An autumn trip to Kentucky

Canopy Tree Walk

Margaret and I squeezed in one more weekend getaway before the busy season begins where she works. We returned to Bardstown, Kentucky, a place we very much enjoyed when we visited it last year.

We both enjoy good bourbon and planned to visit the distilleries we missed last time. We got to visit just one: the Stitzel-Weller distillery in a Louisville suburb. It’s now mostly a tourist site revolving around the Bullitt, Blade and Bow, and I. W. Harper bourbons.

They distill and age small quantities of spirits on the premises, and we got to see those operations. Most of their product is distilled and aged elsewhere, however.

If you know anything about bourbon lore, this was the distillery of the famous Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. It’s changed hands since then — even went dormant for a while starting in the 1970s, when whiskey’s popularity fell.

Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Stitzel-Weller Distillery
Stitzel-Weller Distillery

During these days of COVID-19, Stitzel-Weller limits tours to half the usual number of guests. A tasting always wraps a distillery tour. We knew there would be some risk there: would guests stay masked in the tasting room? Nope. Margaret and I were the only ones who stayed masked. It wasn’t hard to move the mask out of the way for our sips, and we wished others had followed our lead. It made us wary of the distillery tours we wanted to take the rest of the trip.

When we reached Bardstown and called the distilleries, we learned that their tours were booked all weekend. At least we wouldn’t have to be concerned about COVID risk at tastings! We did visit the Willett distillery, as they make my favorite bourbon of all time, Willett Pot Still Reserve. They’ve opened a restaurant on their property, so we enjoyed an early dinner there of creative and delicious dishes — I recommend it. We were able to dine on their deck in the open air. We also bought several bottles of our favorite bourbons in their shop.

We rented an Airbnb apartment in the heart of Bardstown’s downtown. It was a lovely place to stay with plenty of room for us to stretch. It also had a full kitchen in case inclement weather or insufficient outside seating at restaurants forced us inside to make our own meals.

Fortunately, many Bardstown restaurants offered outdoor seating. It was sometimes challenging to get a table at peak meal times, so we ate at odd times like 10:30 am and 4 pm when tables were available. Bardstown was far from crowded, but there are only so many restaurants in a small town.

We drove out to Bernheim Forest, which we visited on our last trip too. Margaret wanted to see one of the wooden giants there again, this one, named Little Nis.

Little Nis

Margaret also wanted to experience the Canopy Tree Walk, a large pier out into a forested valley. At 75 feet in the air, it gives you a treetop view.

Canopy Tree Walk
Canopy Tree Walk
Canopy Tree Walk
Canopy Tree Walk

The Jim Beam distillery is just down the road from Bernheim Forest. We’d have visited, but out of COVID caution they’ve closed their visitor experience until next spring. The Jim Beam barn is near the road, so we stopped to photograph it. It’s very well photographed; search for “Jim Beam barn” and you’ll see. Most of those photographs don’t show a giant rickhouse behind the barn — that rickhouse must have been built only recently. It makes the scene far less picturesque. I found one angle on the barn that minimizes the rickhouse and shows the rolling Kentucky hills.

The Jim Beam barn
The Jim Beam barn

It rained in Bardstown on our last day, so we left earlier than planned. We decided to drive home through lush Brown County in Indiana and stop in Nashville for lunch. What a mistake that was. It was a sunny day in that part of Indiana and the roads were packed with cars and motorcycles out to see the fall foliage. Nashville itself was wall to wall people. We parked and walked a little bit, but soon realized that the town was a COVID risk nightmare. We got back in our car and drove on to nearby Bloomington for a meal before heading home.

Canon PowerShot S95

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A visit to Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center

Heaven Hill

We went to Heaven Hill Distilleries and found no distillery there.

There used to be one there, until Nov. 7, 1996, when one of Heaven Hill’s warehouses caught fire. It is thought that lightning struck it. The resulting inferno destroyed it and several other warehouses, consuming 90,000 barrels of bourbon. The fire also destroyed the distillery.

Heaven Hill bought the Bernheim distillery in Louisville and now distills all of their whiskeys there. They then truck the distillate to this facility, just outside Bardstown, where it is barreled and aged.

Heaven Hill
Heaven Hill

On our visit we got to walk through their visitor center and their bonded warehouse. If you’ve ever seen a bourbon labeled “Bottled in Bond,” it was made at a single distillery by one distiller in one distillation season, it was aged for at least four years in a bonded (government supervised) warehouse, was bottled at 100 proof, and its label tells where it was distilled and where it was aged. This 1897 law was meant to protect consumers from adulterated whiskeys, cut with iodine or rust — which was a problem at that time.

Heaven Hill

Heaven Hill makes a couple dozen different whiskeys spanning price ranges from the bottomest of the bottom shelf to some mighty tasty and expensive stuff. We sampled five of them before we left, all delicious in their own ways.

Heaven Hill, by the way, is the largest independent, family-owned distiller of spirits in the United States. The other large distilleries are owned by national and global corporations. Heaven Hill remains headquartered in Kentucky.

