Kentucky breeds some of the finest racehorses on the planet and produces about 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, but experiencing the best of the Bluegrass State’s two most famous industries means traveling between Louisville, Lexington, and Bardstown, Kentucky.
At least, it did until the opening of Hermitage Farm, the new 683-acre agritourism attraction in Goshen owned by husband-and-wife team Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, who founded the art-centric 21C Museum Hotels. Now visitors can get their horses and bourbon all in one place, with a side of contemporary art.
A thoroughbred tour is a good way to get acclimated, and that’s how I kicked off my two-day stay in the state where I was born and raised. I leaned lazily on a black fence, watching glistening chestnut mares nurturing frisky colts that could one day thunder to victory at the Kentucky Derby, or even go on to win the coveted Triple Crown. The mothers clearly wanted to graze in the verdant pasture in peace, but when their offspring started bucking and nipping at each other, they intervened, as if to say, “Time out, young man!”
The farm has a long history of producing racing royalty. Actual royalty, horse-loving Queen Elizabeth II, visited in 1986 when the place was owned by renowned thoroughbred breeder Warner Jones Jr. who bred more than 100 Stakes winners, including 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star.
Back in the barn, I stroked the velvety muzzle of a Lipizzaner stallion, then ran my hand slowly along his neck, admiring his snowy coat. When I turned away to chat with a farrier (someone who trims and shoes horses’ hooves) who was shoeing a new arrival, my straw hat suddenly went wildly askew, almost tumbling to the barn floor. The mischievous horse was chastising me for rudely turning my attention elsewhere before his rubdown was complete.
That’s enough horseplay, Buddy.
Racing isn’t the only equestrian sport celebrated here, and that’s where the Lipizzaners come in. Carriage driving, a competitive form of harness horse driving, is Wilson’s passion. The stud barn Carriage Gallery features carriages he drove to victory in numerous competitions and offers a captivating video presentation that explains the sport.
Antique carriages also are on display, including one from “Gone with the Wind.” As I was envisioning Clark Cable and Vivien Leigh fleeing a burning Atlanta, Wilson, a vibrant 72-year-old with gray hair and red glasses, asked if I would like a ride in one of his sport carriages.
“Yes, please!” was my reply. We clop, clop, clopped beneath a leafy canopy of centuries-old trees, the narrow road winding past black barns with bright red trim and lush pastures where a thoroughbred ran alongside the fence like a dog chasing a car.
I asked Wilson how he developed an interest in carriage driving. He said it was an indirect result of a riding accident decades ago. A horse slipped on a muddy path and fell on him, crushing his leg and leaving him with an artificial hip. Getting back in the saddle seemed impossible. Years later, he met someone whose hobby was carriage driving.
“I realized that driving was something I could do and get back with horses,” Wilson said. “Then, Kentucky sponsored the World Equestrian Games in 2010. That was the first time I saw competitive driving, and I was hooked.”
He was in his early 60s at the time, and more than one person told him he was too old to train for the sport. He ignored them, hired a trainer, and started winning competitions. Today, he’s a four-time USEF Pair Champion.
“Don’t ever tell me I can’t do something,” Wilson said. “I wasn’t very good in the beginning, and it ticked me off.”
But he persevered.
“I’ll never forget the day we won the National Championship,” he said with a sense of pride that can only come from overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
My Old Kentucky Home
Somewhere along the way, the conversation turned to Wilson’s other passion — collecting contemporary art. Would I like to swing over to nearby Woodland Farm, his private residence, and view some favorite pieces, he asked. Of course I would.
On the short drive, I took in the bucolic scenery and the wildlife that included a purple elephant ramming its head into a barn and dozens of car-sized pink snails. Okay, the “wildlife” was really a series of contemporary art sculptures that were as incongruous in this undulating farmland as a polar bear in the desert. Wilson clearly has a sense of humor.
Wilson and Brown’s green-shuttered 1832 farmhouse overlooking the Ohio River is big on rustic charm, at least on the outside, but inside, quaint turns avant-garde thanks to eye-catching contemporary art interspersed among the antiques, a house of funky opposites.
Boldly discordant in this antebellum abode, the paintings, mostly by emerging artists, practically jump off the walls, daring viewers to look away. There are no tame landscapes here. The massive painting in the foyer seems to depict an angry protest, and a pair of fringe-laden camels reside in the dining room.
“We enjoy helping young artists,” says Wilson. “We don’t buy for investment, but very often something becomes valuable. We bought Kehinde Wiley long before he painted Obama’s portrait.”
If you would like to stay at Woodland Farm — well, you can’t because it’s a private residence, but the 1830 Federal-style house at Hermitage Farm has a similar aesthetic and is available to rent. That’s where I stayed. Eventually, I grew accustomed to the glaring Daliesque blur of a man above the sofa and the nude woman that watched me sleep.
The “Spirit” of Central Kentucky
Bourbon enthusiasts wet their whistle at the Hayloft event space above Barn8 restaurant. It’s not my drink of choice, but even so, a tasting is fun and informative, highlighting the storied history behind America’s homegrown spirit.
Bourbon novices generally go for the $25 bourbon tasting experience which includes pours from a rotation of whiskeys like Old Forester Straight Rye and Elijah Craig Small Batch. For those wanting to kick it up a notch, the $50 VIP Bourbon Tasting Experience allows connoisseurs to customize a flight of five rare, expensive bourbons from a list of dozens.
Peruse the Bourbon Library for rare bottles or vintage options, such as a 1943 Old Sport or a 1970 Old Fitzgerald in a collectible wildlife decanter. The big draw here is that every bourbon on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which passes through several cities, is right here.
I stayed for dinner at Barn8. The farm-to-table restaurant with Executive Chef Alison Settle at the helm serves seasonal dishes using produce from the on-site gardens and climate-controlled greenhouse. It’s a rare chance to savor delicious heirloom varieties unavailable in your local grocery store. The Woodland Farm bison schnitzel is made from bison raised on Wilson and Brown’s farm.
The new 1,500-foot-long Art Walk curated by artist Ricardo Rivera is the perfect after-dinner stroll. Site-specific contemporary sound and light installations simultaneously highlight and transform the beauty of the natural landscape for an immersive outdoor art experience unlike anything else in Kentucky.
The main reason Wilson and Brown purchased this vast property was to protect it from development. The farm is their legacy, a gift to Kentucky, and you should never look a gift horse in the mouth.
When You Go:
10500 W. Highway 42, Goshen, KY
502-398-9289 • hermitagefarm.com
Woodland Farm Store
4716 Greenhaven Lane, Goshen, KY
502-664-7182 • woodlandfarm.com
*Farm tours are offered but currently suspended due to COVID-19. Please call ahead to purchase product from the store.
10510 W. Highway 42, Goshen, KY
502-398-9289 • hermitagefarm.com/food-bourbon/barn8-restaurant