The itinerary was ambitious – eight days, seven posh sporting clays venues, 13 flats of shells and eight bourbon distilleries. Porsche had loaned us a 2011 Cayenne S SUV powered by a 400-horsepower V8 behemoth, while Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing Co. supplied one of their marvelous A-10 American sidelock over/under shotguns.
Until we shot 5-stand at Blackberry Farm, I had not fully appreciated the athleticism of the A-10 American sidelock. But that turning point with this European-inspired over/under was still 24 hours away.
Now on the fifth leg of our “Sporting Clays on the Bourbon Trail” road trip, we had just left the Rockcastle Shooting Center in Park City, Kentucky. The Porsche Cayenne S would devour the next 254 miles to Walland, Tennessee, where Blackberry Farm lay tucked in the mysterious Smoky Mountains.
Driving the Porsche Cayenne S for hundreds of miles at a stretch is like chugging a very tall energy drink. The Porsche feels hard-wired to your central nervous system. The 400-horsepower V8 cranks it out with a racing-derived, dry-sump lubrication system, four overhead cams and 32 valves. The air suspension is like the cerebrospinal fluid that safely pressurizes your brain inside the skull, as the dashboard indicator on the eight-speed Tiptronic transmission quietly eggs you on to reach the next highest number. And the 20-inch, high-performance tires covered ground with the wonder of magical sneakers.
The drive was calculated to take a tick over four hours. The extended range fuel tank would swallow the trip whole. And as for the occupants, the word “fatigue” is not in the vernacular of the Porsche Cayenne S. The interior is designed to empower rather than coddle. The black leather and polished stainless steel materials of the Porsche Cayenne S are akin to wearing an Ermenegildo Zegna two-button pinstripe power suit. All the controls are adjustable. Eight-way adjustable leather seats felt attuned to the Eastern concept of Chakras – or whirling force centers that boost the body’s power points.
The connection between me and the Porsche could best described as the inspiration of a mantra. Ensconced in the driver’s seat, my personal mantra was “more…more, more, more.”
About 16 miles from Blackberry Farm, we merged onto US-321 – a lovely ribbon of road through the Great Smoky Mountains territory. The fabled mist had settled among the trees. There’s an awareness you’re more of an intruder than a tourist – a sense of awe in the shadows of legends that makes you seek sanctuary in the impending dusk. You press the accelerator and the Porsche Cayenne S emits that snarl to ward off lurking beasts as it breaks into a fast run.
Upon arriving, you realize that Blackberry Farm is a place whose name is referenced in hushed tones. It is a member of the Relais & Chateau group, known for its strict admission standards on luxury, cuisine and amenities (think of Relais & Chateau as the AAA for millionaires).
At Blackberry Farm there is a grace and splendor demanded from the owners’ respect for the land. There are vistas of rare splendor. The red barn and old clapboard farmhouse are united in a timeless tableaux. A line of white rocking chairs provides a front-row view of the Great Smoky Mountains. A gazebo reflects on the mirror-smooth pond. Everywhere you are struck by the instinctive architectural harmony that sends a rush of reward-response dopamine to the part of the brain responsible for acquiring new behavior (yes, I could live here forever).
Intimacy and tradition define Blackberry Farm. The rustic and luxurious buildings are kept at a modest scale, in observance of the tranquility that is the currency for this exclusive destination where all-inclusive daily rates range from $795 to $1,995 per couple on the American Plan of three meals. Arriving on a country estate of leather and wood awash in golden hues, a heavenly sensibility gradually takes hold as you check in at the Main House, watch your bags silently glide away on the bellman’s golf cart to catch up with them when you also arrive, in another cart, at your craftsman cottage nestled among the trees. Our cottage was called “Leather Britches.”
The luggage is stowed in the large closet, and both bellman shun tips as per the Blackberry Farm etiquette.
The cottage immerses you in buttercream tones and rich fabrics. The comforter on the majestic king bed immediately grabs your attention. Plush and sumptuous, you want to fall into it face down.
As you wander toward the bathroom, two bottles of wine stood on a shelf, along with a corkscrew and book, perfectly positioned as a still life in the cozy pantry. A Caymus 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon and a Matriarch 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, both priced at around $100, gazed down at you from this tiny outpost of Napa Nirvana.
