Spring in the Bluegrass always sparks a particular fond memory for me. On a luscious day in the early 1990s, when Keeneland’s pear and dogwood trees were in full blossom, a former colleague who knew my affinity for motorcycles would call and say, “I’m playing hooky from work today. Wanna ride to the river?” I never turned him down. He’d swing by, I’d helmet up, and we’d roar down the winding, woodsy backroads to Hall’s on the River. In the warming air, we’d while away a few hours on the outdoor deck, sipping frosty Heineken on tap, savoring tasty beer cheese, and marveling at the freshening Kentucky River before motoring back to Lexington.
These days, Hall’s still serves Kentucky comfort food. Think Hot Browns, catfish, pulled pork, and yes, that beer cheese. In 2013, the Commonwealth of Kentucky recognized Clark County as the official birthplace of beer cheese. Chef Joe Allman developed the sharp cheddar spread in the 1930s for his cousin Johnnie, owner of the Driftwood Inn, who served it as a complimentary snack to increase his customers’ desire for beer. It’s since become so popular, there’s now a Beer Cheese Trail that’s 11 restaurants strong, plus a Beer Cheese Festival. All the trail stops are in Winchester and its environs, a super destination with plenty to enjoy in addition to satisfying your appetite for beer cheese. But we’ll start there and then move along to the Winchester-Clark County activity “side dishes.”
Among the featured eateries on the Beer Cheese Trail are Loma’s at the Opera House, with beer cheese grits; the community service-focused Cairn Coffee House and its fresh-roasted, in-house cups of joe; Fire House Pizza Pub, which serves handmade Italian pies and craft beer in an 1885 fire station; Woody’s Sports Bar & Grill, where you can eat your cheese on a pretzel; and of course, Hall’s.
To nab a Beer Cheese Trail t-shirt, pick up an official card at the Winchester-Clark County Tourism Office or any of the many tourism outlets, order a beer cheese item from five of the designated restaurants, have them officially stamp their logo on the card, and return your card to the tourism office for a shirt. Become a Beer Cheese Ambassador by “cheesing” and getting stamped at all 11 stops to receive a t-shirt, a “cheesy” award, and be entered in a drawing to become a Beer Cheese Festival judge. Ya-hoo!
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Come June 13, head to Winchester’s Beer Cheese Boulevard for the 11th annual festival, where you can expect a day of music, food, swilling suds at the UK Alumni Beer Garden, crafts, shopping, kids’ fun, the Big Cheesy 5K Run, and as much beer cheese as you can squirrel away. Vote for your fave for the People’s Choice award in the beer cheese-making contests. Better yet, enter the amateur division.
Strolling through downtown Winchester is like stepping back in time 100 years, with five-globe lampposts lining the streets and an elevated sidewalk. Lovingly restored architectural gems are home to quaint shops and eclectic restaurants. Visitors can choose between a prescheduled guided tour and a self-guided cell phone stroll.
Adorning many of the brightly colored buildings are murals by a local retired art teacher, Phil May. One of the murals is actually on the roof of Clark Regional Medical Center’s roof! And while it might seem an odd location, May said it gives patients on the upper floors of the adjoining medical facility a picturesque view.
Also downtown, the Bluegrass Heritage Museum is a treasure trove of regional history. Hear tales of Simon Kenton and Daniel Boone; discover how the commonwealth’s prosperous coal, tobacco, lumber and bourbon industries influenced the nation’s economy; peruse fascinating old photos from the Winchester Sun; and learn about military history, quilts and telephones for your next trivia game.
You’ll definitely want to tour Winchester’s Ale-8 One plant, where the wildly popular, citrusy-ginger soft drink was first made in 1926. The beverage’s unusual name was the winner in a contest held by its developer, George Lee Wainscott, and a nod to the era’s slang that it was the latest thing in soft drinks, i.e. “a late one.”
In 2009, the founder’s great-great nephew, Fielding Rogers, acquired the family’s secret recipe at age 28 and become the company’s CEO in 2013. Each day, he climbs a spiral staircase to the secret batching room where he mixes the formula, batch by batch, to follow his great-great uncle’s handwritten notes that hang on the wall. Every Ale-8 produced originates from his hands. Call ahead to schedule a tour.
Clark County is also home to the 242-acre Blackfish Bison Ranch, named to honor a great Shawnee chief. The ranch offers guided tours of its buffalo herd, with a focus on the historical and spiritual relationship between the buffalo and Native Americans. On an hour-long tour, you can feed these woolly beasts from a pickup or wagon, throw a tomahawk, taste pure buffalo meat, and witness a Lakota Sioux “smudge” feather ceremony, all on rolling land that once was a Shawnee hunting ground.
Discover more history at the Civil War fort at Boonesboro, an earthwork fortification built by Union soldiers to defend the fort and ferry there. A scenic, one-mile loop trail has exquisite views of the Kentucky River.
When touring Clark County builds a monumental thirst, a perfect quench awaits at Abettor Brewing Co., a cool Winchester stop on the state’s Brewgrass Trail. The brainchild of craft beer entrepreneur Tyler Montgomery, the brewery offers tours, live team trivia, and tasting of its craft brews, including Pale8 (American Pale Ale, hopped with citra and chinook, plus an added secret local ingredient) and Blue-Eyed Blonde. Abettor also serves cocktails and food truck fare.
If you’d prefer to partake in the fruit of the vine, Hamon Haven Winery has been making wines since 1980 and finally planted their own vineyard in 2000. To quote the company, “Instead of concord grapes we planted Jupiter and Mars to make an ‘Out of This World’ table wine.” Because their business hours are flexible, be sure to call ahead for tastings and tour times.
Find out about all the aforementioned and more at TourWinchester.com or call (859) 744-0556.
Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]