72 hours in Louisville: the Kentucky bourbon trail

In Kentucky, horses are everything; except maybe for bourbon.  I thought I knew enough about the legendary liquid – how to make a perfect Manhattan.  But when I hit the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, an integral part of a visit to Louisville, Kentucky, my Manhattans were infinitely improved.

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Bourbon history is intertwined with Kentucky traditions, not the least of which is the Kentucky Derby, which takes place annually in this compact metropolis. I had (sadly) missed the world famous race but had at least been successful in quaffing its emblematic drink, the Mint Julep. To me, it’s a cocktail that conjures a grand plantation scene on a Hollywood backlot, and I’ve learned the hard way that a Julep is either fantastic or terrible, i.e. polar opposites. It has a lot to do with who’s behind the bar, the freshness of the mint, and just what kind of bourbon is poured inside the tin cup.

I’ll never forget my first, sipped in a French Quarter Bar in New Orleans after a boiling day.  It was a disaster. I wondered what had catapulted it to iconic status, then later understood completely after I had a serious sit down tasting session of a slew of hallowed bourbon brands.

Bourbon takes its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky, once the major shipping site for spirits headed down the Ohio River to New Orleans. It’s been declared by Congress “America’s Official Native Spirit” and plays a big part in Kentucky craftsmanship and tradition as practically all of it is distilled and aged there. Not surprisingly, the production process is mandated by law:  bourbon must be made with at least 51% corn and aged in new, white oak barrels, the insides charred which imparts the amber color.  It’s aged a minimum of 2 years although some of the small batch varieties are aged up to eight.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is found by driving about an hour or so outside the city and it stretches roughly 75 miles East to West from Lexington to Loretto. Its rolling bluegrass hills are dotted with warehouses and distilleries, including well-known brands like Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, and Maker’s Mark. Some have elaborate visitors centers with guided tours, tastings, and plenty of America’s favorite brown spirit on hand to take home. The perfect weather on the day of our outing only added to the scenic wonderland, and the small towns dotted here and there were full of surprises.

But in my mind, there’s no better place to celebrate Louisville’s bourbon heritage than the Lobby Bar of The Brown Hotel.  After admiring a massive sculpted iron timepiece perched on a pedestal outside the entrance, I enter the downstairs lobby, the walls graced with replicas of famous works of art.  I climb a grand staircase toward reception to the sound of a tinkling piano and the clinking of mint julep cups.  It’s Happy Hour and the Brown is abuzz. The hotel, a historic property from 1923 that reeks of wealth and power, is the epicenter of downtown Louisville. It breathes refinement, and the interior decoration is over the top. With elaborately carved coffered ceilings, porticoed arches and supersized Chinese jardinieres, the lobby looks like a place where J. Paul Getty would be right at home.  Enormous iron chandeliers with yellow shades emit a diffused copper glow and the bar is bathed in it. We score one of only 4 seats, no easy feat even on a weeknight!

When we tell Tad, our barman, that we’re on a mission to try the perfect Mint Julep, he perks up. Glancing at the myriad of bourbon choices on the shelves, he singles out a Four Roses 12 yr. blended small batch and suggests we try it neat.  I feel an instant connection to the brand as it was a favorite of my parents when I was a kid. And we’d had a tasting at the distillery in Lawrenceburg the day before that won us over.  The liquid is intensely flavorful with notes of ripened red berries and hints of caramel; it goes down easy. “Yup, Tad, that’s the one,” we bellow.  In minutes he has muddled the mint, measured the spirit, and added the ice and simple syrup.  Deftly bringing the mixture to life and coolness with his coiled bar spoon, he slowly slides the cups in our direction.  “Now that one is my opus,” he proudly roars.  We’ve longed for this first sip and are finally getting it. Mere minutes go by before we’ve hit bottom.  You know what?  He was right. But we’re just getting warmed up and have a whole lot more bourbon to drink. Tomorrow is Sunday after all!


Who to Visit on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail:

Four Roses – 1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, 502-839-2655; www.fourrosesbourbon.com

Woodford Reserve – 7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles, 859-879-1812; www.woodfordreserve.com

Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center – 1311 Gilkey Run Rd., Bardstown, 502-337-1000; www.bourbonheritagecenter.com

Wild Turkey – 1417 Versailles Rd., Lawrenceburg, 502-839-2182; www.wildturkeybourbon.com

Maker’s Mark – 3350 Burk’s Spring Rd., Loretto, 270-865-2099; www.makersmark.com

Worth a Detour:

Buffalo Trace – This is the world’s most award-winning distillery just outside of Frankfort, the capital. It’s technically not on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail but its positioning on 200 acres in the heart of bourbon country and visitors center offering 5 different tours are impressive (not to mention the legendary liquids you’ll sample). 113 Great Buffalo Trace, Franklin County, Frankfort,  502-696-5926; www.buffalotracedistillery.com

Distilleries in Lousiville:

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience – 528 West Main St., Louisville, 502-272-2611; www.evanwilliams.com

Angel’s Envy –  500 East Main St., Louisville, 502-890-6300; www.angelsenvy.com

Copper & Kings – When you finally need a break from bourbon check out this state of the art, architecturally relevant brandy distillery in the heart of Butchertown. 1121 East Washington St., Butchertown, 502-561-0267; www.copperandkings.com

