After three days in Kentucky, I can confirm that the main ingredients of the state are bourbon, pride, and horses. In Louisville, you can’t walk three feet or five minutes without being reminded it’s time for a bourbon - and someone is nearby to recommend a good one. You pass prize-winning thoroughbreds by the side of the road. A “Kentucky hug” is the warmth from a bourbon. And they give you a stamp to reward you for drinking whiskey. Forget Vegas. If I want a grown-up Disneyland, Kentucky will do just fine.
For bourbon bars, Louisville hits the mark. A whole book of them – the Urban Bourbon Trail passport – shows the ones that have more than 50 bourbons. If you get just six stamps in the passport, they give you a free t-shirt. Show a little bit of bourbon knowledge and the bartenders will steer you past the front row and recommend some of the ones that are harder to find, at least in Brooklyn – Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, Colonel E.H. Taylor barrel proof, and Kentucky Owl were a few I got to try. I also took pleasure in ordering some more common ones that I rarely see in my neighborhood, including Elmer T. Lee and W.L. Weller 12 year. In Louisville, you can usually find what you want unless the name starts with Pappy and ends in Van Winkle.
Louisville has an entire area called Whiskey Row and apartments called Whiskey Lofts. About a minute walk from my hotel, the first thing I encountered was a plaque to Evan Williams, Kentucky’s first distiller. So with Talking Heads’ “Home, this must be the place” playing in my head, I set to explore the Main Street where from 8th Ave to the Slugger Museum is Whiskey Row, which used to house numerous distillery headquarters. It has kept its charm, with brick facades and old storefronts, now mostly filled with new shops and restaurants.
The main whiskey event on Whiskey Row is the Evan Williams Experience, which is a multimedia exhibit tour. It’s a little gimmicky – actors play out a scene of a town council meeting where Evan Williams is elected harbormaster, for instance - but it’s a good introduction if you need one. The information on the bourbon process will definitely be covered if you are visiting other distilleries. As far as making whiskey there, they have an artisanal distillery where they produce one barrel a day on display, as compared to the main distillery, which produces 2,000 barrels a day.
Kentucky pride is also on display – I got my first summary (soon to be repeated multiple times daily on various tours) about how amazing the Ohio River is and the limestone water that makes the great horses and the great whiskey. Over the weekend, I would go on to learn how Kentucky bourbon won the Civil War and World War II, and that, as America’s native spirit, “every drink of bourbon is a drink for freedom.” And with that phrase, I became way more patriotic.
So we’ve covered bourbon and pride. The last ingredient is horses, and the best place to see those is Churchill Downs. I can’t speak to the Kentucky Derby – which seems full of big hats and big money – but a lazy Sunday there made for a really pleasant afternoon. We could go all the way down to the fence to watch the races. As the horses came around the bend, everyone started cheering louder and louder, and in seconds, we had lost money. After, they brought the horses back near the gate to take off the jerseys and pour water over them. You could see the sweat and the muscles. The mint juleps are not much to speak of – poured out of a bottle over ice with a sprig of fading mint stuck in for show – but take it down to the track, lean against the fence, smell the horses, and it feels right.
Where to Drink in Louisville:
Everywhere! But I can recommend Down One Bourbon Bar off Main Street. Friendly and relaxing with good bourbon knowledge and selection. I got Elmer T. Lee here to toast my grandpa, my favorite Elmer.
Where to Eat in Louisville:
Everywhere! But I can recommend:
Bistro 301 – Good lunch fair with wraps and salads. I got an Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. For my birthday.
Proof on Main – Modern Southern Fare. We had a special menu because it was with an event, but it was delicious duck and very well paired with the bourbon cocktails.
Doc Crows – Delicious oysters and Southern food. Catfish platter and mac and cheese were the perfect meal, but I snuck some pulled pork off the plate across from me and that would have been a great meal, too. Wasn’t so impressed with the cocktail. Should have paired with straight bourbon.
Harvest Restaurant – So local one of the farmers came over to introduce himself. Fried chicken and biscuits delicious. Paired with Colonel E.H. Taylor barrel proof – perfect
Silver Dollar – Brunch. Yes. Shrimp and grits. Paired well with mimosa, so I guess I didn’t do bourbon at every meal. But I could have! They had a mighty fine bourbon menu.