It’s a bluebird day in Wildcat country, and Bill McGrath and I are on the wrong hole. Behind us, Wild Turkey Trace Golf Club is filling up with denim-clad Lawrenceburg locals, and Bill nods to a few before sending his approach toward a gap in the trees. I follow his lead. The man’s been playing here for 55 years—no sense questioning him.
As we mosey up the hill, talk turns to the high school basketball team for which Bill serves as strength coach.
A golf cart rumbles toward us and Bill’s visage splits into a warm grin, the decades falling away from his face.
“Robbie,” he intones as a bespectacled gentleman cruises up, “I want you to meet Eddie Russell—the master distiller at Wild Turkey and my friend since high school.”
What’s the protocol for meeting Kentucky royalty? How do you properly greet a Bourbon Hall of Famer, son of the “Godfather of Bourbon” and one of only three master distillers for an outfit stretching back some 130 years? And what if he rolls up in an E-Z-GO, rocking Skechers and jeans, and starts offering midmorning pulls off a bottle of 13-year-old whiskey with his name on the label?
I’m a Scotch and beer guy with an uncultured bourbon palate and only a passing familiarity with the heritage of America’s signature spirit. But this trip was never about living in your comfort zone.
“Why don’t we just plan a golf trip to Kentucky and play courses along the Bourbon Trail?” —@jsavoie88 | Oct. 25, 2021
Joe Savoie sent that fateful message from his home in Houston, Texas, mere days after the Broken Tee Society Discord server went live.
A gentle early 30s giant making his living as a trial attorney, Joe had never taken a golf trip. In fact, he carded his first recorded round six days before that post. (“I shot 124.”) So what prompted this two-footed leap into the abyss?
“I caught the whiskey bug in 2017 and just got into golf recently,” Joe tells me. “My personal best is a 91, and I was embarrassed to take a golf trip with such a crappy game. This felt like a way to share my passion for bourbon with others who might not have as much experience, which is exactly what happened to me with golf.”
He’s a thoughtful sort, but the former DI linebacker in him would reemerge several times over the trip, celebrating great bourbon and satisfying golf shots with playful shoves that sent me sprawling.
Joe’s post spurred something within Portland, Oregon, resident and BTS member Cody Davenport. Within a few hours, he’d spun up the first draft of an itinerary, complete with distillery tours, golf, food and lodging, which ended up serving as the foundation of the Bourbon Trail trip.
As days turned to months, Cody and Joe, who started as strangers, logged hundreds of Zoom hours—“I talked to Joe almost every day,” Cody says—and a handful of members locked in their participation. Finally, the day arrived for a group who knew each other only as message board usernames to turn into real people and embark on an actual in-person golf trip.
Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022 Louisville — 12:30 p.m.
Louisville is a city in flux. Its Main Street once sported more than 100 bourbon-related operations; now it contains a handful of kitschy watering holes trading on that history. A bourbon bar sits adjacent to an ax-throwing establishment. Three blocks off the main drag, check-cashing spots rub elbows with pawn shops, while the original Louisville Slugger location is just a plaque behind a tree. Its world HQ, like the inflow of tourist money, has moved closer to the water.
Cody, Joe, Queens native Ryan Tokar and Georgia’s Will Blejwas have been tooling around in the van for a day already, and I meet them mid-story, fresh off a morning 18, on the walk to the Old Forester distillery. Will had a work emergency, prompting a frantic dash from the first fairway back to the car. But life moves slower here, and even after hurrying to the pro shop to juice his laptop and fire off an email, Will found his ball and partners where he left them and made his par.
At Old Forester, I meet Brendan and Steve, a pair of IBM coworkers who sit in the age bracket above the rest of us and who had hit the road at 4:30 a.m. the day before from their homes in St. Louis, Missouri, to meet the crew for golf.
While touring the Old Forester warehouse, Joe (below) bends my ear about the antique rickhouse they had seen the day before at Stitzel-Weller, pointing out the stark difference between that and the squeaky clean modernity of this operation.
