We have all heard of Southern hospitality, but let me tell you that Western hospitality is just as lovely and comes with mountain views, wild animals and a lot of meat.
One of the perks of working in the bourbon industry is that you are occasionally invited to releases and events. Living and working in Kentucky, these events are typically in-state and do not require significant travel or an overnight stay. But sometimes, out-of-state distilleries invite you to an event that you cannot decline. This invite is exactly what happened when Wyoming Whiskey asked yours truly out to Jackson, Wyoming, for the distiller’s release of its National Parks No. 3 and The Grand bourbon whiskies last week.
It started with a flight from Louisville to Dallas to Jackson. These three places could not be any different weather-wise. At the time, Louisville was 72 degrees and just about to slip into fall. Dallas, on the other hand, was still embraced in a significant heat wave. When I landed and deboarded the plane, the temperature was pushing 98 degrees. It truly felt like I just landed on the sun’s surface. Airports generally raise my anxiety, so I was grateful I was only there for a few minutes before boarding my connecting flight to Jackson.
Once I arrived in Jackson, it was like entering a new world. It was a comfortable 63 degrees with clear blue skies. If you have yet to have the pleasure of flying into Jackson, let me tell you, there is no other airport like it. The airport is the only one in the United States that is inside a National Park. Walking down the steps from the plane, you are greeted with majestic views of the Grand Tetons to the north. To say it is breathtaking is an understatement. Jackson is 6,237 feet above sea level, a little over a mile high. I immediately felt the change in altitude, so when I said the view was breathtaking, I meant it literally.
Almost as beautiful as the arrival in Jackson was the drive into town. It was lined with an elk refuge, log cabins and amazing views everywhere you turned. Once in town, you notice that most buildings are at most three stories tall. The sidewalks are made of wood and are mostly covered. Each structure is built primarily of logs and fits perfectly into the city. In the middle of the town sits George Washington Memorial Park, known as “Town Square.” The square is the town’s cultural, civic and mercantile heart. Each entrance to the square is adorned with large arches made from elk antlers that were shed and collected from the National Elk Refuge.
The distillery booked the group at the Wort Hotel. The hotel has operated since 1941 and is home to The Silver Dollar Bar and Grill. The room was spacious and had a Western motif mixed nicely with current technology. It was in the middle of town and within a five- to 10-minute walk to everything.
Wyoming Whiskey provided an itinerary for the trip that included dinners, horseback riding, hiking in the Grand Tetons and finally, its whiskey releases, followed by a dinner at the Mead Ranch.
First was a meet and greet dinner at the Local Restaurant and Bar. The Local is owned and operated by chef Will Bradof of Trio: An American Bistro and his wife, Jennifer. I wanted to be prepared, so I browsed the website beforehand. Unfortunately, the website did not do this place justice. The atmosphere was electric, with laughter and cocktails flowing. As the group was seated, I was introduced to Dave Defazio, a co-founder of Wyoming Whiskey. Dave’s bio includes being a lawyer, river guide, late-night philosopher, angler, skier, wingman, Yankees fan, and whiskey man. Other professions that joined the table were outdoor photographers, whiskey experts, writers, outdoorsmen and executives.
Everyone was very personable and engaging, which is great because sometimes meeting new people can be a little scary. We all order drinks that use Wyoming Whiskey in their ingredients. I had The Local, the restaurant’s signature drink. It consisted of Wyoming Whiskey, Carpano Antica, orange bitters, Angostura bitters and brandied cherries. It was delicious.
After looking at the menu, the table decided to order some appetizers. We ordered bone marrow, fries, buffalo tartare and an heirloom tomato salad. I was excited about trying bone marrow for the first time and was not disappointed. Imagine the richest, creamiest butter you have ever tasted. Now serve it on focaccia toast. The flavor had an earthy touch, but not overpowering, very approachable. The buffalo tartare was my second favorite appetizer. Buffalo tastes much like beef but has a deeper, richer flavor. Eating raw meat and eggs could be a little suspect, but it does not matter. The flavor makes it worth the risk.
For our entrée, we ordered the M&M, an assortment of meats served on a wooden butcher block: a 64 oz. tomahawk ribeye, 24 oz. filet mignon, two types of game sausages, and a 12 oz. elk chop. I could be forgetting something, but I had a severe case of the meat sweats by the time we were finished. If that was not enough, the server brought a dessert menu, from which I ordered a vanilla crème brulée. After dinner, we were invited to the Silver Dollar Bar at the hotel for a nightcap. Jet lag had started to set in at that point, and I called it a night to prepare for tomorrow’s horseback riding experience.
