Before you hit the ‘Bourbon Trail,’ spend a few days honing your whiskey knowledge in this gem of a city.
Love bourbon? Before you start mapping out your must-stops on the “Bourbon Trail,” spend a few days in Louisville, Ky. Recently, I had the opportunity to stay and sip my way through the city — my first time there. I was pleasantly surprised at the hospitality and the food and drink scene. The best part is that unlike that actual “Bourbon Trail” — which is difficult to cover in a short amount of time because it’s spread out — Louisville is relatively compact with most sites a short stroll or cab ride away. With direct flights from Dulles to Louisville on United, it’s easy to get to.
The newly renovated Marriott Louisville is the ideal home base for your bourbon-based outings. It’s located in the middle of downtown within walking distance of many shops and restaurants. Book a room or upgrade to a suite or the concierge level, which comes with free daily breakfast and evening happy hour.
Even if you aren’t feeling like Italian cuisine, be sure to stop by BLU Italian Grill adjacent to the lobby. I was astounded by the bourbon selection in the “Bar Bible” of a hotel restaurant, which spans upwards of 72 selections with helpful tasting notes (Basil Hayden has a “high rye content [which] yields pepper, spice & honey,” while Eagle Rare 10 Year shows “tropical fruit, condensed milk, orange, vanilla & coconut.”)
Fans of Pappy Van Winkle will be happy to see the 15-, 20- and 23-year-old versions on the menu. On the flip side, staff introduced me to what has become my signature bourbon: Old Forester, an all-around good whiskey that was all over cocktail menus in Louisville during my stay (and is available in Virginia for a whopping $16 bucks a bottle.) For a helpful introduction, try one of BLU’s 12 bourbon flights, like “Home on the Range” ($25), which includes Buffalo Trace, Bulleit and Rare Breed. Decide which one is your favorite while nibbling on the antipasti platter ($16) of prosciutto, soppresetta, saucisson sec, a selection of cheeses, marinated vegetables, olives and capers.
Afterwards, stroll a few blocks down to smokehouse and raw bar Doc Crow’s, known for seasoned shrimp in the shell with house-made cocktail sauce ($9 per ½ pound; $17 per pound.) I also loved the fried green tomatoes with remoulade sauce ($6.) Though I didn’t have room for it, I took my server’s recommendation and ordered the “Smokehouse Sampler” ($23) with pulled pork, beef brisket and half a rack of ribs. Amazing. To wash it all down, Doc Crow’s also has an impressive selection of bourbon. All are available in two portions: a shot or a taste, which is perfect for creating your own tasting flights with high-end options.
For breakfast, head to Hillbilly Tea for some stick-to-your-ribs fare, paired with an eye-opener made with locally sourced tea. I took a mini break from bourbon (sshh…) and ordered the aromatic “Big Early” ($5) made with Earl Grey-infused moonshine, soda, kumquat and lemon syrup.
For an up-close peek at the fascinating process of making and charring the hand-crafted barrels used to age bourbon, arrange a tour of the Brown Forman Cooperage through Mint Julep Tours. Brown Forman is the only spirits company in the world that makes its own barrels — a staggering 1,500 per day, all crafted from American white oak, as required in Bourbon production. We got the see the entire production, from the lumber yard through the stave selection, barrel assembly and charring. These workers are true craftsmen. Decades of experience are required before they are permitted to work in certain sections of the cooperage. It’s an eye-opening experience that makes you really appreciate the stuff in the bottles.
St. Charles Exchange in Louisville’s West Main Street District offers innovative seasonal variations on classic dishes from the turn of the century along with an impressive beverage selection. Grab a spot at the long, handsome bar, and order the house cocktail, the Old Fashioned ($10), made with Old Forester Bourbon (I told you…that brand is popular in Louisville), Demerara sugar, and both Angostura and Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters. Or try the “Lion’s Tale” ($12), a tangy and spicy sip made with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, lime, sugar, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram and Angostura bitters. I sipped a perfectly made Boulevardier cocktail there, too.
Grab lunch and dine with art at Proof on Main, where rotating exhibitions of contemporary art spill over from the adjoining 21c Museum Hotel into the dining room. If you can tear yourself away from the uber-cool mobiles and sculptures hanging around, order the fried bologna sandwich ($10), which comes with a farm egg, pimento cheese and arugula on a toasted butter bun. The acorn squash risotto ($13) is made with taleggio, pistachio, tarragon and sea salt. The “Death’s Grip” ($10) is a lovely combination of Old Granddad BIB Bourbon, house-made Dark Star Porter jam syrup and house-made hazelnut bitters.
During my visit, I got a hard-hat tour of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, which recently opened to the public. I need to return to check out the completed version. Located on Louisville’s historic Whiskey Row, the tour features the artisanal distillery and a tasting of 2 ½ oz. pours, the maximum allowed by law. Tickets are $12 for adults, $9 for those 11-20 years old, and free for kids 10 years and under.
You’ll definitely want to try the namesake cocktail at The Seelbach Hotel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for the setting of Tom and Daisy’s wedding in “The Great Gatsby” and where the drink was first mixed up in 1917. It is a classic combination of bourbon, Cointreau, and Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters, topped with Champagne and garnished with a lemon twist. Less impressive was the mint julep I had at the gorgeous Brown Hotel, which suffered from improper glassware, melting ice and a heavy hand with the simple syrup.
Finally, for late-evening cocktails, hit the basement bar at Decca. The savvy bartenders are particularly adept at helping you select a cocktail based on your favorite ingredients and flavor profiles. They’re equally talented at creating something on the fly. The fragrant “Bourbon Basil Smash” ($10) combines bourbon, vermouth, basil, lemon and sugar, topped with soda, while the effervescent “Bitches Brew” ($12) shakes up bourbon, orange curacao and apple cider, topped with bubbly.
Kelly Magyarics is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.