Nicola Brady visits the home of the Kentucky Derby and discovers there's more to the state than bow-ties, betting and bourbon...
I had assumed the Kentucky Derby would be a rather elegant affair.
You know, southern belles sipping Mint Juleps in wide-brimmed hats; gents in bow-ties shaking hands on the grass - that kind of thing. But as I walked the Churchill Downs (www.churchilldowns.com) racecourse with a passionate guide, I learnt that this isn't quite the case.
"Oh, it gets crazy down in the Infield," he said. "It's muddy, it's noisy, and no one's even looking at the horses. It's all about the party."
The Derby is held each May, and there are qualifying races run throughout the year. The big day is one of the biggest on the social calendar, where the key question is how you smuggle your booze in (the niftiest method being a baguette wrapped around a bourbon bottle).
If you wanted to whittle Kentucky down to a couple of words, you would have the perfect combination there: horses and bourbon. The state is equally passionate about both, and it seems that you can't pass through a town without seeing a horse farm or a distillery, most of which welcome visitors.
There's a distillery tour for every taste, from tiny artisan producers to huge, mechanical factories. Some become a theatrical performance of their own, like the historical Evan Williams Experience (www.evanwilliams.com) on Louisville's "Whiskey Row".
I became something of a bourbon expert during my travels. I can tell you that it doesn't have to be produced in Kentucky, though 95pc of the world's is. In fact, there are more barrels of bourbon in the state than there are people. Its unique colour and taste are the result of the charred oak barrel it's aged in, which can be used only once. This produces a spirit which is smoky, full-bodied and ever so easy to keep on sipping.
As is to be expected, there is no shortage of places where you can partake in a spot of extra-curricular bourbon tasting. The city of Louisville is flush with bars, from chic cocktail spots to down 'n' dirty bluegrass joints.
Down One (www.downonebourbonbar.com) is in the heart of the downtown district, where plaid-shirted hipsters settle in for a "Rosemary's Baby Julep". It's a more upmarket affair at Vincenzo's (www.vincenzositalianrestaurant.com), where waiters in tails will create a bespoke concoction to suit your mood, as you tuck into a delectable Sicilian feast.
If you like your bourbon with a side of hearty Southern grub, then Harvest (www.harvestlouisville.com) in the trendy NuLu district is a must. All the food is sourced from local farmers and their fried chicken is so succulent it has a legion of devout fans.
Bourbon mania doesn't just finish in the glass.
You'll find it often sneaks its way onto your dinner plate, too. I tucked into a bourbon breakfast with the Kentucky chef Amy Tobin, who leads cookery classes at the New Riff Distillery (www.newriffdistilling.com) in Covington.
"It really is true that everything in life is better with bacon and bourbon," insisted Amy, as she poured a generous glug of New Riff into a pan of onions and peppers, simmering in a little bacon fat. Even her vanilla essence was made from bourbon, the pods suspended in a jar of the liquor. "And the best part is if you're having a tough day, you can just take a little swig from the jar. Then it doesn't look like you're lushing it up in the kitchen."
Bourbon made its way into thick slices of French toast, as well as a rich chowder and a spiced panna cotta. And it's not only in this kitchen where bourbon makes an appearance - you'll see it cropping up on most menus, from a glaze on a rack of ribs to a wicked chocolate truffle (the infamous Bourbon Ball).
Southern food is not for the faint hearted, and that's especially true in Kentucky.
Even when bourbon isn't a fixture, it's difficult to eat virtuously in the land famed for its fried chicken. Another beast is the Kentucky Hot Brown, an open turkey and bacon sandwich slathered in a cheese sauce and grilled until bubbling. When I tried to conquer it, it arrived with a side of fried green tomatoes and I soon admitted defeat.
When the haze of bacon and bourbon becomes a little too much, it's best to leave the big smoke and clean up your act in the Kentucky countryside. It's a relatively small state, by American standards, so it's easy to pack a lot into a short space of time.
