Do you love bourbon? Then you owe it to yourself to make the pilgrimage to Kentucky at least once, and if you’ve only got one weekend, you should spend it in Louisville. Kentucky’s largest city, Louisville is hip, lively, and packed to the gills with great food, drinks, and culture–and, of course, plenty of your favorite whiskey. Here’s what you need to know when planning a trip to Derby City.
Places to Drink
First things first. “Louisville has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to bourbon bars,” says Maggie Kimberl, a whiskey writer based in Louisville. “Bourbons Bistro and The Silver Dollar are at the top of my list, but if I want a great bourbon cocktail I go to MilkWood or Proof on Main.”
Steve Coomes, another food, drink, and travel writer who calls Louisville home, seconds Silver Dollar for its “incredible” bourbon selection, including hard-to-find dusties. He recommends cocktail enthusiasts belly up to the bar at Meta or Mr. Lee’s Lounge. “You could get good bourbon there,” he says, “but let these amazing bartenders take you for a ride.”
Rather sip your bourbon outside in the southern sunshine? Casually hip Garage Bar is, you guessed it, housed in a converted garage, complete with concrete floor and two busted old cars proudly displayed out front. A huge patio studded with turf-covered benches is a great place to relax with a julep (or, gasp, a beer) and one of Garage Bar’s tasty wood-fired pizzas.
For more options, check out the Urban Bourbon Trail, a network of bars and restaurants with real bourbon cred linked by a passport (ask your server for one, or stop by the Louisville Visitor’s Center). To make the list, establishments must carry at least 50 different bourbons, although Steve says some offer many more. Six stamps in your passport earns you a commemorative T-shirt.
More interested in picking up a few bottles to stock your home bar? Maggie says Liquor Barn is known for its outstanding selection, but she also recommends Westport Whiskey and Wine, which even has an onsite tasting room to showcase its “hedonistic” approach to grown up tipples.
Places to Eat
The first thing you need if you’re going to spend the day tasting whiskey? A good breakfast. Harvest on E. Market St. dishes up hearty Southern favorites made with farm-direct ingredients in a cozy, spacious dining room. This is your chance to sample burgoo, Kentucky’s most famous stew. This catch-all, long-simmered dish is made with tons of vegetables and lots of different types of meat, traditionally game, but Harvest’s version still satisfies with a more garden-variety assortment of chicken, pork, and beef.
Chef-owned Decca, also on E. Market, offers contemporary fine dining in a gorgeous, airy space in the heart of NuLu. The eclectic cocktail menu draws inspiration from around the world, offering a welcome opportunity to explore non-bourbon spirits (although there’s plenty of the local juice too). Fresh, lively seafood dishes and deeply satisfying vegetable sides are the standouts here.
For a different kind of southern, cross the street to Mayan Café, where the focus is on authentic Yucatecan dishes in a comfortable, upscale space. If you have a hard time grasping how lima beans could develop a cult following, be sure to order the addictively spiced, crunchy-chewy Tok-sel lima beans.
Distilleries to Visit
Most big bourbon distilleries are located in more rural parts of Kentucky, but you can still get connected with your favorite brands without leaving the urban core—and, increasingly, more production distilleries are starting to open their doors within city limits.
Still, many of the brand interactions you’ll have in Louisville are of the tasting room experience variety; if you’re jonesing to tour rick houses or see fermenters bubbling away, you’ll have to choose carefully.
One in-production distillery in Louisville is Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., centrally located just off of W. Main. This family-owned business is set to release its first bourbon in 2019, but the rye is available now and the tour offers a great opportunity to, if not get your hands dirty, at least see and smell a real, working distillery.
Around the corner, the Evan Williams Experience offers what Maggie describes as a “whimsical amusement park bourbon experience” perfect for people who are just getting their bearings in the category.
Several blocks to the east is Angel’s Envy, which offers a variety of tour and tasting options. From there, it’s just a few blocks more to brand-new Rabbit Hole, which is scheduled to open in Spring 2018 and is worth scoping out just for its super modern exterior.
In nearby Butchertown, Copper & Kings offers an alternative to bourbon with a full lineup of brandy as well as fun cocktail ingredients like absinthe, gin, and curaçao.
Places to Stay
Louisville has lodging options to fit all tastes and budgets. 21c Museum Hotel melds luxury accommodations with a convincing museum vibe, complete with permanent installations and a rotating gallery collection that included, last time I visited, work by Kehinde Wiley, the same artist who recently painted Barack Obama’s official portrait.
For a more traditional vibe, try the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville. Founded in 1923, the Brown Hotel has hosted Louisville’s high society for generations, playing host to luminaries like Queen Marie of Romania, Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali, and several U.S. presidents–plus, it gives its name to the Hot Brown, a fortifying open-faced turkey sandwich smothered in mornay sauce.
Nearby, the Seelbach Hotel, now operated by Hilton, is another grande dame of Louisville’s luxury landscape—think lots of marble and gold-filigreed columns. Pop into the pre-Prohibition style Old Seelbach bar to enjoy an eponymous Seelbach cocktail, which pairs bourbon with orange liqueur, bitters, and Champagne.
Stuff to do
Sure, you’re here for the bourbon, but there are at least a few hours in every day when you’ve gotta do something other than drink. Like art? Check out the eclectic mix of works at the Speed Museum on the University of Louisville campus, ranging from Dutch Master still life paintings to modern mixed media sculpture. Thanks to a contribution from Brown-Forman, admission is free on Sundays until March 2021.
If you’re more of a sports fan, the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory on W. Main is, unsurprisingly, located in Louisville—just look for the gigantic baseball bat. Factory tours are available seven days per week, or you can just peer through the windows to marvel at the bat-filled production floor.
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Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...