In the Home Stretch: Louisville …


Think of Louisville, Ky., as small-town America thinking big, with far more going for it culturally than the Kentucky Derby.

While the Derby itself only happens once a year — the 2010 version took place just last month — its impact as a cultural touchstone extends into the fabric of its history, its fine-arts scene and even a rich culinary culture that brought us regional barbecue and the mint julep.

Even with a mini-museum tribute to Col. Sanders standing proud at Louisville's well-appointed downtown visitor's center, the city itself is in the midst of a cultural renaissance, especially with a glitzy entertainment epicenter (4th Street Live) and an alluring arts district anchored by the 21c Museum Hotel

This sexy-quirky boutique property — guarded by giant red penguins and a blingy limo — is so fresh that it has given trendy concept lodgings in New York, Los Angeles and Miami a run for their money.

Visitors seeking Southern chic, including girly dresses, home accents, jewelry and statement-making hats that get almost as much attention as the horses at the Kentucky Derby, will want to make their way to the Highlands at Bardstown Road.

Though the art gallery-driven East Market Street/NuLu district is still a work in progress, the highly recommended and excellent Mayan Cafe is a sure sign that this area will emerge from its adolescence beautifully.

Even though the Jewish community in Louisville is small (8,500), its members through the years have made a big impact on the city and state's development, as well as American history itself. The Temple — Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom — chartered in 1843, is Kentucky's oldest and largest Jewish congregation.

The Virginia mercantile firm of Cohen and Isaacs hired explorer Daniel Boone to scout out their Kentucky lands while another merchant family, the Gratzes of Philadelphia, set up trading posts along the Ohio and joined the founders of Lexington.

Not far from Bardstown and the real Old Kentucky Home lies the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, instituted by distiller/philanthropist Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, modeled after his childhood home in Germany.

Louisville is also the birthplace of the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Today, the tradition of civil service that Brandeis made famous lives on.

Current Louisville mayor Jerry Abramson is one of the most popular in the city's history, and a huge supporter of the spirits industry, even having his own locker at the wonderful Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge at 4th Street Live.

An hour out of Louisville and Bardstown, the American Bourbon and Whisky Trail delivers a high-proof dose of U.S. history — and then some. Thanks to lovingly refurbished distiller homes, production facilities and hands-on exhibit-laden visitor centers, it is clear that the perception of American whisky has shifted dramatically, from a working man's spirit to a great national cultural icon (similar to Scotch from Scotland).

Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Heaven Hill's fascinating and distinctive presences on the trail are as varied and complex as the products they produce.

In addition to having a comprehensive museum space detailing the history and development of whisky, Heaven Hill is of particular interest to Jewish visitors as it was relaunched after Prohibition by members of the Shapira family.

According to Heaven Hill's communications director and temple congregation member Larry Kass, from its reinception to its growth and diversification under second-generation Max and Harry Shapira, to its current status as a beverage-industry leader, Heaven Hill has always taken great pride in being part of both the American Whisky Trail family and Kentucky's extended Jewish family.

For this reason, the congregation decided to dedicate the 2010 annual tribute fundraiser and dinner to Max Shapira. However, when Shapira's modesty and lack of interest in the spotlight posed a challenge, the Shapira family and the rabbis decided instead to expand the theme into a week-long celebration of the role local Jewish immigrants played in the spirits industry, and in turn, the growth of the region itself.

From there, "The Chosen Spirit Archival Exhibition and Tribute" took flight.

Kass took a devout interest in working with Rabbis Joe Rooks-Rapport and Gaylia R. Rooks to take the best materials from the archives to demonstrate the Shapira family legacy.

The tribute, says Kass, included "a themed Shabbat service with a special sermon delivered by Rabbi Rapport."

Like a good spirit on the palate, "The Chosen Spirit" won't linger forever, but by logging on to the Web sites for Heaven Hill Distillery www.heaven-hill. com and The Temple www., some research will yield glimpses into early American Jewish history.

If you're committed to visiting Heaven Hill's extended family of distilleries, you can get a dollop of country flavor through a stay at the Beautiful Dreamer Bed and Breakfast.

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