Still being on Eastern Daylight Time, I awoke around 4 a.m. Wyoming time and started my day. As daylight broke, I decided to venture out and do some sightseeing before I was supposed to be at the shuttle. Even early in the morning, the city was buzzing with people. Each shop was unique in its own little way; not touristy but distinctive. Yes, local shops had the usual city T-shirts, but often, everything looked to be handmade or a one-off. As I grabbed a cup of coffee and a doughnut, I returned to the hotel to catch up with the group bound for horseback riding in the great outdoors.
The group was introduced to our horses after the short drive to Spring Creek Ranch, located on a mountainside overlooking the vast expanse of the Grand Tetons and Flat Creek. I have not ridden a horse since I was 8 and Yellowstone and other Westerns do not tell you that only some are equipped to ride a horse. My horse’s name was Trina, and she had a little weight on her, which made her quite wide. Why do I mention how wide she was? Because I found out my legs do not spread that wide throughout the ride, so I battled hip cramps, but I digress. The horseback ride was two hours long, and we traversed uphill, downhill and everywhere in between. It is an understatement to say that my horse had a mind of her own. Yes, there was a trail that all the horses followed. Trina was a trailblazer. She often bucked the traditional trail laid out to enter sagebrush or avoid rocky terrain. At the end of the ride, I learned that Trina does not like rocks, puddles or—in my opinion—rules. Since the trail contained nothing but rocks and puddles, I can understand why she wanted to make her own path.
It is hard to complain when you are on horseback overlooking the city of Jackson, with Flat Creek to the south and snowcapped Tetons to the north. At the end of the ride, we rode through newly built houses that overlooked the valley. Each house looked like a million dollars or, to be exact, $10 million. Jackson is in the midst of a building boom and home prices are shooting up quicker than Trina bypassing a rock. At the end, I dismounted and instantly regretted it due to the pain in my knees, legs, back and most especially, my butt. I don’t know how cowboys and girls do it daily, but God bless them. We had a quick lunch at the ranch and were then off to the hotel to clean up and meet at Kemo Sabe.
Kemo Sabe’s is a high-end Western store that was started in 1990. You can grab a drink at the store and search for all the Western wear your heart desires. The distillery surprised the group by allowing us to pick out a cowboy hat that could be personalized. Not knowing anything about cowboy hats, I relied on my very own hat maker. We tried on a few hats and I settled on a brown Stetson with a little roll, crease and a dent. I picked out a hatband made of shark skin with a secondary rope finish. You cannot imagine what goes into making a cowboy hat, from steaming the hat to forming the perfect roll to picking out accessories. I thought I was finished, but then I was asked if I wanted to brand my hat. I said, “Why not?” I walked over and picked out a silhouette of a horse in a nod to my Kentucky roots. Once completed, I put the hat on my head and walked upstairs with a little more swagger. I tipped my hat and asked the bartender for a double Wyoming Whiskey small-batch neat. I swear I heard John Wayne laugh a little from heaven. With my new cowboy hat in tow, I was off to the hotel to prepare for the group dinner at Dave Defazio’s home.
Jackson is a small town with a population of almost 11,000 and nestled in between peaks. You build on flat ground or the side of a mountain. Defazio decided on the latter. Entering Dave’s house, you immediately recognize he is an outdoorsman. He has multiple game trophies aligned on the wall. I counted at least 10 stuffed prizes, ranging from a giant elk to a mythical jackalope. The log cabin architecture was exactly what I expected in Wyoming. Beautiful log beams ran across the ceiling with a deck overlooking the Grand Tetons. The view was the house’s focal point; not only did you have a bird’s eye view of the mountains, but it also overlooked Jackson.
The catered hospitality was great; I never had an empty cocktail. As we all mingled around, looking at the view and chatting about life, Dave explained the story of Wyoming Whiskey and how it came about. After some great storytelling, we were called to dinner. Our host explained that everything we were served would include a little whiskey, which I was excited about.
The first course was a traditional salad with a whiskey vinaigrette. It was refreshing and crisp. Next was the main course, which consisted of Beef Short Ribs with a whiskey glaze and Steelhead Salmon topped with caviar, blackened carrots and mashed potatoes. I have never had caviar. I did not know that something could simultaneously be briny and super sweet, but the caviar was both. It was superb. The short ribs fell off the bone and melted in your mouth, and the salmon was cooked to perfection, just firm enough. There was so much food I had to leave some on the plate, to my dismay. Dessert was an apple cider doughnut with a whiskey-sweet glaze. Just looking at this doughnut shot my sugar levels up off the charts. I had to take at least one bite, which was what I expected: a sugar coma. With all the food and drinks served, I had yet to learn how to make it to the next Million Dollar Cowboy Bar event.
The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar has operated since 1937 and has hosted celebrities, presidents and royalty while keeping its rustic charm. The bar stools were replaced with saddles and at this point, there was no way I would be sitting on another saddle anytime soon, but we were lucky as the group had a roped section in the back. We had a full view of the dance floor and could people-watch and socialize to our hearts’ content. Many of us tried to line dance, which is much more complicated than it looks, but we all enjoyed the atmosphere. Knowing the following day would be an early morning, I left to prepare for the next day’s events.
