Sunday, May 29, 2011

City Guide - Louisville, Kentucky

Best known as the home of the Kentucky Derby, Louisville is also the starting point for exploring bourbon country and is both a foodie destination and a historic city in its own right.   

Breakfast, betting and bourbon was on the agenda for this trip, and that's because all the research I did before leaving pointed to these three things.  My personal goal in the three days we had in Kentucky was to complete the Bourbon Trail, which meant getting stamps from all six of the participating bourbon distilleries.  In addition to that, the Urban Bourbon Trail entailed another six stamps but this time from bars or restaurants.

What to do

The Bourbon Trail
Kentucky Distillers' Association, 502-875-9351,
Kentucky is home to the biggest and best bourbon distilleries producing almost all of the world's bourbon suplly. If you are in Kentucky, you are never more than an hour from a visit to at least one of the historic distilleries on the famed trail. Go for the history if not the bourbon itself. You'll need a car and/or driver and some time - each tour takes at least an hour and the distilleries aren't nearby each other or necessarily near Louisville for that matter. 
Distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail:
  • Four Roses Distillery, 1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, KY, 502-839-3436, – Built in 1910, Four Roses Distillery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tours are offered explaining the various Four Roses Bourbon recipes and the history of the people behind the bourbons.
  • Heaven Hill Distilleries, 1311 Gilkey Run Road, Bardstown, KY, 502-337-1000 – Small, historic Bardstown is home to Heaven Hill, America's largest independent, family-owned producer of Bourbon.
  • Jim Beam Distillery, 149 Happy Hollow Road, Clermont, Kentucky 40110 - Visit the birthplace, distillery and home of the Beams, the first family of Bourbon. While there, you'll see one of the oldest moonshine stills in America , have the chance to buy classic Jim Beam apparel and, of course, enjoy a free tasting.
  • Maker's Mark Distillery, 3350 Burks Spring Road, Loretto, KY, 270-865-2099 - Maker's may be off the beaten path, but the scenic countryside around this popular distillery makes it worth the journey. Check out the fermenting room - where guides let you dip your finger and taste the mash at various stages of fermentation - and the barrel warehouses that hold 4,000 barrels each. Seal your own bottle in Maker's signature red wax and learn about the distillery's exclusive Ambassador program.  Looking for a souvenir?  The best one imho is the Maker's Mark cigar in a glass travel case, one end dipped in red wax. of course.
  • Wild Turkey Distillery, 1525 Tyrone Road, Lawrenceburg, KY, 502-839-2182 – Located in Lawrenceburg, KY, Wild Turkey produces one of the best-selling premium Bourbons in the U.S. and the world. Master Distiller Jimmy Russell is known for his signature 101 proof. Visitors will learn about Wild Turkey’s traditional distilling methods and all-natural process.
  • Woodford Reserve Distillery – The oldest and smallest distillery in Kentucky traces its origins to 1797. This National Landmark distillery crafts only Woodford Reserve, and not only is it one of our favorite bourbons, but it's the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.
The distillery tours are all very similar. You will hear - either from a guide or a video - how bourbon is made, the ingredients used and requirements for the alcohol to be called bourbon. If you can't or don't want to spend the time on all of the tours, we recommend at least the Maker's Mark tour and the Woodford Reserve tour, both on historic and/or National Landmark properties. All include small tastings at the end...the best part in our opinion.

Pick up your Bourbon Trail Passport at any one of the participating distilleries. Don't forget to get it stamped when you visit each one, then send it to the Kentucky Distillers' Association and proudly wear your new Urban Bourbon t-shirt. 