The bathroom itself was a masterpiece of marble complemented by handsome woodwork that continued the country motif. A flat-screen TV hung on the wall by the large mirrors. There was an ample Jacuzzi tub and shower large enough to accommodate everyone.
Nightfall claimed the Great Smoky Mountains. Lamplight twinkled between the trees from the neighboring cottages built into the lush hillsides.
Not much time remained before our dinner reservations (limited to hotel guests). A jacket is required for men in the restaurant, which is simply called The Barn – for the obvious reason that the dining room and bar are housed in a restored barn. While technically the structure was indeed a barn with full vaulted ceiling, wide planks and a network of exposed beams, a certain false modesty prevails in the same way that the gilded age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island were referred to as “cottages” back in the day.
Seated in the comfortable lounge area, we started with cocktails inspired by an extensive list of Kentucky bourbons that ranged from the Pappy Van Winkle “Family Reserve” aged for 23 years and priced at $250 per glass; to the Experimental Collection, Double Barrel, Franklin County, Buffalo Trace for $150 per glass; to a 17-year-old Eagle Rare for $45; and Maker’s Mark at $7 per glass.
An open kitchen spun out kinetic energy in an atmosphere otherwise demure, and we were shown to a table for two near the fireplace. Handed menus and the wine list, we dug in for a grande bouffe of Foothills Cuisine, which the chef describes as wandering “the line between refined and rugged, borrowing from both haute cuisine and the foods indigenous to Blackberry’s Smoky Mountain heritage.” Regardless of how you would describe it, the restaurant is festooned with prestigious awards.
In addition to the daily offerings, the menu included the artisanal cheeses and dry-cured meats produced on the farm offered in a house-made charcuterie plate.
The poetry of the day’s offerings was sound and clear: Peaches-n-Cream Corn Soup, Farm Egg Pappardelle, Smoked Mountain Trout Salad, Blackberry Farm Singing Brook and Whiskey Cake and Carmelized Pineapple.
We’re not quite sure whether or not the menu is backlash against a boyhood nightmare of fried mozzarella sticks marching in lockstep from horizon to horizon. Chef Sam Beall is the son of Kreis and Sandy Beall, founders of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain, who purchased the 4,200-acre farm in 1976 as a scenic get-away.
Our pseudo-Freudian theory in regards to Mr. Beall may also account for the 200-page wine list – about one-third a compendium of French labels. It has to represent one of the largest and most comprehensive wine cellars in the South – or certainly enough to pack 8,000 square feet.
Over the course of the next few hours, we ate our way through the charcuterie plate, corn soup, pappardelle, the Roasted Alaskan King Salmon and Bacon Wrapped South Carolina Quail. Our wine was a modestly priced 2006 Bergström Pinot Noir produced in Oregon. We topped it all off with the Chocolate, Almond and Hazlenut Terrine and the Orange and Pistachio Gelatos.
The first time we encountered take-away desserts was at the fabled French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. The second time was The Barn. After cocktails and an entire bottle of Pinot Noir, we joyfully carried out our little package of cupcakes to the golf cart specifically assigned to our cottage.
Wrapping up the day, I was smoking a Gurkha Evil on the front porch of the cottage, when I noticed that something in the golf cart had been ransacked. All that remained of the cupcakes were the plastic wrap and paper liners. Soon raccoons were sniffing around the cart and porch for more.
Come morning, we loaded up our personal golf cart with our guns and shooting bags. First stop was the Main House dining room. A touch of antebellum ambiance harmonized with our breakfasts of Vanilla Bean Griddlecakes with Pecan Butter and Spiced Maple Syrup accompanied by satisfying black coffee.
Undoubtedly, some guests may have continued their reverie at Blackberry Farm by partaking in any number of activities: yoga, spa, horse-drawn carriage rides, fitness center, horseback riding, hiking, tennis, golf, swimming and farm tours, among other diversions.
But we had shotguns. And we were ready to shoot. And we wanted to blow up clay targets.
At 9:00 sharp, Blackberry Farm Sporting Clays Manager, Keith Reeves, met us at the front door of the Main House. Trim and enthusiastic, Mr. Reeves promptly loaded up the Lexus RX Hybrid SUV with our gear. (Lexus is the official vehicle of Blackberry Farm. In addition to providing transportation around the property, you can also rent one such as an IS-350 convertible for touring the local scenery).