What I have yet to discuss so far is the drastic fluctuation in temperatures. When I arrived, it was sunny and about 63 degrees. As most fall days are, it is brisk in the morning and warms up during the day. The morning of the hike in the Grand Tetons, the temperature was in the low 30s and with all the variation in temps, my allergies and sinuses were a mess. So, unfortunately, I had to skip the hike, which I was so looking forward to. I was told it was beautiful and the group stopped at a lake to watch a little fly fishing and eat lunch. I hated to miss out, but there was no way I would have enjoyed the hike the way I was feeling.
Fast forward to the main event of the evening and the reason I was in Jackson: Wyoming Whiskey’s release of its National Parks No. 3 and The Grand bourbon whiskies. The company’s tasting room, located only about 500 feet from the hotel, was small and cozy, with walls lined with past and current bourbon and whiskies. After a short speech, David popped the top on the National Park No. 3 bottle. As expected, the 105-proof whiskey delivered the flavor and punch the brand is known for. This bourbon is by far the best of the National Park releases to date. With deep, rich caramel and cooked brown sugar notes from the beginning that transform into a sweet, floral note with just a hint of citrus, the bourbon drinks much lower than the proof. Drinking lower to proof seems to be an ongoing theme for all the whiskies I tasted during the week.
The bottle’s label features The Snake River, which is overlooked by the Grand Tetons. Aged five years, this year’s edition is just another example of how the industry can help the environment that gives so much back to the product.
Once we had our fill of National Parks No. 3, it was time to open The Grand. The Grand collection is comprised of three different 10-year-old single barrels. Master Blender Nancy Fraley identified the barrels as the best of the best she has ever tasted at the brand’s rickhouses in Kirby, Wyoming. The Grand is a 10-year-old bourbon with a distinct rye flavor, with a bit of cinnamon spice and smooth caramel undertones that make it a perfect sipping whiskey. The finish has a long peppery licorice taste that is short and to the point. Very little to no burn makes this bourbon stand out from others in the Wyoming collection. Enjoying this bourbon will cost you; at $499 MSRP, it may be above most everyday drinker’s pain point. But, if you have the money, go for it. The bourbon is worth the extra money. Once the event tasting was over, it was off to Mead Ranch to celebrate the bottle releases.
If you had to summarize what Jackson is all about, it would be Mead Ranch in Spring Gulch. The 1,500-acre ranch has views of the Grand Tetons, private fishing creeks, open plains and homesites. Brad and Kate Mead are fifth-generation ranchers who have called the ranch home.
The event was supposed to be in an open cattle field, but the weather was not cooperating. Rain and a drastic temperature drop forced the event under a heated tent, which was not so bad. As soon as the group walked in, we were greeted by hors d’oeuvres of smoked trout on a slice of cucumber, hot honey chicken on a biscuit, and my personal favorite, sliced tomahawk ribeye served with a chimichurri sauce. The bar served Wyoming hot toddies that hit the spot on the cool night. After my fill of everything, I selected a neat pour of Wyoming Whiskey Double Cask. I settled into a nice leather terracotta armchair to enjoy the band and converse with the other patrons.
About an hour into the event, we were called to the buffet line, where the lineup was just as impressive as the hors d’oeuvres. We had a choice of slow-smoked brisket, smoked chicken, mac and cheese, blackened carrots, and creamy potatoes. Dessert was a chocolate truffle bourbon ball. To say that I overindulged would be an understatement. After everyone had a plate, Kate Mead spoke about how important the Grand Teton Foundation is to the area and how Wyoming Whiskey is honored to partner with the nonprofit group. She then handed the mic to Leslie Mattson, the foundation’s president. Leslie also thanked the patrons and foundation attendees for always being there for the Tetons. Once the pleasantries were over, the band started playing their renditions of famous country and pop songs, which I enjoyed immensely. Once again, I found myself with a neat pour of whiskey, seated on a high-back, deep chestnut brown sofa that felt made especially for me.
As the night started to close, I wanted to ensure I saw the Wyoming stars since being in town did not give me the optimal view. Unfortunately, the clouds prevented me from seeing too many, but I did see enough to satisfy my curiosity. As we closed the night, I thanked our host, said goodbye to my newfound friends within the group, and headed back into town. As much fun as the week was, I was looking forward to returning to Kentucky, where I could breathe again and see my wife and kids. The final morning included breakfast at the grill and another wonderful venture through the National Park to the airport. I cannot express my gratitude to Wyoming Whiskey and its partners for allowing me this experience. I recommend Jackson, Wyoming, to anyone with an adventurous side and a passion for whiskey.
Cheers, and happy travels!
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