The big reveal here is a sliding wall that turns a video screen into a doorway. You’re greeted by a 10-by-30-foot slab of pure Kentucky limestone—the bedrock of the Bourbon Trail—which naturally filters the water from which the state’s spirit is crafted. The only two larger deposits of limestone on earth cleanse the water that turns into Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey.
Bourbon gets most of its flavor and all of its color from the aging process. Poured clear into charred oak barrels, some of the spirit permeates the wood during colder temperatures, then carries its new characteristics back into the barrel when the wood expands as it warms. Distillers check barrels as they age, but the ultimate result—be it a honey barrel with the good stuff, a reject or even an empty dustbin, the result of over-evaporation—remains unknown until the end.
As a happy haze sets in at the post-tour tasting table, we begin to realize that an idea and a spreadsheet also can age into something special. But before anyone gets too profound, Ryan knocks his glass over and the moment snaps amid mocking calls of “Lightweight!”
Simpsonville — 4:30 p.m.
The University of Louisville Golf Club is nowhere near the University of Louisville. It’s in a subdivision 30 minutes east of the downtown campus. Perhaps that’s why, as we park the van on a beautiful afternoon, there are about seven cars here. Fortunately, one of them belongs to Tyler Himes.
The global brand manager at Buffalo Trace, and a dyed-in-the-wool golf junkie, Tyler happened upon our trip plans on Instagram. When the native Philadelphian reached out and began singing Jeffersonville GC’s praises, I knew we were in good hands. Generous, too.
After Tyler smooths one off the first with left-handed Tony Finau energy, I peg him for a scratch handicap in both golf and bourbon. Moments later, he produces a cold shank with a sand wedge that sends our photographer diving for cover some 30 yards left of the green. A man of the people.
I’m digging U of L through five holes, and not only because I made birdie on the all-carry one-shot third. My peacocking after clearing the pond at the driveable sixth lasts all of 30 seconds, until Will scorches a pin-seeking daisy cutter up the left that tracks perfectly off the sloping fairway and funnels to 15 feet. He buries his eagle putt while I’m too high above the pin, a dead man walking, and only manage par.
Cody, Tyler, Will and I fight a blinding sun up the par-5 ninth, then settle into the hole’s amphitheater-like surrounds. We’ve got nebulous dinner plans, and after umpteen hours of travel, I’m content to play spectator. As Joe sizes up his approach, I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“Figured it’s a special occasion,” Tyler says as I turn to find him holding an unopened bottle of 20-year Pappy Van Winkle.
I’ve read Wright Thompson’s book Pappyland. I also know that while this bottle’s MSRP sits around $200, scarcity and a legendary reputation combine to see bottles of Pappy go for $2,000 and more on the secondary market. Aside from my infant daughter, it’s likely the most valuable thing I’ll hold in my hands this year.
“It’s good stuff: It’s BTD juice,” Tyler continues, allowing me to gather a few of my wits. (He means that it’s the new version, produced after Buffalo Trace Distillery acquired the rights to the legendary spirit in 2002.) Cody, Will and I pass the sealed bottle (“Careful!”) to each other, marveling at the syrupy amber within. I’ll forever remember Joe’s look as he pulls his ball from the cup and realizes what we’re holding.
We retire to the back porch, where Joe produces a cadre of Cuban cigars to complement the drams. It’s one of the better post-round scenes I’ve experienced, and I can’t imagine anyone here would rather be anywhere else.
Except, actually, for Brendan and Steve.
While Tyler details the coveted whiskey (each bottle of Buffalo Trace’s Pappy has a computer chip in its seal, so counterfeiters can’t replace the contents with cheap stuff), those two are nowhere to be found. It’s not until everyone is on their second generous pour and the sun has hit the treetops that they roll in, fresh off an extra six holes, with What’d we miss? nonchalance. Few things in life would prevent me from playing more golf. This back porch is one of them.
The ride to dinner offers time for reflection, but really we’re all just tossing around the same thought wearing different spikes: Can you believe this?
The Silver Dollar is long on atmosphere—a deeply authentic bar that any drinking city would be proud to call its own. It may also sport the finest bourbon list in the world. I’m polishing off an unforgettable fried catfish sandwich as Tyler recaps the day.