During the 20-minute drive to the Blackberry Farm Sports Club, it became readily apparent that interior of the Lexus RX Hybrid achieved different design goals than the Porsche Cayenne S. In fact, the theme of the interior in the Lexus RX Hybrid seemed entirely lifted from our Blackberry Farm cottage – that sort of frosted blonde sensuality. By contrast, the surroundings in the Porsche Cayenne S evinced a Blade Runner edge. The Lexus RX Hybrid pampered your outings; in the Porsche Cayenne S, you were on a mission.
The Blackberry Farm Sports Club is restricted to hotel guests. When you step out of the Lexus RX Hybrid, your party has sole occupancy among the trees and wildflowers, since only private sessions are available. You’ll have exclusive access to a skeet field, 5-stand, wobble trap and three Parcour stations. Each Parcour station is equipped with five or more traps, doubling as the club’s sporting clays course.
The shooting sessions include lessons. Mr. Reeves applies little tricks-of-the-trade to help his students, many of whom are new shooters, ramp up quickly. For example, he removes the beads on the club’s shotguns “to help students focus on the bird – to keep novices from looking at the barrel,” he explained. “We want to slow down the target, so they can focus on the target much better.”
He also uses trees, rocks and shrubs as landmarks for hold points, break points and focal points.
“It’s all about controlling the basics, slowing down.”
In teaching clays shooting, Mr. Reeves adheres to the John Higgins Approach. Mr. Higgins, a native of England, is noted for designing sporting clays course and for his style of instructing that has evolved over 30 years. He has spent the past decade or so in the U.S. He is currently owner of the British American Sporting Club, a sporting estate located in Taliaferro County, Georgia.
In a nutshell, the John Higgins Approach emphasizes communications, collaboration and safety. According to Mr. Higgins’ “an instructor must attempt to ascertain the participant’s needs, wants, and perceptions in order to deliver a high standard of instruction.” Verbal skills are certainly important, but conceivably the greatest secret to Mr. Higgins’ method is “active listening” on the part of the instructor. “Effective communication is the single most important skill that an instructor must possess, and continually develop throughout his/her entire career.”
Perhaps it was some weird harmonic convergence here in the Great Smoky Mountains that led me to a fantastic shooting experience with the A-10 American. You have an Englishman (Mr. Higgins) channeling his expertise through an American (Mr. Reeves) while I was shooting an American shotgun (the A-10 American) inspired by English best guns (sidelock action, built-to-order, rose-and-scroll engraving on sideplates and flawless game-gun balance).
Here is how it started…
On a Parcours station, Mr. Reeves fine-tuned our skills with pin-point accuracy as we warmed up on easier presentations. Five trap machines per station can throw virtually any combination of sporting clays targets, and so as we shot better he pulled increasingly challenging presentations. You begin to appreciate the Parcours version of sporting clays after you build a clays-crushing rhythm that doesn’t involve shuttling in a golf cart from station to station. By remaining in one place (or maybe two), you can completely focus on the gun/target relationship without any sacrifice in target variation or personal performance.
As the speed and difficulty of the targets increased, the A-10 American actually began to feel like a bespoke shotgun. It mounted quickly and accurately, as though built to my specific dimensions. I never felt that I had to lift my head from the comb to achieve an ideal sight picture. At some 4½ pounds, the single trigger, devoid of creep or slack, enabled the instinctive shooting experience we all strive for in upland hunting. Everything felt fluid, deliberate and controllable.
As a 12 gauge, recoil in no way proved a distraction. I never sensed that I had to chase the true pair: shoulder the gun, cheek touches comb, pull the trigger – all in an immensely rewarding instant.
Then Mr. Reeves decided to up the ante. We climbed into the cart and drove to the 5-stand.
He engaged us in a walk-up flurry. Rather than take positions in the stations, we stood in front of them and started to walk while he pulled random targets from machines hidden in the vegetation. You’re walking in the clearing directly in front of the stations, shotgun at the ready, when suddenly the birds started flying from every direction. Shoot, shoot, shoot and the clay birds smashed, one after the other, after taking direct hits with the 12-gauge shells. The A-10 American moved fast and smooth. I felt more nervous rushing to reload the shotgun than actually shooting at the targets. When it was over, and the score tallied, I had broken 24 of 25.
Want to know the full meaning of elation?
Previously published installments of “Sporting Clays on the Bourbon Trail: