Tusk to Tail: And then ‘Alright, alright, alright’ gave way to again being dazed and confused

The first morning light dawned on the Arkansas River below as I drove to meet Mark and Sam in Maumelle Wednesday. It was nearly 7 a.m., and early commuters had begun heading to work. We were heading to a football game to be played three and a half days later.

Two more vehicles, packed with tailgate gear and travelers, departed Northwest Arkansas before a few small groups totaling another ten passengers or so flew in to Lexington throughout the day.

The game pitted the 2-3 Arkansas Razorbacks against the equally disappointing 2-3 Kentucky WIldcats, losers of their last three. That lousy pillow fight may have been billed the main event, but Tusk to Tail was all about the undercard. We were gathering in the Bluegrass State for three days of peace, love, and bourbon.

Once checked in, our entourage met for dinner and beers at Hopcat. Mark and Brad used their smartphones to navigate Sam downtown, but their virtual assistants were out of sync. As one Siri gave directions, the other began speaking over her in a different accent. Sam asked if one of the disorienting virtual women could be silenced.

“It sounds like ‘The View’ in here,” Sam explained.

A round of locally brewed Goodwood Bourbon Barrel Stout kicked off the festivities as we noshed on Hopcat’s nationally recognized French fries.

The first night of a road trip frequently finds our travelers in fine spirits, as the anticipation for what’s to come has yet to be tainted by another inevitable loss. Side effects may include premature jubilation. After watching the St. Louis Cardinals clinch their division series against Atlanta, our group launched into a boisterous Hog Call. The restaurant patrons, most of whom looked like they had spent the day at the horse races rather than fretting over Kentucky’s football, seemed largely indifferent.

It was time to go.

The following morning was reserved for tasting tours of the local bourbon distilleries. We started at Wild Turkey, whose boldly unapologetic brand pairs well with TTT. Previous celebrity endorsements include Evel Knievel and Hunter S. Thompson. Matthew McConnaughey recently signed on as creative director for their advertising and branding.

“Alright, alright, alright,” someone said as we sat down to five pours of whiskey before us.

It would surely not be the first nor last time they would hear McConnaughey’s famous quote
that day. Another nine samples at Four Roses and Buffalo Trace were sandwiched around a late lunch at the Rick’s White Light Cafe in Frankfort. Owned by chef Rick Paul, the quaint hole in the wall was featured on The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives back in 2010. The White Light has thrived ever since. Chef Rick came out to our patio tables to explain he made the best cajun seafood between New Orleans and Maine. The eccentric chef recited from what seemed to be a well worn script, adding he does things his way, which includes smoking pot.

Throughout the distillery tours, we were told Kentucky’s naturally limestone-filtered water made the bourbon sweeter and the horses faster. Did it make the local marijuana better, too?

“Oh yeah,” replied Chef Rick, climbing into his Range Rover. “We’ve got the good shit.”

Despite or perhaps a result of the early start to day drinking, our group was fairly subdued after dark. We went back to our hotel rooms following dinner at the Blue Heron Steakhouse. Nobody was seen again until the following morning.

One thing that stood out throughout our time in Kentucky was the outstanding customer service and hospitality. Imagine a Disney property fully committed to producing and serving adult spirits. Large, loud groups like ours were welcomed like so many large, loud groups before us.

As the Woodford Reserve tasting tour concluded with a generous pour of three kinds of whiskey, the guide told our group of Arkansas fans that it was time to stand up. He was immediately interrupted from the back, “And CALL – THOSE – HOGS,” just like the stadium announcer says before every home game. Following the Hog Call, we retired to the idyllic back porch bar. Laughter from every single table floated through the air as we soaked in the delightful Autumn sun. One portion of our group remained on the Bourbon Trail while the rest of us spent the afternoon at Keeneland Race Course betting on the ponies.

It started out as a typical afternoon at the track. All proceeds from cashing small winning tickets were promptly reinvested at the beer line. In the 10th race, there was a horse named Whole Lotta Luck, trained and owned by the family of Brad’s and my old friend Travis. All of us bet on the gray gelding, but Brad hit the trifecta as well some bigger bets across the board. Brad collected $350 for his two minutes of work. Just as a hole-in-one is rewarded by buying drinks for everyone in the clubhouse, Brad picked up the tab for our dinner Friday night. Not all heroes wear capes.

The following morning was game day, and our crack staff had erected a mobile tailgate tent city on campus before 8 a.m. The rest of us showed up a couple hours later, noting that due to our early tour times, this was the latest we had begun drinking all week.

“I’m about a quart low,” I told the boys around our bar.

Jeb questioned whether we should start with another taste of bourbon to begin the day. I reminded him that a man has to hit rock bottom before he can begin recovery.

“You’re right,” Jeb agreed, surveying the picturesque campus. “This doesn’t seem too bad.”

“We can go much lower,” I told him, pouring Maker’s Mark up to the first line of a solo cup.

Little did we know another lowpoint was waiting inside the stadium.

Rakeem Boyd’s 74-yard touchdown run on the second play is one of the few Razorback highlights of the entire night. Once the Wildcats adjusted to Boyd, the Hogs were left as limp and useless as a middle-aged man on a three-day whiskey bender. All of the issues mentioned here throughout the season reared their ugly head again. Heading into Week 8, Arkansas still hasn’t found a quarterback who can start and effectively finish a game.

Meanwhile, Kentucky spent the past two weeks converting a wide receiver to fill in as third string QB. He looked more impressive than any starter Arkansas coach Chad Morris has played in two years. Lynn Bowden Jr. rushed for 196 yards and two touchdowns, adding 78 yards and another score through the air. The entire Razorbacks team finished with 183 combined rushing yards, 74 yards of which came on a single play.

The Hogs’ defense struggled to contain Bowden, continuously missing routine tackles. Defenders seemed to be offering high fives as streaking playmakers ran past them. Kentucky is not an elite team, but they made Arkansas look like a clown college. If the trend continues, Gus Malzahn’s 11th-ranked Auburn Tigers will absolutely eviscerate the Hogs next week.

In both football and bourbon, aging is important, and cannot be rushed. Any bourbon aged less than four years must include a statement on the label. This particular vintage of Razorbacks may require a few more years to mature, but the fans are getting restless. It remains to be seen whether they can produce a top shelf product.

That burning bite from the first taste of bourbon is called the “Kentucky hug,” a reference to the warm lingering feeling in the mouth and throat. After getting burned once again by the Hogs, Tusk to Tail returns homeward content with the warm lingering memories made during this remarkable roadtrip.

Editor’s note: Now in its eighth year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.

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