The Urban Bourbon Trail
If you can't get out onto the Bourbon Trail, you will be able to find plenty of bourbon right in Louisville.  Our favorite Urban Bourbon Trail spots are:
  • Proof on Main, 700 W. Main Street, 502-217-6360, - If you are staying at the 21c Museum Hotel (as we recommend), you've got a great restaurant and bar right downstairs.  Proof on Main has won numerous accolades for great food, unique drinks and an artistic atmosphere.
  • The Brown Hotel Bar, 335 W. Broadway, 502-324-1389, The Brown Hotel, well-known as the inventor of the "Hot Brown" sandwich, is a treasured landmark in Louisville and one worth visiting, if only to make sure you can say you've been there.  While there, go ahead and get your stamp (and a splash of bourbon) at the lovely Brown Hotel Bar.  And if you are hungry, go for the Hot Brown. (For a good recipe to try at home, visit
  • The Old Seelbach Bar, 500 S. 4th Street, 502-585-3200, - There's a lot of history in this bar, including the fact that it claims to be the inspiration of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby".  That likely explains why it has been restored to it's early 1900's decor.  Along with the ambiance comes great drinks and I can personally, highly recommend the Mint Julep which was not only excellent, but very pretty with a dusting of powdered sugar over the abundant mint leaves. 
As with the traditional Bourbon Trail, you can pick up your Urban Bourbon Trail Passport, collect the stamps and send it in for another t-shirt.  For a taste of what you are in for, check out this video all about the Urban Bourbon Train -

700 Central Avenue; 502-636-4400;

Photo courtesy of Kinetic

Yes, there's more to Kentucky than bourbon...there's horse-racing of course. Although we didn't make it for the Kentucky Derby, a hot sunny Sunday afternoon at the track was exciting and profitable...overall winnings of $8.20, not bad. There's no need to dress up or wear a big hat on non-Derby days, the dress code is decidedly casual. Be sure to check out the Paddock area where the horses promenade in in a circle in front of the crowd while a commentator gives details on the upcoming race.

Eating in Louisville
Hit-and-miss is how I'd describe the food in Kentucky. We went expecting world-class BBQ, but it turns out Kentucky is a bit too far north to be considered barbecue country. (Although some locals will adamantly disagree and I welcome suggestions for great BBQ places.) My quest for a top notch coffee was never fulfilled either. However, we had some great meals, especially breakfast, which was a welcome surprise.

120 1st Street, 502-587-7350,
This unassuming little place serves the most amazing breakfasts, and yes, lots of different teas, including fresh-brewed iced teas served in jars which are perfect on hot summer days. The Moonshine Breakfast with a grilled pork chop was amazing but the best thing I've ever been legitimately able to order for breakfast (because it was on the breakfast menu!) was bread pudding with bourbon sauce topped with toasted meringue. Be sure to get a homemade biscuit with local honey no matter how full you are.

Bourbon's Bistro
2255 Frankfort Avenue, 502-894-8838,
Locally owned, award-winning upscale bistro in the historic Clifton area, Bourbon Bistro offers much more than it's 130 bourbons available neat, in mixed drinks or in flights. The menu offers creative takes on local foods such as the Pan-Seared Pork Chop stuffed with chorizo and fresh mozzarella and the outstanding hamburger that comes with a portabella mushroom and apricot-bourbon mustard. 

Where to stay

21c Museum Hotel, 700 West Main Street, 502 217 6300, – Conde Nast Travelers' Readers Choice Award for #1 Hotel in the U.S. and #6 in the world in 2009 and 2010. It really is like staying in a museum with exhibits in the lobby and artwork throughout the hotel. Our room was large with one wall of exposed brick, the staff was friendly and helpful and we enjoyed the nice bath amenities too. 

Update (11/14/11):  21c Museum Hotel was names one of Fodor's top 100 hotels in the world in 2011.  Well-deserved recognition in our opinion.

Next Time
  • Holy Grale, 034 Bardstown Road, 502-459-9939, - Even though I ended up on Bardstown every day of our trip, I never seemed to be there at the right time for a beer at the Holy Grale.  As the name hints at, this bar is built in an old church and offers a great selection of beers on tap...a welcome break from all that bourbon you've been drinking. A definite must-see on my next visit.
  • Buffalo Trace Distillery – Although not officially on The Bourbon Trail, Buffalo Trace Distillery is the world's most award-winning distillery and produces some of the most unique bourbons available.
  • BBQ - Thanks to a recommendation from the place mats at Virgil's (great BBQ in Times Square, NYC by the way), I'll be searching out Peak Brothers in Waverly, KY and Old Hickory Pitt BBQ in Owensboro, KY). It's all about the mutton in KY barbecue.


Bourbon Boom:
Interesting article from AP about the resurgence of bourbon.  Also, did you know Kentucky distills 95% of the world's bourbon according to the state distillers association?

1 comment:

  1. Straight from the Kentucky Bourbon Festival this week, here's a great NPR segment about the new found popularity of this 200 year old American spirit -