On Doing the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (When You Don’t Actually Like Bourbon)

Acquired tastes, I’ve learned, are the real deal.

My personal evolution includes deciding to clean my bedroom, learning how to handle hot sauce, and being able to sip sparkling water (though its existence continues to puzzle me). Still, when it comes to harsh liquors – scotch, bourbon, tequila, and so on – my ability to appreciate is stunted. Give me a pinot grigio any day of the week, but whiskey on the rocks will quickly cause my face to scrunch up in pain and confusion.

My boyfriend, as you can see below. does not feel the same way.

And so we began a week-long quest to try, try, try to add bourbon to my list of acquired tastes.

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I tried, you guys. I really did. We even had a couple friends join us for the mission, including a fellow non-bourbon drinker. It was quite a trip, one I recommend to anyone reading with a week off and an affinity for adventure.

Together, we visited 10 distilleries over the course of a week, 9 of which make up the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail. This distinction doesn’t mean much (one of my favourite stops, Buffalo Trace, was not technically a “bourbon trail” distillery), unless you are really into free t-shirts.

I am really into free t-shirts.

So, with no bourbon knowledge to guide me, I planned the tour almost exclusively around the Bourbon Trail in an effort to earn my t-shirt.

Kitschy? Yes. Silly and perhaps a bit pathetic? Double yes. Or it would be, were the bourbon trail not such an incredibly well-curated learning experience.

Seriously, how cool is this?

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Enjoying a taste of the distillery experience (no, really, they let us taste the bourbon in those vats). I have never been so interested in science.

We had our bourbon trail “passports” stamped at all the participating spots, then proudly presented them to a bored-looking tourism representative in Louisville. She handed us unflattering grey shirts which proclaim we finished the trail in “2016.”

I wouldn’t even care if it was 3 sizes too big and said 1996I love my bourbon trail t-shirt.  

More specifically, I love having something to remind me of our journey across central Kentucky. Of how we arranged and rearranged our itinerary, how we navigated detours and winding roads. Of the unique Air BnBs we visited (including one with 4 dogs!) and our two night stay above a historic tavern in the Bourbon Capital of the World. We had an amazing time at the distilleries, made better by side trips (seeing the horses at Keeneland, touring the Louisville Slugger Factory), long naps, and some fabulous meals of local specialties and bourbon-based cocktails.

But the question stands: Did I acquire a taste for bourbon?

Perhaps a close look at our passports can answer that question.

Ian’s passport:

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I asked him what “LOL proof” was. He said those are numbers. I am skeptical.

My passport:

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So very sophisticated.

That said, I am currently sipping a Jim Beam and Coke (heavy on the coke, light on the Beam).

Perhaps I’m compensating for the fact that I handed off my samples to Ian at our last bourbon tour stop, then unable to stomach any more distilled fermented corn.

But maybe, just maybe, Kentucky rubbed off on me. Even if it’s just a little bit.

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Dear America: Sorry about that first impression. You’re actually kinda cute.

My first day in a new place is always ridiculously stereotypical.  We’re talking caricature-worthy.  Maybe this is normal, you know, some twisted form of beginners luck.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a curse I’ve been given…by a God whose sense of humour is borderline racist, apparently.

It never fails.  My first day in France was so full of cheese and snobbery and nudity, I almost fondue’d myself (for lack of a better term).  After only a few hours in Cuba, all I could think was “Well, you guys seem awfully desperate for tips and full of cigars…”.  And during my first day living in Ottawa, EVERYONE seemed to be talking politics–I even overheard the penniless men outside of the homeless shelter discussing the Harper agenda.

It’s not that these stereotypes aren’t real.  They definitely exist outside of day 1. France has cheese. Cuba has cigars. Ottawa has politics. Never, though, is anything actually at the level it seems on the first day.  Upon arrival anywhere, I am immediately thrust into what feels like a South Park episode.  I go on to realize my first day was just a bad “So a guy walks into a bar…” joke.

Naturally, this can give me a nasty case of “get me out of here!”.  After that cursed first day, I can’t help but think ‘Canadian stereotypes? I can handle those.  Let’s do that instead.’   I can rock a poutine coma, an over-apologetic neighbor, or a morning spent shoveling the driveway (eh?).  Let’s face it, Canadians: our stereotypes are pretty much adorable.