Where to Stay:

The Brown – Long on luxury and elegance, it’s THE place to stay if you’re headed to the Derby. Suggest you book at least 6 months ahead. Don’t miss a few bites of the Hot Brown, Louisville’s official sandwich, at J. Graham’s on the lower level. 355 West Broadway, Louisville, 502-583-1234; www.brownhotel.com

21C Museum Hotel – Flip the coin and you have the opposite of The Brown.  This super avant-garde, art infused hang out is close to the waterfront and blends over the top contemporary surroundings with superb hospitality. 700 West Main Street, Louisville, 502-217-6300; www.21cmuseumhotel.com

Where to Eat & Drink:

Jack Fry’s – Revel in the feeling of yesteryear at this super cool landmark tavern.  1007 Bardstown Rd., Louisville, 502-452-9244; www.jackfrys.com

Mayan Café – Chef Bruce Ucan serves up his native Mayan cuisine using Kentucky ingredients.  In a word, unforgettable!  813 E. Market St., Louisville, 502-566-0651; www.themayancafe.com

Harvest – The only farmer-owned restaurant in town where 80% of everything served is sourced within 100 miles, including the bourbon! Order the memorable buttermilk fried chicken.  624 East Market St., Louisville, 502-384-9090; www.harvestlouisville.com

Rye – Popular Uptown Bar & Restaurant featuring a  diverse menu of outstanding comfort food. 900 East Market St., Louisville, 502-749-6200; www.ryeonmarket.com

Garage Bar – Located in a former garage in Louisville’s East Market District, this urban hipster bar & restaurant boasts wood-fired pizzas with a Southern perspective, oysters and a ham and cheese bar with local assortments. 700 East Market Street, Louisville, 502-749-7100; www.garageonmarket.com

Mussel & Burger Bar – Experience a retrograde on the bar scene with Manhattans served in prohibition-era glassware. Nosh on the Southern Bell Burger with fried green tomatoes, a remoulade sauce and pimento cheese on a pretzel bun. 113 So. 7th St, Louisville,  502-749-6451; www.mussel-burger-bar.com

Feast BBQ – You’ll be wanting BBQ while you’re in Kentucky and here you’ll find some of the best.  Wash it all down with a Bourbon Slushie. 909 E Market St, Louisville, 502-749-9900; www.feastbbq.com

Proof on Main – Excellent craft cocktails like Louisville’s own Old Fashioned or the Goldrush. 702 West Main Street, Louisville, 502-217-6365; www.proofonmain.com

Meta – Hipster cocktail lounge getting lots of buzz. 425 W. Chestnut St., Louisville, 502-822-6382; www.metalouisville.com

Silver Dollar – Cowboy up, Sparky. This whiskey honky-tonk in the Clifton neighborhood serves up the best chicken & waffles with collard greens set to the sounds of vintage country on vinyl. Have your bourbon shots with Patsy Cline and Hank Sr.  1761 Frankfort Ave., Louisville, 502-259-9540; Instagram: thesilverdollar

What to See & Do:

Take a Drive through the Butchertown Area, a gritty but up and coming gentrifying neighborhood that’s long on both history and cool. It’s just east of downtown. www.louisvillebutchertown.com

Explore Museum Row on Main St. www.museumrowonmain.com and get a feel for the city through museums such as:

•The Muhammad Ali Center

144 No. Sixth St., 502-584-9254; www.alicenter.org

•The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts

501 West Main St., 502-562-0100; www.kentuckycenter.org

•The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory

Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs – They “do the Derby every day.” Get a mint julep and a slice of derby pie in the café after touring exhibits including theater in the round of last year’s Derby. 704 Central Avenue, Louisville, 502-637-1111; www.derbymuseum.org

Cherokee Park – Drive through the Frederick Law Olmsted designed area exploring the lush park-like grounds of the Victorian-era Cave Hill Cemetery where you’ll see the burial sites of Louisville legends like Muhammad Ali and Colonel Saunders. 701 Baxter Ave., 502-451-5630; www.cavehillcemetery.com

Where to Shop:

Craft(s) Gallery & Mercantile – An extensive selection of personal items is on array along with local artisan goods and small art pieces. 572 South Fourth St., Downtown Louisville, 502-584-7636; www.craftslouisville.com

Art Eatables – Hey we all need a chocolate break every now and again. This is the world’s first and only Bourbon-Certified chocolatier in the world. 631 South 4th St., Downtown Louisville, 502-589-0210; www.arteatables.com

NuLu (New Louisville) Neighborhood (East Market District) – A hodgepodge of boutiques, galleries and shops, the emerging NuLu district even offers vinyl stores, antiques, an old fashioned candy store, and a trendy barber shop.

Revelry – Mo McKnight Howe’s eagle eye has selected some very special art and collectibles for both the ladies and the gents.  Girls, don’t miss the impressive hand-made jewelry. 742 E. Market St., Louisville, www.revelrygallery.com

Christine A. Moore Millinery – Need a hat for the Derby?  Christine’s got your back!  110 W. 34th St. Suite 1009, New York City, 212-279-1775; www.camhats.com

This article first appeared on Travel Squire.