March 10, 2020 - 8:34 p.m.
(Enjoy this story from 2020 in honor of the Kentucky Derby, which takes place this weekend.)
Bourbon sales have been skyrocketing since ebbing in the 1980s and they show no sign of slowing. Even rye whiskey, which began a long decline much earlier, is racing back full-speed ahead.
That has resulted in a boom in whiskey tourism in Kentucky, which makes 95 percent of the world’s bourbon.
A decade ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a distillery tourism experience in Louisville, but that welcoming and walkable town has gone all-in and now there are at least nine distillery experiences in downtown Louisville, and a few more in other parts of the area.
So, if driving the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (which is, itself, a must) from Bardstown to Lexington to Shelbyville and all the other places where you can find amazing bourbon tours and experiences sounds exhausting and time consuming, you can set up camp in downtown Louisville and in a weekend, have the bourbon experience of a lifetime.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Some things to keep in mind
Remember that part of what makes Kentucky whiskey so great are the temperature extremes that help pull whiskey into the walls of the oak barrel and back out again, extracting more flavor each time. But, having said that, even the coldest month – January – still has an average high of 46 degrees, so it’s hardly Nome, Alaska.
That means anytime is really a good time to go, though spring and autumn are the most temperate.
And why not aim for September you can hit a number of bourbon festivals like the music-fueled Bourbon & Beyond, held at the Kentucky Exposition Center, and for real bourbon fiends, the Kentucky Bourbon Affair.
Previously held earlier in the year, the Bourbon Affair — which takes an unusual approach, hosting a variety of one-of-a-kind events and experiences in and around Louisville and Bardstown — moves to the week of Sept. 21 this year and boasts the kinds of events that bourbon lovers can typically only dream about, like a private barrel selection at Knob Creek or an event with Bill Samuels Jr. at Maker’s Mark.
"The Kentucky Bourbon Affair is a Bourbon-lover’s dream, or Bourbon Fantasy Camp, as we like to call it, says Director Mary Gratzer. "Where else but Kentucky can you immerse yourself in your favorite brand, rub elbows with Master Distillers and brand ambassadors, and go behind the scenes at some of America’s most iconic Bourbon distilleries?
"And now that the Bourbon Affair has partnered with the Bourbon & Beyond music festival, the 2020 KBA is gearing up to offer even more unforgettable experiences than ever before."
Kentucky Bourbon Affair tickets go on sale in March 2020.
If you’re going on a bourbon-themed trip, you’ve got to stay in this bourbon-themed hotel that’s located not only on Whiskey Row, but as part of a building that has roots in the whiskey industry. The modern building sits on a corner lot, but part of it is located behind the preserved facade of a building that was owned by John Thompson Street Brown Jr., co-founder of what would become industry heavyweight Brown-Forman.
The brand-spankin’ new hotel opened in autumn 2019 and the rooms are bright and well-appointed and mine had a stellar view of the downtown skyline. The lobby is the kind of place you want to hang out and you’ll be unsurprised to see that the bar at Repeal restaurant has an impressive bourbon selection.
From here, I easily walked everywhere I went (except Stitzel-Weller, which is in suburban Shively), though if you choose, there’s also public transit (some of it free!) and everything is within a 5-10-minute Uber/Lyft ride away.
There is also a wide array of bars and restaurants within a block of the hotel, offering everything from inventive craft cocktails in a speakeasy-style setting at Hell or High Water, barbecue and seafood at Doc Crow’s, and burgers and a killer bourbon list at Sidebar.3
Get your bearings
Start at the Louisville Visitors Center for maps, brochures, souvenirs and, most importantly, your Urban Bourbon Trail passport. Get it stamped when you visit venues along the way and return to the center before you leave to collect your free prize.