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Apparently, this is my definition of “adorable.” Hmm. May need to give that one a little more thought…

This brings me to my current situation: ‘Merica.

American stereotypes are not quite so playful. There are some pretty scary -isms lying around: American exceptionalism, racism, and lets-all-get-guns-ism to name a few.  I’m not trying to attack the United States, which has been so very welcoming to me so far.  I’m not trying to oversimplify or judge, either. But whenever I get talked at by Glen Beck, or I read an American history book which refuses to admit to losing any war ever, I pack away a few pre-concieved notions. And, yes, I have read my share of scary articles on health care, teen pregnancy, religion, literacy, obesity, bad nose jobs, and worse attitudes.

To be clear, when I crossed the border and moved to the US capital, I didn’t expect to come face-to-face with all the scary -isms. I didn’t desire or even consider that Fox News incarnate might be everywhere, least of all in Democratic DC. I assumed it was going to be like Canada, just a bit warmer and with more sugary cereal options.  And it is, or so I have come to realize after a few days. But after my first day? Hah.

Hah. Hah. Hah.

Let’s review how my first 24 hours in the States went, shall we?

First, I went outside for a walk and was given reason to post THIS within the first five minutes:

Atheism

Later that day, I saw a well-dressed white woman bully a black server at McDonalds, then inform her supervisor of the altercation in an attempt to get said server fired. Yeah, McDonalds–the only place I could find to eat when I got lost (well, that and a half-dozen Starbucks, I suppose).

I discussed Obama, gay marriage, and women’s rights with a young Baptist woman from Mississippi. She is definitely one of the loveliest people I have met so far (we ate dinner together today, actually).  Southern hospitality is the real deal–she makes a mean cheese/bacon dip, and I have huge respect for her love of College Football and Jesus.  But when I asked “Are all the stereotypes about [insert -ism here] true?” she responded with a resounding YES.  Her personal views, no surprise, often flew in the face of things my little Canadian self took for granted.  There was a pretty clear distaste for the words “Liberal” and “Socialist.”  My American stereotypes lived on.

On day one, there was no eye contact. No opening doors. Stars and stripes EVERYWHERE.  The people in suits were all White, while the people working minimum wage gigs were almost exclusively Black & Hispanic. The cheese on my burger tasted even LESS like cheese than Kraft Singles do (yes, it’s possible) and the Mountain Dew can was way too big.

Around 10 pm on the evening of day one (Sunday), I went down to the dining hall for a tea.  By that point, I was positive that all of my American-ism stereotypes were true.  I struck up a conversation with another girl in the kitchen (“Really, you got lost today too? Where?  Oh, I’m so glad it’s not just me!”).  I learned that she was an American Studies major from Philadelphia, and was immediately intrigued.  She had a lot to share.

I had a lot to ask.

We talked about education. About national identity, racism, systems, state power, patriotism, language, religion…everything.  One hour, two cups of tea and a number of revelations later, she turned the conversation to me: “So, do you think you could ever live here yourself?”

At that moment, after that day, I really did not know.  “I don’t think so,” I responded, “Unless I had a serious job opportunity.”

I understand how silly it was to declare this on day one.  Every….single….time I visit a new country, I learn and re-learn just how misleading first impressions can be (especially with the first day curse).  America has proved no different.

Let’s look at today.  Today, I received more random “Hello!” greetings, eye contact, unnecessary apologies, and good-natured jokes than would in the average Ottawa week (sorry, O-town.  You know I’m still your biggest fan.).  Today, I saw people of every kind of race working every kind of job (yes, it was still disproportionate, but I could swear it was a full divide on Sunday).  And while steering clear of fast food, I remembered the infamous Rideau Street McDonalds in Ottawa (see also: full-out brawl when a customer called a server the N-word).  I really don’t have the right to call out any MickeyDs conflict after that.

Tonight, I think I could live here (this is obviously a good thing, seeing as I currently do live here). I’m not saying that I would absolutely want to live here permanently. I like my poutine comas.  But the thought itself is not so terrifying, really–not with DC, at least.

And so, I officially declare that my first day full of -isms was invalid: at least in this part of the country, at least for now.  I can handle you, DC.  Sorry about that first impression. You’re actually kinda cute.