Friday morning my father wrangles me out of bed at 5:30 AM. As I wrestle with consciousness it eerily reminds me of high school. An early riser, he’s already spit polished and ready to roll, wide eyed and giddy for a day of bourbon tasting. We jump into our silver Nissan Altima rental, a “double upgrade” according to the good folks at Enterprise at McGhee Tyson airport, and speed northward into the morning black. Winding up I-75 in the dense fog of early morning, we twist and turn through the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. On a clear day, with the sun poking over the mountains just beginning to rust with the color of fall, this would be a spectacular drive. But blanketed by fog, and dodging eighteen wheelers chugging up the hills, it’s a tedious ride.
Although were visiting the University of Tennessee for the weekend, my final remaining venue in the SEC, first we’re on a run to experience the “Bourbon Trail”. A collection of whiskey distilleries in the heart of Kentucky Bourbon country just south of Louisville, the trail connects a handful of the most iconic Bourbon distilleries in the country. Located about three hours from Knoxville, we’d been planning this trip for nearly a year. Buffalo Trace is our first stop, and we take a full tour of the grounds – the only free tour offered at any of the distilleries. Walking through the old brick warehouses, the wooden barrels arranged neatly in racks, the aroma is an intoxicating mix of whiskey, charred oak and sawn pine. The barrels here rise six full stories in the warehouse, left in the dark for years to slowly age into the caramel colored nectar.
When we finish in the tasting room, I ask the shopkeeper if they have any stray bottles of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year tucked away in a closet somewhere. Considered by many to be the finest bourbon made, it typically retails for over $250 per bottle – assuming you can ever find a bottle for sale. Figuring the best place to ask would be directly from the source at Buffalo Trace, perhaps I might win the lottery…
The shopkeeper chortles at my silly question: “You’d have better luck going into the woods and getting your picture taken with Sasquatch” he retorts. A simple no would have sufficed…
From there, we make a stop at Woodford Reserve and their immaculate grounds before motoring down the Bluegrass Parkway into Bardstown for lunch. The quaint little downtown is a haven for whiskey heads, as pubs tout long bourbon menus and a handful of liquor stores dot 3rd Street. We settle into Mammy’s Kitchen for lunch, a converted turn of the century drug store with small tile floors and decorative square ceiling tins. I order up a “Hot Brown Sandwich”, the signature Kentucky dish that traces its roots back to the Brown Hotel in Louiville (see my original blog post about it HERE). Naturally, I order the dinner sized portion, and the gluttonous affair is a decadent pile of turkey, bacon, ham, and tomato all served open faced on toast points and smothered in rich parmesan sauce.
As if the massive sandwich weren’t enough, the waitress sells us on a slice of their scratch made chocolate cream pie. A recipe handed down from her great grandmother “Mammy”, the chocolate is so rich and intense that it resembles a gelatinous brownie, topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream. Both chocolate fiends, my father and I slash forks for the last few bites so aggressively it makes Game of Thrones look like a Pixar movie.
After lunch we hit Willett distillery, turning up a rustic gravel drive into their parking lot. One of the few family owned distilleries (most of the others are owned by “big liquor” companies such as Jim Beam, Brown Forman, etc.), Willett is noticeably more rough around the edges. The steel clad warehouses show rust around them, there are tractors hauling grain around and the grounds aren’t the pristinely manicured putting greens like the other places. But they make a damn fine bourbon, and I grab a bottle of their elusive, limited release, 10 year old Single Barrel Family Estate to smuggle back to Saint Louis.
From there, our final stop on the day is Makers Mark. In a clear fall afternoon, the drive down the rolling green hills of State Road 49 is spectacular. Unfortunately, the iconic Loretto, Kentucky distillery is a mob scene when we get there. Hoping for a quiet Friday afternoon tour, the place is overrun with joggers decked out in silly outfits. Evidently, Makers Mark is a key stop along the “Bourbon Chase” an annual two day, team relay race that trots through the heart of Kentucky Bourbon country. We take a quick self guided tour of the operation (there are no formal tours because of the race), doing our best to avoid the fluorescent spandex garbed hordes pouring out of every building. We dip our fingers into the massive Cypress wood mash tubs, licking the sweet “beer” before it ferments into alcohol. After a quick glimpse of a 100 year old label cutter, we conclude the tour on the finishing line, where workers dip full bottles of Makers Mark into their signature red wax seal.
Saturday morning proves to be yet another early wake up call, as the good folks at the SEC scheduling department elected to kickoff the Tennessee vs South Carolina matchup at noon EST. As you’ve heard my familiar refrain on this blog before, noon start times are a pox upon the festive world of college football, and a complete atmosphere killer. They are especially egregious at a preeminent destination like Tennessee, where pre game tailgating and traditions such as the “Volunteer Navy” are such an integral part of the game day experience.
I circle a few side streets on the hunt for free parking, but given the tight confines of urban Knoxville, I’m forced to pull into the Knoxville City-County building for $20. As a uniformed police officer waves me in, he asks to search the trunk of the vehicle. “Why do you need to search the trunk” I respond, curious about the questionable 4th amendment breach. “In case you have any explosive devices in the trunk” the officer responds matter of factly. Although I typically mock overzealous security measures, evidently the building has been subject to a handful of bomb threats over the years, so the procedure is not entirely unfounded.
