucky. Not quite the Bourbon haven of Bardstown or the metropolitan dynasty of Louisville. But what Lexington is, is unique and memorable, and about 30 minutes from most Kentucky distilleries. And its chocolate scene is on par with cities twice its size. Chocolate Holler and Old Kentucky Chocolates are two culinary examples of Lexington's talent shining through.
What else could a traveller want?
Visit Lexington soon, before people figure out how tasty it is.