Next, head to the Frazier Museum, which has the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center, with information about distilleries in town and further afield. There’s also a great gift shop and, if you have the time and inclination to visit the museum itself, there is a unique array of exhibits featuring bourbon history, both expected and less so, like one called "Olmsted and Bourbon," showing blueprints from Olmsted designs for Kentucky distilleries.
Had you visited Louisville a few years ago, this list would’ve been about 90 percent shorter, but the bourbon business has exploded and Louisville has become the urban epicenter. Though I visited all of these (except Evan Williams, which I visited on a previous trip) during a 48-hour trip, that might not be for everyone. While I have my favorites on this list, everyone will find something intertesting and enjoyable at each of these facilities. Most typically charge for a tour, but those that do always include samples at the end. Visit their websites for details.
I’ve grouped the distilleries together, roughly, by their locations.4
Located at the western end of NuLu and Butchertown in a renovated 1902 tool factory in which the distillery owner’s father once worked, Angel’s Envy offers one of the most entertaining tours, packed with information but presented in a lighthearted way. It’s good for bourbon fans but also those with a more casual interest.
You’ll get to see fermenting mash and displays showing the percentages of each grain used, and you’ll learn that the malted barley in Angel’s Envy distillates comes from Wisconsin. Because, rather uniquely, Angel’s Envy finishes all its whiskey in port, rum and other barrels and consequently the tour spends a good amount of time talking oak.5
Located in the happenin’ NuLu neighborhood, Rabbit Hole occupies a brand new custom designed building. As such, the main production space, as well as the top-floor tasting room — which offers a great view — are pretty stunning. Plus, plexiglass covered openings allow visitors an interesting look at how grain and product move within the building.
Copper & Kings is something of an outlier, being a brandy distillery in the heart of whiskeytown, but it’s no less interesting and no less worthy of a visit. Copper & Kings makes an impressive array of products, including a fair number of collaborations with other distillers and that makes for one of the more interesting tasting sessions.
But, even before you get there, the tour is quite interesting, too, especially when you visit the barrel cellar, where booming blues and rock and roll helps age the distillate using something called "sonic aging." The vibrations from the music agitate the liquid in the barrels in a space where there’s no room for shifting barrels around. You can hear the same music that the brandy hears by visiting the Copper & Kings website.7
Here’s where you might want to hop an Uber or Lyft as it’s a two-mile walk from Copper & Kings, but if you decide to walk, it’ll be worth every step. Opened just a couple years ago, Peerless immediately drew accolades for its whiskey, and has already been named the best Whisky Magazine’s best craft distillery in the world. Peerless is unique for using only sweet (all new with each batch) mash and has a really interesting backstory.
If you’re lucky, like I was, owner Corky Taylor will pop onto your tour and share that story himself. When I talked to him that day, Taylor told me that Wisconsin is the state that send the most tourists to the distillery. I figured he says that to everyone, but later saw it elsewhere, too. Join the exodus…8
OK, so I might be biased because Michter’s Fort Nelson distillery is located in — nay, basically rescued from demolition — the kind of 19th century building that makes my knees weak.
But that would ignore the fact that it has a super interesting history dating back to the 18th century — with maybe a George Washington connection — makes pretty amazing bourbon and rye, has a super-nice staff, gives a really informative tour that ends with an in-depth discussion of tasting and the chance to make your own cocktail in its on-site cocktail bar. The upshot, is that while I really enjoyed every distillery I visited, Michter’s (and Peerless) go to 11.
You can see more photos and read more about the history of the building: Urban spelunking: The house that Michter’s Whiskey (re)built.
Located just across the street from Michter’s is the Evan Williams Experience, which, although it has an innovation distillery inside, is more of a visitors’ experience for the brand, which is distilled by Heaven Hill at the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville and bottled in Bardstown. Some of the displays have a Streets of Old Milwaukee vibe, with life-size recreations, while others are much more high-tech.
