Louisville and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
There’s a reason the Kentucky Bourbon Trail makes a crooked smile around its crown jewel, Louisville. Producing 1/3 of the world’s bourbon, Louisville offers the best of both whiskey worlds—bluegrass farms and distilleries by day, and a hip cityscape to sip through all night.
As home to Churchill Downs, museums, baseball, classic hotels and riverboats, Louisville is as fine a blend of old, new and delicious as a Manhattan mixed by one of the city’s many skilled bartenders. Whether you prefer big names or craft labels, Louisville will get you into the “spirits” for fun.
Bourbon is whiskey made from at least 51% corn mash and aged in new, charred-oak barrels. Kentuckians claim their limestone water is another essential ingredient. Bourbon can be made anywhere, but only Kentucky “straight whiskey” is true bourbon. The Bourbon Enthusiast Class at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter downtown can familiarize you with “America’s Native Spirit.”
A Corn Mash Smash
Evan Williams opened Kentucky’s first commercial distillery on Louisville’s riverfront in 1783. Today his eponymous bourbon is a world leader, and the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is the star of Whiskey Row’s renovated warehouses. The artisanal distillery lets you experience life in 1783 through multimedia displays, as well as watch bourbon being made and enjoy a premium tasting.
Evan Williams is the first official stop on the Kentucky Distillers’ Association Bourbon Trail, which includes 8 large-label distilleries across north-central Kentucky offering tours, demonstrations and tastings. Pick up a “passport” from any stop and collect stamps for a t-shirt (or a julep cup from the sister Craft Tour of smaller distilleries). Three days are recommended to complete the entire Trail, but you can drive or bike parts of it (Wild Turkey and Four Roses are just 8 miles apart), or hire tour companies like Mint Julep Tours or R&R Limousine to drive for you.
Still Distilling After All These Years
Trail stop #2, Jim Beam, is just 30 minutes south of Louisville. The Beam family has crafted bourbon for 200 years, making 12 popular brands like Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek. Guided tours show the distilling process from the limestone well, through the mashing to barreling and bottling. Then sip the results as you watch a cooperage demonstration—barrelmaking—and take in the decanter museum. No wonder the Beam Distillery is on Happy Hollow Road!
Head for the Hills … or Horses … or Hoe-downs
If you have more time to spend in Bourbon Country, you can continue to other distilleries like Heaven Hill or micro-distillery Willett, both in Bardstown, home of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival each fall. Versailles is pronounced “Ver-SAYLZ” but is just as lovely as its French counterpart with Victorian homes, thoroughbred farms, and Woodford Reserve, the small batch distillery that crafts the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. And if you like manmade speed, check out the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, followed by Corsair Distillery.
Back in Louisville, it’s time to change for The Urban Bourbon Trail. These 25-plus Louisville bars and restaurants serve a minimum of 50 labels, have knowledgeable bartenders and cook up bourbon-based dishes too. Like the regular Trail, you can also pick up a passport (or download the iTunes /Android apps) and collect stamps—6 gets you a t-shirt and a certificate of “Bourbon Country Citizenship.” One night won’t be enough, but here are some stops for every mood and price range.
Where Art Meets Artisan Bourbon
Proof on Main is the restaurant at the posh and popular 21c Museum Hotel, a world-renowned blend of hospitality and hot contemporary art. Proof serves dishes from regional farmers and craft cocktails as beautiful as the artwork on the walls—and at around $10, is not overly pricey.
F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly drank so much bourbon at the Old Seelbach (Hotel) Bar he was repeatedly escorted out. But he allegedly also found his literary inspiration for The Great Gatsby there. Nearby, The Brown Hotel lobby bar is opulent with live jazz and cocktails like the “Man O’ War”: Four Roses Small Batch, triple sec, lime juice, sweet vermouth. (All 3 hotel locales, by the way, are Trail founding members.)
From Jerusalem to Jefferson County
Ramsi Kamar grew up the son of Jerusalem’s only female liquor store owner. Today, Ramsi’s Cafe on the World brings that unique perspective to the popular Highlands neighborhood. Chef and wife Rhona and Ramsi serve food from their own farm in a dining room full of souvenirs from their travels.
Evan Williams commercialized bourbon, but Doc Crow was the Scottish-born physician whose sour mash process seasoned the spirit we know today. On Whiskey Row, Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar is South-meets-sea: barbecue, fried green tomatoes, oysters and 100-plus bourbons.
“Where Bourbon Country Comes to Eat”
Another Trail founder, the Clifton neighborhood’s Bourbons Bistro, offers more than 130 bourbons, and bartenders who understand every one of them. Bistro is considered Louisville’s ultimate bourbon destination, though they also serve a tasty Lobster Bruschetta and the Duck Burger. Somewhere above, Evan Williams, Jim Beam and Doc Crow are looking down on Louisville with delight (and probably hunger, too!).