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My Old Kentucky Home

My old Kentucky home
Nikon FA, 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor
Arista EDU 200

At first, I thought this little cabin was the original My Old Kentucky Home and the big house up the hill came later to replace it. But it turns out that the cabin is only a spring house, built to keep the water supply clean.

It also turns out that the song My Old Kentucky Home isn’t actually about this place, even though that’s what this place is called. The song is about a failing farm and a slave who knows he’s going to be sold to help cover expenses. The song shines a light on the slave’s plight.

This home belonged to Stephen Foster, who co-wrote the song. It and its expansive grounds are now My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown.

I continue to be deeply impressed with this film, Arista EDU 200, which is the same emulsion as Fomapan 200.

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Film Photography, History, Travel

single frame: My old Kentucky home


Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon FA


I own more Nikon SLR bodies than I can possibly use, but each one of them offers its own wonderful characteristics. Also, many of them were gifts to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras, and remembering the gift-giver makes it hard to want to say to goodbye.

Nikon FA

This Nikon FA is the body I received most recently, and I’d shot just one roll through it. I liked it for its compact size and excellent capability. Here’s a photo from that roll, which was Fomapan 200, through my 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E lens.

Wet hosta leaf

The FA is part of the FE/FM/FA family of semi-pro 35mm SLRs that Nikon introduced to replace its Nikkormat line. The FA was last to the party, introduced in 1983 as a technological tour-de-force. It is the world’s first camera with matrix metering, which Nikon called automatic multi-pattern (AMP) metering. I believe it is also the first Nikon SLR to offer programmed autoexposure, setting both aperture and shutter speed. It also offers aperture- and shutter-priority autoexposure and manual exposure.

The FA is also small and lightweight compared to Nikon’s flagship cameras like the F2 and F3. That makes it great for a long weekend of shooting, as when my wife and I recently visited bourbon country in Kentucky. I started with Arista EDU 200 on board, which is rebranded Fomapan 200.

Maker's Mark Distillery *EXPLORED*

My 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor lens was mounted. Ken Rockwell calls this one of Nikon’s 10 worst lenses ever, but except for noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end I like it. I use it like three primes: 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm, all of which are marked on the barrel so I can dial them right in. For that convenience I’m happy to spend a little time correcting distortion in Photoshop. The photos above and below are from the Maker’s Mark Distillery near Loretto, KY.

Maker's Mark Distillery *EXPLORED*

I shot in program mode at first, but the in-viewfinder display kept telling me 1/250 sec. and I wondered whether something was amiss. I switched to aperture-priority mode after that. But every photo I made came back properly exposed. Perhaps the FA’s program mode just biases toward midrange shutter speeds. This photo is of the spring house at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown.

My Old Kentucky Home

I blew through the Arista EDU in a day and switched to Agfa Vista 200 for the rest of the trip. In challenging late-afternoon light the FA did a good job of exposing so the Talbott Inn in Bardstown wasn’t lost in the shadows. This tavern and hotel has been operating since 1779.

Talbott Inn

Bardstown is charming, especially for people like Margaret and me who like old houses. We walked around town a lot just photographing homes and buildings.

Old Talbott tavern

I have one peeve with the FA, and I became more and more annoyed with it as the weekend rolled on. To meter, you have to pull the winding lever out to its first stop. With the camera at my eye, that lever poked right into my forehead. I wished for a different way to activate the meter. Also, my FA has a strange fault: the mechanism that prevents you from winding past an unexposed frame is broken. Otherwise, the FA performed well. Its size, weight, and feature set make it a great everyday manual-focus SLR.

Pointy signs

The 35-70 zoom also includes a macro mode. What a versatile lens this is.

Spring blooms, macro

It’s taken me most of the last 10+ years of collecting and using old cameras to internalize that the lens is the critical component of any camera. But I do believe the FA’s matrix metering made a real difference in mixed and challenging light. My beloved Pentax ME would likely not have done as nuanced a job exposing this mid-evening light.

Bardstown street

We drove out to Bernheim Forest on our trip to see the giants, these wooden sculptures just completed by artist Thomas Dambo. I’m sure I’ll do a whole post about them soon. Light reflecting off the smooth wooden surfaces made for a challenging exposure situation, with lots of bright and dark areas. I had to tone down highlights in Photoshop.

The giants at Bernheim Forest

The FA’s 1/4000 sec. top shutter speed lets me blur the background in dimmer light, compared to my 1/1000 sec. Pentax ME.

Smoking bear

Want to see more? Check out my Nikon FA gallery.

Let’s take an inventory of my manual-focus Nikon SLR bodies.

I’m not getting rid of my two Nikon F2s or my Nikon F3, no sir, nuh uh. I own two Nikkormats, an FTn that’s big and heavy like the F2, and an EL which is smaller and lighter like this FA. I also own an N2000.

The Nikkormats will have their turns in Operation Thin the Herd soon. But I don’t see me keeping either of them over my F2s and F3.

When the N2000 had its turn in Operation Thin the Herd (here) I decided to keep it. I travel with it, as if it is damaged, lost, or stolen, replacements can be had for as little as $20. And I just plain like it.