“So we’re on the second hole,” he laughs, “and Cody’s already given me an old hickory putter. Then he sparks up an actual tobacco pipe, and I’m like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’”
Cody roars, proud of his singularity.
The coda on this endless day comes when Joe dials up a dusty bottle, meaning a whiskey that’s old in calendar years, though not necessarily barrel ones. In this case, it’s a 1985 Old Taylor, bottled four years before I arrived on earth. Whether time has robbed it of a characteristic bite or it’s always been this sweet is unclear, but the lingering caramel finish cements it as the perfect nightcap.
Friday, Oct. 7, 2022 Louisville — 6:10 a.m.
The alarm splits my skull too early, but Cody’s spreadsheet has demanded a full day: By the time we check into our Lexington hotel, we’ll have played 18 holes, hit two distilleries and, hopefully, eaten some food.
We pass farms and ranches sporting Big Blue Nation flags while heading southwest from Lawrenceburg to Wild Turkey Trace GC, which is, surprisingly, not affiliated with the distillery. But as Bill McGrath would soon show us, that doesn’t mean there’s no crossover. He had played with the crew the previous day —“I highly recommend retirement”—and reveals himself as the club’s chief historian. Bill, a devout Broken Tee Society member, saw Joe and Cody’s Kentucky chatter on Discord and volunteered to be our de facto host. The story of his barefoot Tuesday game is classic blue-collar golf, and there’s a deep sense of pride at this course that’s now owned by a group of community members. I’m particularly enamored with several cut-and-fill greens benched into a hillside—an inventive and vexing design feature.
Eddie Russell joins Cody, Ryan, Bill and me on the sixth, making a fivesome, not that anyone’s concerned. We do let two guys in cutoffs play through on the eighth, both of them exchanging banter with Eddie, who technically might be their boss. “They work down in bottling,” he explains as they cruise away.
Eddie’s father took up the master distiller mantle in the 1960s, and as Eddie closes in on 65, Cody’s question is a reasonable one: “What keeps you in it?”
Eddie pulls a club and turns with a smile, elongating the first word: “Freeeee bourbon.”
It’s good for a laugh, but we all know the real answer: It’s the people, and the land, and Eddie’s family’s connection to this place. And Bill’s. While playing the final few holes as a jolly eightsome, I ask Bill how he and Eddie became friends. High school football had a lot to do with it, but the connection runs deeper.
Follow me down this rabbit hole: Bill’s great-grandfather is T.B. Ripy, who built the Old Hickory Distillery in 1891 in nearby Tyrone. The Ripy family sold Old Hickory bourbon to the Austin Nichols company, which blended several varieties together to make Wild Turkey. In 1971, Austin Nichols bought the building outright and christened it the Wild Turkey Distillery. This means that Eddie Russell’s family runs the distillery that Bill McGrath’s family built.
The highlight of the day comes on the par-5 14th when Ryan, the affable New Yorker with a handicap in the mid-teens, is between clubs on a blind approach. Eddie jumps in, warning of some internal OB down the right and water lurking left.
“OK,” starts Eddie’s lyrical Kentucky drawl, “everything kicks towards the water, so start a draw off—”
“Can’t hit a draw,” Ryan laughs.
“OK, then just a little fade along those trees—”
“No promises there, either.”
“Well, then, hit one straight!”
Ryan’s floating push seems destined for either a tree, the right-side internal OB or both. We brace for impact, but the ball sails cleanly through the limbs. Ryan looks at Eddie. Eddie looks back.
“Hell, I don’t know,” Eddie says. “Let’s go check.”
We crest the rise to find our crew on the green with their hands raised. The verdict: Ryan’s ball clipped a branch, hit the hill and trundled to within 10 feet for eagle. Add “caddie for hire” to Eddie Russell’s job description.
There’s just enough time at the club’s Sand Trap grill for a sandwich and a moonshine slush before our tasting at Four Roses. The plan is to meet Bill afterward, then reconvene with Tyler at Buffalo Trace for what he promises to be the tour to end all tours. Once again I’m feeling happily adrift, buoyed by the momentum of the itinerary and the 57% ABV brunch bourbons.
