Kentucky Spirit: racing and Bourbon in the Deep South

Discover the Jewish history of the Bluegrass State - along with fast horses and hard liquor


While Tennessee’s civil rights anniversaries and music heritage have stolen the headlines, there’s another reason to be grateful for the new direct BA flight to Nashville.

For those who share the British love of good whiskey, racing and other horsey pursuits, neighbouring Kentucky is now easier than ever to explore, with plenty to discover in the Bluegrass State.

Barely a three-hour drive from BA’s newest US destination, Keeneland racecourse proved a fine place to sip a mint julep from a frosted silver cup — and to view the Kentucky Derby.

The race itself is run at Churchill Downs, one of America’s most iconic venues, but the more intimate art deco track of Keeneland — where Lexington’s horse-loving socialites hang out — makes for a memorable experience, complete with extraordinary Derby Day hats and outfits.

You don’t need to be a betting man (or woman) to enjoy a trip here, especially if you’re visiting outside the racing months of October and April. The horse nurseries, stud farms, training facilities and state-of-the-art equine vets open their doors year-round to visitors as part of an initiative to demystify the lives of prize steeds owned by the world’s royalty and tycoons.

Mill Ridge Farm has raised foals for the Queen and produced a slew of international winners. Owner and tour guide Price Bell is a fourth-generation horse nurturer; his great-grandfather founded Keeneland and his grandmother was the first woman to breed an Epsom Derby winner in Kentucky.

After watching thoroughbred mares nuzzling their foals in the paddocks, you can then see yearlings cantering through lush meadow as they come to the end of what owner Price Bell calls their kindergarten education.

The city highlights of Lexington, the base for all this equine activity, deserve a proper visit of their own, especially Gratz Park, founded by one of Kentucky’s earliest Jewish settlers.

This town square, unusually a bivouac for both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War — for while Lexington may feel and sound Southern, it’s a bastion of the liberal and progressive — is surrounded by lovely old mansions.

But the state’s second biggest city seems a planet removed from its largest, Louisville. More Midwestern, with its brick and iron Victorian architecture, a bustling river still plied by steamboats reminds you this is very much the south.

The huge Jewish Hospital dominates the skyline but as the city’s most prominent Jew, former mayor Jerry Abramson, explained, it was built initially to create a practice hub for Jewish doctors once excluded from the mainstream.

“Trading opportunities drew Jews to Kentucky but Jewish doctors were denied staff privileges at established hospitals,” he explained over lunch at Doc Crow’s, an excellent port of call for craft beer aficionados.

But Jews had no trouble getting into the whiskey trade — spelled with an “e” to distinguish it from Scotch. Isaac Bernheim was one of the first distillers, and the owner of the town’s best whiskey bar, the Haymarket, is Jewish.

The same goes for hospitality. Louisville’s world-class 21c Museum Hotel is expanding rapidly under CEO Craig Greenberg, through whom I meet Kate Latt, nee Shapira, whose family owns the old Bernheim distillery and is one of the biggest in Kentucky bourbon.

The Shapiras have created Louisville’s prime attraction, the excellent Evan Williams Bourbon Experience which tells the story of American whiskey with an engaging mixture of live action and high-tech animation.

There’s racing history in the city too, including the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, whose track can also be visited, plus a centre devoted to native son Muhammad Ali, the Slugger Museum where America’s finest baseball bats are made and the Speed Art Museum, with its hugely varied collections of art.

Head out of the cities along the Bourbon trail, and you can visit one of a string of world-class distilleries in the state’s lush countryside. It’s hard to beat the tours at Wild Turkey, set on a hilltop overlooking the river, especially on the off-chance you’ll meet living legend Jimmy Russell, who still works as a master distiller in his 80s.

Curiosity drove us 200 miles west to Paducah in search of the dry goods stores where Jews set up shop at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers in the 19th century.

Their descendants moved east as the river trade diminished, but their names — Cohen, Finkel — are still emblazoned on the buildings which housed their empires.

And steps away from its rapidly regenerating little downtown and historic riverfront, lies the world-class National Quilt Museum. Showcasing the artistry of contemporary quilters from all over the world, the museum acquires new works from the cream of an annual April competition.

Such is Paducah’s fame since earning a Unesco Creative Cities designation, a second show has been added in September.

Tiny as it is, downtown Paducah has its own boutique hotel — the 1857. With art in the lobby and a performance space-cum-bar in the back, its fine Freight House restaurant is presided over by Jewish chef Sarah Bradley, who reports that the town still supports a community.

From here, it’s only a two-hour drive back to Nashville, which seems a booming metropolis after the small-town feel of Kentucky.

But although Music City’s attractions demand at least a stopover — the Loews Vanderbilt or Fairlane are ideal bases — with whiskey, horses and a charm of its own, there’s more than music to enjoy in this slice of the US.


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