A working FA costs at least $100, but it’s a far more capable and sensitive performer than the N2000.

On this Kentucky trip either camera would have been fine, though the FA nailed exposure in some of these shots where the N2000 would probably have only done okay.

It comes down to this: The Nikon FA’s wind lever pokes me in the forehead. It’s really annoying.

Verdict: Goodbye


A visit to Willett Distillery

Willett Distillery

It’s hard to know exactly where your bourbon comes from. Sure, the label gives you a brand name and maybe even a distilling company. But only bonded bourbons are required by law to tell the truth about origin on the label. Otherwise, a bourbon’s label can craft any origin story it wants.

Willett's Pot Still
Nikon F3HP, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak Plus-X, 2015

For several years my favorite bourbon by far has been Willett’s Pot Still Reserve. Its distinctive bottle is fashioned to look like a pot still.

I leave it to the pros and serious enthusiasts to describe bourbon flavors. One I found on the Web used words like citrus, caramel, pepper, and dry oak to describe this bourbon. All I know is that its deliciously interesting complexity keeps me sipping.

That’s probably why the one photo I have is of an empty bottle. It doesn’t help that this bourbon isn’t always available. When I find some, I buy it — and drink it.

Willett also issues special single-barrel and small-batch bourbons and ryes under their Willett Family Estate label. They’re hard to find and they’re expensive, but they are the most delicious bourbons and ryes I’ve ever enjoyed. I usually find rye to be too spicy and to burn too much. But the most delicious, most interesting whiskey I’ve ever sipped was Willett Family Estate Rye. It was the closest I’ve come to a religious whiskey experience. I will buy any bottle that says Willett on the label.

What I learned only after touring the Willett distillery in March is that until about 2016, all of the amazing Willett whiskeys I’d ever sipped were distilled by rival Heaven Hill Distilleries using Heaven Hill mash bills. From the early 1980s until 2012, Willett distilled no spirits. They merely aged the Heaven Hill-sourced whiskeys in their warehouses.

Nothing against Heaven Hill, which produces some delicious whiskeys. I just didn’t enjoy feeling duped. Maybe it’s unrealistic, but I assume the company on the label distilled, aged, and bottled the brown liquid inside. Not that this sly deception will keep me from enjoying their whiskeys, all now distilled on the Willett premises from Willett mash bills.

Willett Distillery

Here it is, Willett’s pot still. Notice to the similarity to my photographed bottle.

Willett Distillery

And their fermenting tanks.

Willett Distillery

And a couple of their rickhouses, where barrels of whiskey are left to age.

Willett Distillery

On this March morning this rickhouse was cool and dark.

Willett Distillery

A fun quirk of the Willett distillery is that three cats roam the grounds to keep mice away. This one is named Noah, I think.

Willett Distillery

The distillery is in the midst of transforming its campus to offer more amenities to bourbon tourists. They’ll soon have a B&B and a restaurant to offer.

Willett Distillery

But the rickhouses…they’ll always look like prison barracks. Hardly tourist-tempting.

Willett Distillery

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Revisiting the Canon PowerShot S80

Mary Love.

Encouraged by fellow photo-blogger Dan James, I carried my Canon PowerShot S80 around with me everywhere for a few weeks. It was my primary camera for a couple years ending in 2010 when I got my PowerShot S95, the camera I’ve used more than any other ever.

The S80 is chunkier than the S95. It seemed giant in my pocket compared to the S95. Funny, because I’d call a film camera this small a marvel of miniaturization and brilliantly pocketable.

The S80 also lacks the S95’s ability to directly dial in common focal lengths like 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and so on. I didn’t realize how much I love that feature of my S95 until I didn’t have it on the S80. It led me to just shoot at the default 28mm most of the time. That leads to stretched proportions on deep subjects like my car.


The S80’s color that impressed me. Even on this dreary day it managed to make what color was present look good.


My poor S80 isn’t without troubles. Just look at all the fringing among the branches at the top of this photograph of the Maker’s Mark distillery. Beneath that sci-fi sky, the S80 captured great color and clarity.

At the Maker's Mark Distillery

Check the upper right of this image — it’s out of focus. I found this on many shots, and I suspect that the lens has become misaligned.

Cluster III

It also happened in this portrait shot of a Bardstown, KY, door. The entire top of the image is soft.

Bardstown, KY

I tried the camera’s built-in black-and-white mode for this photo of construction near where I work. It’s okay.

Duke HQ

Shooting some early spring blooms, I was reminded that the S80’s macro mode struggles to lock focus unless it is at minimum zoom, 28mm.

Bardstown, KY

As with every camera, you just learn to live with its limitations. So when I want macro, I zoom all the way out.

The Mosler Safe Co.

The S80 shone brightest outdoors at middle distances. Its lens is plenty sharp and contrasty.

Bardstown, KY

The S95 is a better camera and the one I’m going to keep reaching for. But even if I didn’t own the S95, my S80’s probable lens misalignment consigns this otherwise decent camera to the bin.

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