Highways pass by pastures dotted with horses, wild turkeys gobbling at the edge of the road and signs that could confuse a bourbon-addled mind. We passed turnings for Glasgow, Athens and Sligo, as well as a state park with a name so deliciously naughty it left me wheezing with laughter.
As you weave deeper into the countryside, horse farms pop up with regularity. There's the large scale operations, like Kentucky Horse Park (www.kyhorsepark.com), which is home to two museums and a Hall of Champions, where previous winners of the Kentucky Derby are led out to re-live their moment in the spotlight. Darby Dan (www.darbydan.com) is a small stallion farm near Lexington, famed for their prize-winning thoroughbreds. In the quintessentially Kentuckian house, you can view their numerous awards, or admire the stallions.
But it's tough to beat the sheer magnificence of the land surrounding the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (www.shakervillageky.org), in the heart of the Bluegrass Region. Once home to a vibrant community of Shakers, the village is now dedicated to the preservation of the history of the land, and the people who lived there.
The bedrooms in the 19th century houses are spacious while retaining an air of cosy warmth, with plush sofas and soft woollen blankets tucked onto the four-poster beds. Shaker furniture stands in all of the rooms, solid and simplistic in style.
I stayed in the Trustees' Office, home to an incredible twin spiral staircase, as well as a dining room serving up excellent dishes while the walls flickered with candlelight.
When dinner was over, we set out into night, armed with lanterns, on a moonlit "Spirit Stroll" of the grounds. The late autumn air was chilly as we ambled past the illuminated wooden houses, stopping every so often to hear tales of the folk who once resided within the walls. There were stories of the strong sense of community, the celebrations and the seemingly endless dancing. But there were the darker yarns too, of disgruntled locals ambushing the grounds, of kidnap and scandal.
We sheltered from the cold in the old Meeting House, where the Shakers would worship with a cacophonic display of dancing. It's said that the reverberations from bodies stamping on the wooden floors would echo through the hills for miles. Women would line up on one side of the hall, and men on the other, before they sang, danced and clomped until the point of complete physical exhaustion.
Rumour has it that now, when someone sings and their voice carries through the cavernous hall, the ghosts of the Shakers return to their sides of the room.
Luckily for me, no one was brave enough to sing. Instead, we moved the gathering to the campfire, where the only sounds were the flickering of the flames and the clinking of glasses, filled with a bourbon hot toddy. It may not have been in keeping with the way of the Shakers, but the land on which they built their community was one I could have happily stayed forever.
You can find out more about Kentucky at www.kentuckytourism.com
Kentucky can be reached via several airports: Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville serve the northern part of the state, with Nashville best for the southern areas. You can fly to them all with Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) and its codeshare partners, transferring in Chicago, from an average of around €600 in February.
In the heart of downtown Louisville, the Galt House Hotel (www.galthouse.com) is a statuesque skyscraper with views of the river. Rooms start at €103.
Rooms at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill (www.shakervillageky.org) start at €80 per night, or €104 for the Trustee's House.
The Jailer's Inn (www.jailersinn.com) is a quaint B&B in Bardstown, which used to be the county jail. Double rooms start at €108.
*Learn all about the world's greatest at the Muhammad Ali Center (pictured above) in Louisville (www.alicenter.org), a huge museum honouring the accomplishments of the champion who was raised in the city.
*Stroke a shark at the Newport Aquarium (www.newportaquarium.com), also home to Galapagos turtles and white 'gators.
*Bardstown (www.visitbardstown.com) has been voted the Most Beautiful Small Town in America, and has the handsome streets and soda fountains to prove it.
*Give your credit card a workout at the Outlet Shoppes of the Bluegrass in Simpsonville, where you'll find big names such as J Crew & Banana Republic.
*Take a tour of the Corvette Museum (www.corvettemuseum.org) and neighbouring GM plant (above, left), where you'll see the production of the infamous cars right through to the first turn of the ignition.