Float away on amber dreams and bourbon history on a Kentucky riverboat cruise
Lexington Herald-Leader (TNS) January 9, 2024
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — I have just returned from an eight-day bender. Now, before you get the wrong idea, let me hasten to add it was a classy eight-day bender in the form of a bourbon-themed cruise aboard the American Countess riverboat.
I was a passenger on the sleek paddlewheeler, the newest vessel in the American Queen line, with a capacity of 245. Departing from Louisville and destined for St. Louis, we cruised both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, both of which boasted plenty of attractions, historical and otherwise.
As remarkable as those places are, my primary reason for being there was for the bourbon, and it was the same for some of the other bourbon-loving guests who would be cruising with me.
Louisville-based bourbon historian Michael Veach, a Bourbon Hall of Famer, was on board, as were two old friends from my New Orleans days.
Dickie Brennan, owner of Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House Restaurant and friend to Kentucky’s distilling industry, was aboard. So was Regina Charboneau, American Queen’s culinary ambassador, who I first met during her days as chef at Monmouth Plantation in Natchez, Miss.
Bourbon with a twist of history
But it was bourbon that was the star of this cruise. From the Muth’s bourbon ball on my pillow the first night to the final Boulevardier (bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth) cocktail in St. Louis, this was destined to be a week of indulging in Kentucky’s favorite elixir.
If you simply wanted to sip, the American Countess’s resourceful bartenders came up with a bourbon drink of the day for passengers to enjoy in the Grand Lounge.
If it was Wednesday, it was Brandenburg and a Peach Smash (bourbon, peach, brown sugar simple syrup, ginger beer and mint); if it was Thursday, it was Owensboro and the Due South (bourbon, pecan bitters, orange bitters, Southern Amaro); if it was Friday, it was Henderson and Bourbon Coffee Punch (bourbon, milk, heavy cream, coffee liqueur, dark rum, espresso, vanilla and sugar) ... well, you get the picture.
However, if you wanted to learn something about the bourbon you were tasting and the bourbon country you were seeing, Veach was there to help.
During the cruise, Veach gave three lectures on the history of bourbon, and some of what he told us was eye-opening. Did you know Dr. James Crow apparently got his medical education not in an Edinburgh university (he didn’t have enough money for tuition), but in an Edinburgh pub (where he apparently did have enough money to buy medical students drinks in exchange for their daily lecture notes).
Onboard whiskey tastings, cooking demos
Emulating Dr. Crow, Veach offered those attending tastings of favorites such as Wild Turkey 101, Angel’s Envy, Old Forester and George Dickel No. 12 in exchange for their attention.
On another day, Brennan and Chef Charboneau invited passengers to the boat’s theater for a “Biscuits and Bourbon” cooking demo.
The bourbon came courtesy of Brennan, who mixed a bourbon cocktail that is a bestseller at his New Orleans restaurant.
Charboneau, once affectionately dubbed “the Biscuit Queen of Natchez,” demonstrated how to make the perfect biscuit. Her expertise will hopefully be of help to me in any future biscuit-making endeavors to keep mine from looking like little blobs of misshapen Play-Doh.
She also signed copies of her book, “Mississippi Currents: A Culinary Journey Down America’s Greatest River,” which is a collection of river recipes.
In her role as culinary ambassador for the American Queen line, Charboneau plans to introduce some of those dishes — such as Louisville- and Ohio River-inspired Shrimp and Red Eye Gravy and Hot Brown Canapes — to the riverboat menus.
In between the lectures and demos, there was time for lighthearted fun in the form of bourbon trivia and Is It the Bourbon Talking? — a twist on the classic game Fact or Fiction.
Bourbon excursions to distilleries, restaurants
There were several opportunities for bourbon tasting on the shore excursions as well. In Owensboro, I opted for a tasting at Green River Distilling Co., which has a history dating back to 1885, making it one of the 10 oldest distilleries in the state.
I have to say that I was not familiar with Green River prior to this visit, but the distillery, now owned by Bardstown Bourbon Company, calls itself “the Western Gateway to the Bourbon Trail.”
A post-distillery stop was to Old Hickory Barbecue. Owensboro claims the title “Barbecue Capital of Kentucky,” and while Moonlite gets most of the press, the brisket and creamy banana pudding at Old Hickory make it worth a stop.
In Henderson, I had what turned out to be my favorite bourbon experience. At Hometown Roots Restaurant, which describes its cuisine as Southern comfort food, a group of us enjoyed samples of this Southern comfort food, each dish paired with another kind of Southern comfort.
We started with a deviled egg duo accompanied by a Peerless rye; followed that with pimento cheese fritters with red pepper-bacon marmalade, whose spiciness was accentuated by a Woodford Reserve bourbon; and ended with roasted Brussels sprouts with country ham and jalapeño cornbread paired with a wheated bourbon from Green River.
During the tasting, I learned that Peerless, now distilled in Louisville, actually got its start in Henderson in 1889, and that the first distillery in the Western Kentucky city since Peerless left will open in August 2024.
Popularity of bourbon driving the cruises
If this sounds like a lot of bourbon for one boat, it’s because the demand is there. Demand from cruisers such as the gentleman from North Carolina’s Outer Banks who has a fully stocked bourbon bar in his laundry room, and the lady whose statement T-shirt read “Some women are made of sugar and spice; others are made of bourbon and ice.” Both said they specifically chose this cruise for its bourbon theme.
That statement was not lost on Cindy D’Aoust, the former president of the American Queen line, who was also present during part of the cruise. She says the line is always on the lookout for ways to engage new cruisers and pique the interest of veteran cruisers.
“As our reputation is set on our unique destinations and outstanding cuisine, bourbon was a seamless fit and a natural highlight for this region,” D’Aoust says.
“Kentucky’s many distilleries offer no shortage of ways we may be able to expand this specialty offering as we look to re-create the voyage in coming years,” she adds. If you go
American Queen line has already scheduled two bourbon-themed cruises for 2024: Memphis to Pittsburgh (June 8) and Louisville to St. Louis (July 13.)
If you are looking to see America on her rivers rather than her roadways, and to drink her only native spirit to boot, it’s best to book your passage early.
For more information on American Queen voyages, go to aqvoyages.com.