Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Historic downtown Harrodsburg
Harrodsburg is billed as the oldest permanent settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. It was founded by James Herrod in 1774 as "Harrodstown", then abandoned later that year due to repeated Indian attacks. Interestingly, no Indians actually lived in Kentucky at the time but three different tribes used the area as a communal hunting ground and they all considered the whites as interlopers. Britain's policy was that none of its citizens could settle west of the Appalachians until they had worked out treaties with all of the Native American
Fort Harrod
claimants, but with the Revolutionary war looming, nobody really give a fig about British policy and they only cared about the preferences of the Indians when the arrows started flying. In 1775 the town was resettled with a wooden stockade fortification known as Fort Harrod. There were a number of other settlements in Kentucky at that time, but during the Revolutionary war the natives, while not huge British fans, found the British policy more to their liking than that of the colonists and aligned themselves with King George. In the face of increasing Indian hostility, most of the early settlers turned tail and ran with the exception of those at Harrodstown, Boonesborough and Logan's Fort. Of these three, Harrodstown was the oldest, thus it's claim to the title.
County courthouse.  This is the fourth built on the same site, this one circa 1880

Kentucky was initially considered a county of Virginia and Harrodstown was the original county seat. The settlement was officially recognized by the Virginia Commonwealth in 1785 at which time it was renamed Harrodsburg. It seems like every town in Kentucky is somebody's name followed by burg or town or ville or borough or some other synonym for "tiny little settlement in the middle of nowhere". How they decided which was which I have no idea so I can't tell you why they decided Harrodsburg was better than Harrodstown. Probably some kind of international trademark dispute.

Looking across the Kentucky River from our campground
We are staying in a campground at a place about 6 miles north of Harrodsburg called Cummins Ferry which, I assume, at one time had an actual ferry, since the campground sits right on the banks of the Kentucky River. Unfortunately, the ferry is no more, so for us to go anywhere east we have to drive 10 or 12 miles out of our way to reach one of the relatively few bridges that crosses the Kentucky River. The drive however is beautiful, running through miles of Kentucky farm and horse country, so we don't really mind. We see deer fairly commonly in the evenings and a ton of squirrels in the campground that drive the dogs crazy. The campground itself is beautiful with a fair number of RVs that appear to be permanently parked here but are currently unoccupied. As we had suspected, the tourist business greatly diminishes after Labor Day. I think on average there haven't been more than six or seven occupied RVs at any given time in addition to a small handful of tent campers over the weekend.

Old homestead circa 1801
Harrodsburg, like most of the little towns in this area, has a large number of buildings and homes that date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  And I'm not just talking about log cabins. This home, for example, was built in 1801. That is less than 40 years after Daniel Boone led the first colonists through the Cumberland gap and only a quarter century from the time the town was founded. We found it surprising that enough trade had been established over that short period of time to be able to bring in the materials for such buildings. The "pioneer era" was astonishingly brief.

This area is classic Kentucky, covered with bluegrass, horse farms, old plantations and most importantly, the manufacture of that most Kentuckian of drinks, bourbon. The second day we were here, we took a tour of the Wild Turkey bourbon distillery to learn about the drink the locals consider the nectar of the gods.

The name comes from the place of origin, Bourbon County which in turn was named after the French Royal family at the time (while
Corn, barley and hops.
Louis XVI still had his head). When they first started exporting the stuff in the late 18th century, all of the barrels were stamped with the county name as they were loaded on the riverboats and when they arrived on the Gulf Coast, that is what they called the stuff that came out of the barrels. Bourbon is a form of whiskey made primarily from corn rather than rye, barley or other grains. The legal requirements for labeling your whiskey as "bourbon" are as follows.

Your brew must be:

    Produced in the United States
    made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
    aged in new, charred-oak barrels
    distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
    entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume) and be
    bottled (like other whiskeys) at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume).

Bourbon has no minimum specified duration for its aging period. Products aged for as little as three months are sold as bourbon. However, the aging in charred oak barrels is what gives bourbon much of its distinctive color and flavor. Unaged whiskey is clear and is frequently referred to as white dog or white lightning.

Bourbon that meets the above requirements, has been aged for a minimum of two years, and does not have any added coloring, flavoring, or other spirits may (but is not required to) be called straight bourbon.

As noted above, bourbon can be made in any of the United States and is actually produced in about 12 of them, but 95% of the stuff comes from Kentucky. Credit for its invention is usually given to a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig, a story that would not sit well with my Baptist teetotaling grandmother. But Elijah was apparently a businessman first rather than a preacher. He also built Kentucky's first fulling mill (for cloth manufacturing), its first paper mill, its first ropewalk (for manufacturing rope from hemp), and the first lumber and gristmill at Georgetown.

On the Turkey tour
The tour of the Wild Turkey facility took about an hour and a half and was pretty interesting. Most of the process is, of course, now automated. When they are producing, which is from October to around June, they have three huge grain silos for corn, barley and hops which feed into the grinder which pulverizes the grains and then into the 30,000 gallon fermenting tanks. The water comes from the Kentucky River which locals say is essential because before it reaches the river the water is naturally filtered through 30 or 40 feet of Kentucky limestone which takes out all of the iron and many other impurities. I'm not sure how critical this is because a) I've seen the Kentucky River and would not drink its contents directly and
Fermenter or medium pool
b) I asked the tour guide about it and he admitted that the water is treated prior to use much like the
water of any other community in America. It takes only three days to ferment out all of the sugar in the mash and then the resultant liquid is filtered and fed into the stills where it is distilled twice to produce a pre-aged product of about 120 proof. This is a lower alcohol percentage than most other distilleries which they claim allows them to bottle a product with less water added, providing more flavor.

The barrel warehouse, where the magic happens
The property is covered with dozens of huge warehouses, 75 or 100 yards long and five or six stories high which are filled with oak barrels. They currently have about a half million barrels of bourbon "aging to perfection". You can imagine the headache involved in managing a product that will not be ready for bottling for anywhere from 6 to 12 years (they don't sell any two year old whiskey at Wild Turkey.) We got to go into one of the warehouses to look around. Every barrel seeps a tiny bit. Over the course of the aging process they lose about 10% of the product, which they referred to as "the Angels share". I've never been a huge whiskey fan but I must say the warehouse smelled fabulous. They could just bottle and sell the odor.

Tasting room
At the end of the tour they take you to a small tasting room where you get to try 5 or 6 mL of a couple of their products (of which they have about a dozen). I'm no kind of Bourbon expert but you can certainly taste the difference in flavor and smoothness between a six-year-old and a 10-year-old bourbon.  At the restaurant of the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg we tried out some mint juleps. I'm not sure whether people in Kentucky drink juleps anymore but we felt obligated. They were okay, basically bourbon and water with a little mint and sugar added.  All things considered, I think I preferred the bourbon neat, but at eight dollars per 1.5 ounce serving I don't think it will become a regular habit. Maybe I'll get a little bottle I can sneak a drink from occasionally when Vicki is not looking.
The Beaumont Inn

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