Coxs Creek — 2 p.m.
Suspend time for a second and imagine if Ben Hogan was somehow still with us. It’s the only way we can wrap our brains around meeting Jimmy Russell.
After a thankfully brief visit to the Four Roses visitors center, which boasts all the subtlety of an airport duty-free store, we come face to face with two true-blue, authentic pieces of bourbon history. Bill narrates the first.
“Gentlemen, welcome to the Ripy House.”
Gables, chimneys and intricate wood and tile details adorn the 1888 mansion built by Bill’s ancestor. The structure now serves as a community gathering place, but Bill’s face shines as he recounts years of childhood play and family parties. He’s lived his whole life here, just south of downtown Lawrenceburg, and our visit offers a rare chance for his hometown pride to spill beyond its borders.
Earlier this morning, Eddie mentioned that his 90-year-old father often hangs around chatting and signing bottles at the Wild Turkey gift shop, so we take the five-minute ride to see him. Jimmy’s tenure at Wild Turkey began before World War II, and he spent more than 60 years as master distiller, so Bill’s careful approach is warranted.
“Mr. Russell,” he says, “not sure if you remember—I’m Bill McGrath. We played golf with Eddie this morning.”
Jimmy looks up and takes a beat. I realize I’m holding my breath. Then the old man’s eyes crinkle.
“Bill!” he laughs. “What color is your house these days? Y’all were always painting that thing.”
We chat for a bit, and Jimmy’s griping about Eddie’s golf gives me the excuse I was looking for. I don’t save every scorecard, but I’m safeguarding today’s. It’s not every day that the Ben Hogan of bourbon attests your 83.
Frankfort — 5 p.m.
Buffalo Trace Distillery smells like baking sourdough bread. The pleasant but powerful aroma permeates the campus; BTD dries and sells its spent mash to farmers for animal feed. And the local livestock aren’t going hungry anytime soon, as the distillery sprawls across more than 100 acres. We’re intercepted by Tyler moments after getting out of the car. As the public groups head for the exits, Tyler kicks off our behind-the-scenes tour of the nation’s oldest bourbon distillery.
Picture an adult Disneyland, if the park still had the same spinning wooden teacups from opening day in 1955. Weather-beaten warehouses sit side by side with gleaming, state-of-the-art distilling rigs, and when Tyler points out the machine shop through a panel of dusty glass, I can’t help but picture an ancient guild of stooped craftsmen tinkering at the benches.
In one of the visitor halls, Tyler introduces us to an elderly Black man named Freddie Johnson, whose family has been working at BTD for generations.
“A member of Freddie’s family has rolled every millionth barrel of bourbon off the line,” Tyler says by way of introduction. “This guy’s the only tour guide in the Bourbon Hall of Fame.” It’s Friday afternoon, and Freddie’s off for the week, but he stops to chat for awhile. He’s already looking forward to a few months from now, and a ceremony where he and his grandson will roll off No. 8,000,000.
We conclude our tour at Warehouse X, home to several top-secret aging experiments. We have every right to be sapped of all energy, but Ryan’s words from earlier return to me. After leaving Four Roses, he’d remarked, “The most unbelievable thing about today is that the best part hasn’t even happened yet.”
And then it does.
With a conspiratorial grin, Tyler invites us to follow him up a winding path to a modest house shaded by a few trees. It’s where he keeps his office, and also happens to be the original home of Albert Blanton. Yes, the bottle with the iconic horse on top.
We’re in Blanton’s dining room, and Tyler’s unsheathing a row of Eagle Rare bottles, one for each trip member, laser-etched with the Broken Tee Society emblem on the side. Before we can transition from awe to gratitude, more bottles appear, sporting unfamiliar labels and liquids in various shades of copper.