As we head towards campus, we walk past pockets of tailgating, orange tents and tables are shoehorned into every small parking lot and lawn between buildings. A few parties even spill out of the large parking garages dotting the city. Given the tight urban constraints of Knoxville, there simply aren’t the large swaths of parking and lawn that you’ll find surrounding other stadiums in the SEC and Volunteer fans are forced to squeeze a party into any small corner they can find. We stroll further down Cumberland Avenue, the major thoroughfare bisecting the UT campus, and the sidewalks grow thick with orange garbed gameday pedestrians.
The scalpers are out in full force too, but with tickets still available in the box office for face value, they have little room to negotiate. After surveying the market a few times and getting cussed out by one grey bearded old timer for bargaining too hard, I nail down a pair of seats on the 30 yard line for $80 apiece (lower than face at the box office). While I certainly could have done better if only looking for myself, negotiating pairs of tickets is a harder game to play.
Approaching the impressive brick façade of Neyland Stadium thousands of fans form a gauntlet on both sides of Phillip Fulmer Way, while the “Pride of the Southland” Tennessee marching band toots away on the steps of the Hearing and Speech Building. The street, named after national championship winning former head coach Phil Fulmer, is the site of the Tennessee Volunteers player walk. In keeping with many other SEC institutions, players walk down the avenue en route to the stadium while fans cheer boisterously alongside.
As we enter the cavernous bowl of Neyland Stadium and assume our seats, the atmosphere is noticeably subdued. The dreadful early start time coupled with a lackluster season thus far, clearly has the Volunteer fan base aloof. Players finish a few last warm-ups and head into the tunnel while the band takes the field. The band runs through a few formations, and belts out “Rocky Top” to pump the crowd up, the defacto fight song for the Volunteers. Finally, they assemble into their infamous “Power T” entrance, and shortly after the players burst out of the tunnel and run through the formation on their way to the bench. A quick coin toss and we’re ready for game time in Tennessee…
And what a hell of a game it is. For the 5th game in a row, I catch an absolute barn burner of a contest. On paper, the game was supposed to be a blowout, as the South Carolina Gamecocks came into the contest ranked #10, and had reasonable expectations to win the SEC East Division. The match even starts out tenuously, as on the second Tennessee possession from scrimmage wide receiver Alton Howard gets absolutely annihilated by South Carolina’s sensational defensive end Jadaveon Clowney for a loss of 5 yards. As Clowney struts around, the restless Tennessee crowd shifts nervously in their seats on the play, wondering if this will be the start of a VERY long day.
But the Vols stand their ground. Quarterback Justin Worley fires crisp passes down the field, and the Tennessee defense shows remarkable resiliency. At halftime, the Volunteers own a 17-7 lead and the crowd swells with energy.
After the Pride of the Southland band performs their impressive halftime routine, the Gamecocks come out with renewed zest in the third quarter. Quarterback Connor Shaw leads Cocky on a pair of touchdown drives, and the South Carolina squad regains a 21-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The crowd deflates, Tennessee fans have become all too cynical over the past decade, and fourth quarter collapses have become the unfortunate norm for the prestigious program. A couple particularly pessimistic fans even head for the exits, confident they already know how the story is about to unfold.
Today, however, things are different. After booting a field goal with ten minutes remaining, the Volunteers have pulled themselves to within a point. Then, the Volunteer defense takes over. They stymie the Gamecocks on three separate drives late in the 4th quarter, stuffing QB Connor Shaw into the turf on one such drive and knocking him out of the game. The defense shows remarkable poise each drive, stifling Steve Spurriers potent offense. Willed by the growing electricity in the stands, the orange garbed faithful rise to their feet.
As Tennessee assumes the ball with 2:48 remaining, they initiate their final offensive drive. After a few incompletions, Worley connects with wide receiver Marquez North on an incredible 39 yard bomb deep into South Carolina territory – well within field goal range. After a few running plays to squeeze the final ticks off the clock, Tennessee place kicker Michael Palardy nails a 19 yard chip shot to win the game as the clock expires. 95,000 fans erupt in celebration as the Volunteer bench empties onto the field. It’s the biggest win for Tennessee in since 2007, and the euphoric crowd belts out “Rocky Top” with a fervent muster pent up for nearly a decade.
In the end, after such a thrilling and intense game, Tennessee is unquestioningly one of the premiere destinations in the SEC. It’s a tradition rich program, in a fun town, with an enormous stadium and passionate fan base. While my visit was noticeably subdued, largely a function of an early start time and mediocre team, this is a program ready to bounce back. It has all the ingredients to reassert itself in the top echelon of the SEC, and with some of the right personnel decisions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it rebound in the next few years. And I for one can’t wait to head back to Knoxville for a huge tilt when the Vols are sitting atop Rocky Top once again…
Special thanks to my father for joining me for another year of adventure. It’s always a special weekend to spend with your Dad drinking whiskey and watching football…
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