There are two ingredients of any successful car club. The first is most certainly the cars. But the second—and no less important—are the people. The cars constitute the substance, but it’s the members that represent the character. It is with this perspective that I considered my column this week after attending our first BMW CCA event.
Unlike the other national functions arranged by BMW CCA, “Rendezvous” was conceived as a more intimate and all-inclusive event intended for a smaller group of members. The concept is to enjoy the company of other BMW enthusiasts at venues that allow a more personal interaction and include unique activities.
In the first week of June, my wife and I took part in the inaugural Rendezvous held in Louisville, Kentucky at The Brown Hotel—an icon in the heart of the city. The itinerary included a full day on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, with a visit the following day to the renowned Churchill Downs—the horse-racing complex famed for hosting the annual Kentucky Derby.
As we are both bourbon enthusiasts and have followed the Kentucky Derby over the years as well, this was a perfect pairing. We hurriedly confirmed availability on our work calendars and booked the trip within hours of receiving the email blast. Good thing we did, as it sold out in a blink.
The Bourbon Trail (to which it is usually referred), is actually the name of a program sponsored by the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA), launching the concept in 1999—the phrase is now trademarked. According to kybourbontrail.com there are 42 participating distilleries, and our tour promised visits to a select three.
Churchill Downs may need less of an introduction. A horse racing national institution, the Kentucky Derby is the longest continuously running sporting event and is known as the most exciting two minutes in sports. It is a sprawling complex, occupying nearly 150 acres of Kentucky real estate.
Living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, it would have been a push for us to drive it all in one shot (even for me), so we lodged overnight in Columbus, Ohio and made the shorter leg of the trip the next day. This also allowed for us to check in a little early, refreshed for the evening festivities.
Rendezvous kicked off with a welcome reception on the rooftop of The Brown Hotel. Louisville is a manageable metropolis with buildings that do not soar into the clouds. This made the view of the city all the more spectacular, as you could see to the horizon from every vantage point.
And this casual atmosphere allowed strangers to become acquainted.
The next morning started with a substantial breakfast buffet in the hotel. With a reasonable departure time, a luxury coach was ours for duration of the weekend. Listening to our well-informed guide describe the history of the area and provide the backdrop for the tour, our group became familiar with Kentucky’s past and present.
We arrived at our first destination—Buffalo Trace, the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States. Historical records show that distilling began on this now expansive campus in 1775. It remained operational through Prohibition by producing medicinal whiskey, a legal form of alcohol requiring a prescription.
The trace portion of its namesake refers to the trails left by these roaming giants through the very property where the facility now stands. We toured this beautifully maintained site and its eclectic collection of structures used in the creation, aging, administration and distribution of their spirits.
We were educated on the ABC’s of what makes a bourbon, and the misconceptions associated with them. [A] It must be made in America—not just Kentucky. [B] It must be aged in a new charred container, which is most often a barrel. [C] It must be at least 51% corn, but will commonly contain other “flavor” grains such as rye, malted barley, and wheat.
The aroma in the aging warehouse was indescribable. Surrounded by stacks of barrels, you become instantly aware of the bourbon legacy. Our visit would not have been complete without a sampling of their products, so we concluded with a tasting of a fine selection of bourbons, including their original Buffalo Trace Bourbon brand. This was followed by a truly excellent lunch.
On the very opposite side of the spectrum, our second stop on the tour was to Three Boys Farm Distillery. Where as Buffalo Trace produces more than 2.5 million gallons of whiskey annually, Three Boys is more of a bourbon boutique operation. They grow their own grains and use a pot-still single distillation process in their small but impressive facility.
Our group then participated in barrel thieving—a tasting technique using a tool appropriately called a “thief.” This device is used to extract a sample of the contents straight from the barrel. Barrel thieving (or stealing) is commonly used to taste the aging spirits and regulate various stages of readiness.
Our third and final stop of the day was at Stitzel-Weller Distillery, a recently revived operation which had been closed since 1992. We gathered in their tasting room—perfectly timed at the end of a long day. Testing an array of spirits, we were educated on the sampling process. It is here that I learned the phrase corn brings the sweet, and rye brings the heat.
In a single day, our contingent had toured two distilleries on opposite sides of the bourbon producing spectrum—the substantial and impressive operation of Buffalo Trace, and a quaint and targeted enterprise in Three Boys Farm. By ending our day with a casual tasting event at Stitzel-Weller, I cannot have imagined a better arranged itinerary.
Dinner was on our own, and we turned in promptly to rest up for our next adventure. The following morning, our members loaded in the coach to head to Churchill Downs. But not before we stopped for a substantial brunch and a beverage of our choice at Le Moo—a trendy steakhouse and drinkery dripping in local ambiance.
Minutes from downtown Louisville, we arrived at Churchill Downs rising from hallowed ground like a cathedral. Stepping off the coach, you could hear the loudspeakers announcing races as they would have many decades ago. We found our way to the Winners Circle Suites, positioned perfectly to witness every contest.
Undisclosed to us until that morning, BMW CCA had sponsored the first race. And with that came the honor of awarding the victor in the Churchill Downs sacred Winners Circle conveniently located just below our suites. Members arranged in a crescent behind the horse, jockey, and owner for pictures. I’m not normally impressed by such things, but that was awesome.
The rest of the afternoon was one exciting race after another—every thirty minutes. Some of us partook in wagers (official and otherwise), others simply enjoyed the atmosphere. But I don’t think anyone from our club would disagree that the best part of Churchill Downs is being in the company of these magnificent horses.
We had plenty of time to wander around the complex and observe the paddock, as horses are saddled and mounted just before the next race. This is where you can witness their manner and attitude just minutes before they break from the starting gates. We watched the trainers as they settle the horses that somehow knew they were about to compete.
On the last race of the day, my wife and I saw a frustrated trainer attempting to calm a particularly spirited horse. It bucked and struggled with her, and at first refused to allow the jockey to mount. As a novice, you might conclude that the animal would not fare very well against the competition.
You would be wrong.
This feisty creature demonstrated tremendous courage in an exciting come from behind victory—capping a truly exceptional visit to perhaps the most recognized of horse racing complexes in the world. Having never been to a horse race in my life, I cannot imagine a better venue for my first time.
We returned to the hotel with a couple hours to clean up for the farewell dinner. Strangers we’d met on the rooftop became our dinner companions. Gathered for our last meal together, we shared accounts of the weekend and of course chatted about our cars—the subject that drew us together in the first place.
Rendezvous is the brainchild of Frank Patek, and was expertly arranged by Tricia Jones—both of BMW CCA National and with us for the duration. They will be the first to tell you that many more contributed behind the scenes. You might now ask me if this inaugural event was a triumph, and whether you should attend one in the future.
We had such a great time on this excursion, that we signed up for the second and final Rendezvous of 2022 at The Essex, a culinary resort and spa hotel in northern Vermont—underway in just a few weeks. This would be our second event with the BMW CCA in as many months.
I think I just answered your question.–David Newton