Over the next hour, Tyler introduces us to the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, plus two bottles of his choosing—an assemblage of the finest brown sauce produced anywhere in the world. The traditional five-bottle set comes out each fall in extremely limited quantities and comprises a selection of ryes and bourbons aged between six and 18 years. William Larue Weller and the Sazerac Rye 18 Year-Old are my standouts, if such a thing exists in this rarefied air. Tyler makes the collection his own by adding a W.L. Weller 12 Year (which he dubs “Baby Pappy”) and something so top-secret that it hasn’t left the premises and he won’t allow us to photograph it.
I feel like a neophyte golfer given a free trip around the Old Course: out of my depth, but happily floating in a copper-toned sea. I don’t mean drunk, though each successive taste softens the evening’s edges. It’s more a deep appreciation for this experience, around this table, with these people, from Cody, the passionate planner, to Joe, the bourbon obsessive who has found nirvana, to Will and Ryan, fellow satisfied passengers, to Brendan and Steve, choosing their own adventure, to Tyler and Bill, different in almost every way but united by a desire to open their lives to these golfing strangers. Cody, overwhelmed by the towering helpings of hospitality, gets a bit misty-eyed in his seat across from mine.
A final delight of the evening comes when I learn more about Will, the quiet Georgian whose firstborn arrived a few months before my own. We’re packing up when I notice him examining the ornate wood paneling above the fireplace. It turns out that before his current role running a distribution center, he made a go of custom handmade woodworking. He points out the heat-induced cracking, explaining that contemporary builders wouldn’t dream of trying something this difficult. It’s an appropriate observation to conclude a trip to this citadel of bourbon, where heritage is married so happily to modern efficiency.
Dinner at Serafini is late and slow but wonderfully hearty, and a final beer at the hotel bar tips us past midnight. It’s tomorrow, officially, and the final sip goes down way too smooth. We tee off in a few hours.
Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022 Lexington — 7:20 a.m.
“Tell you what, boys, it’s colder’n a well-digger’s asshole out here!”
Regional euphemisms have arisen throughout the trip, but as we nip wedges off the frozen range mats at Kearney Hill, Joe’s Texas twang tops them all.
The sun rises late in these parts, and our tee time has been pushed back an hour due to frost (and, presumably, because it was pitch black when we arrived). It gives me time to appreciate the scale of this rippled Pete Dye design, and to wonder whether the $35 walking rate was a misprint.
It also allows me to chat with Ryan, who’s characteristically blunt when asked why he’s here: “I just wanted to start doing new things. I didn’t know a whole lot about bourbon, and had never been to Kentucky, so this seemed like a no-brainer.” Big families either sharpen or shave the edges of a spiky personality, and Ryan’s motley crew of half-siblings have whittled him into that rarest of creatures: a New Yorker with all of the wit, but none of the prickliness.
He’s the first one in his family to graduate college, and I can see the wheels turning even as he’s telling me about his dad’s job. “He runs a charter fishing boat, takes groups of 30 and 40 people out into Long Island Sound. My buddies and I do one every summer and, yo, we should get a trip together with these guys! We can bring some of that Eagle Rare out with us.” There’s a joke about shooting fish in a barrel somewhere, but I’m too hungover to pull it off.
Kearney Hill is a showstopper. Looper Lou Johnson, another BTS member, who lives up the road in Louisville, has joined us. He’s played here only once, and his eyes are opened even wider than ours. With this much variety, undulation and scale just an hour away (for 35 bucks!), he’ll certainly be back.
My game is slipping; I’ve got the touch of a lumberjack on anything inside 50 yards. The gulf between intent and execution underpins this game’s difficulty, and I watch with a mixture of awe and athletic envy as Cody calls his shot and delivers. Sitting at 6 over after bogeying 16, he declares that he’ll go 1 under coming in. He then makes par from absolute jail on 17 and drops a downhill 10-footer for birdie on 18, punctuating it with a triumphant fist pump.
“Easy, Tiger!” Ryan chides from the fringe.
A triathlete with bottomless wells of energy, movie quotes and avocations, Cody was open about using this trip as an escape from a soul-sucking work environment and a moderate bout of depression. A new job helped, as did difficult hours in the therapist’s chair. But I’ve been watching him these past two days. As the trip soared past every expectation, and he saw his months of work validated tenfold, that fist pump was about more than the putt.