Today is Kentucky’s 226th birthday, and to celebrate, I came up with a list of 22.6 things that are quintessentially Kentuckian. I’m talking about the stuff that, if you’re raised here, is in your blood, even if you move away. Stuff that people from outside the Commonwealth just don’t understand. Stuff that’s just…Kentucky.
Obviously. The pride of the Commonwealth, bourbon is as Kentucky as it gets, right down to the limestone that makes it so unique. As bourbon has boomed over the past ten years, so has Kentucky’s tourism. If you’ve got friends visiting from out of state, odds are you’ll take them to a distillery or along the bourbon trail. Even if you’re not a huge bourbon fan, basic knowledge of the spirit is instilled in you. We do this better than anyone. (Sorry, Brooklyn.)
2. The Kentucky Derby
The other obvious top choice. For two minutes each year, the world turns its eyes to Louisville, and between the horses, the hats, and the B-roll of horse country, our state never looks better. For us ex-pat Kentuckians, there’s no homesick like Derby homesick, especially when “My Old Kentucky Home” starts up.
The Derby and Churchill Downs are more well-known, but Keeneland has my heart. Despite the fact that you’re, you know, gambling, trips to Keeneland almost feel religious to me, from the unparalleled beauty of the grounds, the pilgrimage from your parking spot to the gate, and (almost) everyone decked out in their Sunday best. Give me a spot on the rail, a program, and a Keeneland Breeze and I’m at church.
4. Kentucky Basketball
There is no fanbase like the Big Blue Nation. Alabama football is a close second, but Kentucky basketball fans are an unique breed. What other program can boast that its fans camp out for free tickets to a practice? Or support websites like this? I have a job because Kentucky fans love their Cats so much, something I never take for granted.
Kentucky’s official soft drink has been around for over 90 years and only now are people outside of the state sitting up and taking notice. Ale-8-One has started popping up at hipster foodie spots across the South, but whenever I see one, I’ll always flash back to commercials like this:
Has anyone tried the new Cherry flavor?
6. Hot Browns
Because I’m from Kentucky, I feel like I have to like hot browns, but really, I don’t. Most people will say that’s because I haven’t had a good one, but an open faced turkey sandwich with Mornay sauce all over it? No thanks. Sandwiches are not meant to be eaten with forks and knives. Just give me the bacon, please.
Now, this is a Kentucky food I can wholeheartedly support. Spicier than a normal beef stew, it’s the perfect thing to warm you up on a cold, rainy day at Keeneland. Just don’t ever tell me all the different types of meat in it.
8. BBQ Mutton
Don’t worry, Western Kentucky, I didn’t forget you. Owensboro is the Mutton Capital of the World, which is why Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn is a must stop. North Carolina has pulled pork with vinegar sauce; Texas has brisket; Memphis has dry rub; Kansas City has burnt ends. Kentucky has mutton. It’s just our thing.
9. The Castle
If you’re from the Central Kentucky area, odds are you know some some version of the history of the castle on Versailles Road. It’s like the Bluegrass’ demented fairy tale. A man started building it for his wife and then they got divorced. Instead of finishing it, he put it on the market and for decades, it sat vacant. Finally, someone bought it in 2003 and a year later, it caught fire. After a series of owners and renovations, it’s now a successful bed and breakfast, restaurant, and concert venue.
10. Dinosaur World
Even though I’ve never actually been to Dinosaur World, I feel like I have because the 65-foot T-Rex statue marks the midway point between Nashville and Lexington. Like the Castle, it’s always a good photo-op while on the road.
11. Beer Cheese
I didn’t realize beer cheese was just a Kentucky thing until I moved away and couldn’t find it. How is this not a staple on any bar or deli menu across the country? Even Queen Elizabeth became a fan after trying some on a visit to Lexington.
12. Chained Rock
If you listen to KSR, you know the legend of Chained Rock, a large rock that sits on a cliff above Pineville in Eastern Kentucky. In 1933, a group of Pineville residents grew tired of people worrying the rock would roll down Pine Mountain and flatten the town so they put a giant chain around it and anchored it to the cliff. Turns out the rock is actually part of the cliff itself, so the chain isn’t really needed, but it’s still there to this day, serving as a cautionary tale for parents to use on their children.
13. Mint Juleps
Since it’s the drink of the Derby and all, I guess I have to put mint juleps on the list, but as I wrote last month, they’re gross:
14. Derby Pie
On the flip side, Derby pie is delicious. Bourbon, pecans/walnuts, sugar, chocolate…how can you go wrong?
15. Mammoth Cave
The longest known cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave was a requisite field trip for any kid who grew up in Kentucky. For that reason, I still remember the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite.
16. Pull Cream Candy
If you’ve ever gotten a Kentucky-themed gift basket, this was probably in it. And it’s probably still sitting in the back of your pantry.
17. Cumberland Falls
The Niagara of the South, Cumberland Falls and its moonbow are another reminder that Kentucky is one of the prettiest places in the world.
Like Mammoth Cave, the other requisite Kentucky school field trip. My childhood is flooded with memories of going to Shakertown, watching sheep be shorn, making corn husk dolls, and singing along to “‘Tis A Gift To Be Simple” (I still know all the words). Nowadays, Shakertown is a much cooler place, with yoga, hiking trails, a farm-to-table restaurant, and even a music and beer festival (Shoutout to Well Crafted, which takes place on June 16).
19. Land Between The Lakes
You know that commercial that boasts Kentucky has more shoreline than Florida? That’s true in large part to Land Between The Lakes, the largest inland peninsula in the country. Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake border the 170,000 acres of forested and protected public land, and if you’ve been there, you’ve probably visited The Rock Quarry on Kentucky Lake, aka Party Cove, which always needs more UK graffiti.
20. Benedictine Spread
Kentucky tzatziki, I call it. This cucumber cheese spread was created by Jennie Carter Benedict, a caterer from Louisville a long, long time ago. It’s perfect on just about anything.
21. Country Ham and Beaten Biscuits
Another Derby favorite, and one that I will probably never make properly. (Thankfully you can order them online.)
22. Red River Gorge/Natural Bridge
A nature-lover’s paradise, Red River Gorge offers some of the best hiking trails not just in the state, but the entire Southeast. The area encompasses 29,000 acres in the Daniel Boone Natural Forest and is adjacent to Natural Bridge, a magnificent sandstone arch that spans 78 feet and is 66 feet high.
22.6 Miguel’s Pizza
No trip to Red River Gorge is complete without a stop at the eccentric Miguel’s Pizza, which has been fueling climbers for years.
So, happy birthday, Kentucky. We love you.