You can peek at the innovation distillery in action before heading up to the tasting room for one of the most in-depth tasting experiences on offer. Visiting this place three years ago launched me into the world of bourbon.10
Like the Evan Williams Experience, the Beam Stillhouse, located on the 4th Street Live! live block, has a small still onsite, but offers a more tourist-focused experience, with a rocking bar, tasting and blending experiences and a gift shop. It’s often bustling and full of activity and is worth a visit, but it’s not a place where you’ll typically see bourbon in production. (NOTE: Already closed due to the pandemic, it was announced on Dec. 1, 2020 that the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse will not reopen.)
Old Forester recently returned to whiskey row in a building that Brown-Forman had occupied more than a century ago, and that sits just a couple doors from Hotel Distil.
The tour here is a good one, but what really sets it apart is that this is the only one in town with an on-site cooperage. That means it’s the only one during which you get to see coopers actually making – and charring – new oak barrels and where you can talk to the coopers and ask them questions while they work. If you’re a big geek like me, that’s a very big draw. Brown-Forman’s main cooperage is out by the airport and does offer limited tours.
Also out on the periphery, geographically speaking, is the historic Stitzel-Weller complex with its many rickhouses and the colonial headquarters building where Pappy Van Winkle had his office for three decades. Owned by Diageo, which owns Bulleit, I.W. Harper, Blade & Bow and other brands, there’s no distilling going on here anymore, the rickhouses are still used for aging and are, thus, full of whiskey.
Of note for Milwaukee folks is the towering smoke stack with the name Old Fitzgerald painted on it. When Brew City’s S. Charles Herbst sold the brand, it he sold it to Stitzel-Weller, which distilled here at this site. The brand still exists but is now part of the Heaven Hill portfolio. The tour here is good, especially for the rickhouse visit, which offers a good look at a classic Kentucky aging warehouse13
Traveling with a beer lover?
Despite the focus on bourbon, Louisville also has a thriving craft beer scene and to find the biggest concentration of breweries, hit neighoring NuLu and Butchertown (and adjoining areas), where you can guide yourself on a tour of Against the Grain, Akasha, Apocalpyse, Falls City, Goodwood, Gravely and Mile Wide.
In other parts of town you’ll find Bluegrass, Great Flood, Monnik, Old Louisville and others.
Urban Bourbon Trail passport stamps
If you’re still hungry (and need some stamps for your passport), check out these top-notch places.
Like most places on this list, 8Up has an impressive bourbon list and solid food, but it also has a great view of downtown Louisville, sitting as it does atop the Hilton Garden Inn.
The historic Brown Hotel — to which the legendary Dirty Helen took a cab from Milwaukee to attend an event to which she was invited by Pappy Van Winkle (because she was an Old Fitz devotee) — is a Louisville classic. It’s the kind of place where everyone feels like royalty thanks to its old world splendor. Elevate the experience with a Hot Brown, which is not only the hotel’s signature dish, but the entire city’s. It’s hearty, so arrive hungry.
Much like the Brown, the Seelbach is a Louisville institution and I have to say that the hotel’s stunning subterranean Rookwood Pottery-clad Rathskeller gives it an edge over most other hotels not only in Kentucky, but in the entire United States. The bar, just off the lobby, was a favorite of Al Capone and F. Scott Fitzgerald and it remains a great place to sample a wide variety of bourbons, in a classy but welcoming atmosphere.
You can see more extravagant pictures of The Old Seelbach Bar: Urban spelunking: The Rookwood Rathskeller at Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel
Dish on Market (early cinema) brunch
Located in the the 1904 building that housed the first cinema in Louisville, Dish on Market is a casual bar with a neighborhood feel and a hearty menu featuring what many believe to be the best burger in town. There’s also a breakfast buffet, but you should do the (Harry S.) Truman Breakfast of eggs, toast, milk and a shot of Old Grand-Dad. Look behind the bar to see some Packers photos and bobbleheads but this is not a Packers bar. Instead, note that the memorabilia all features hometown boy Paul Hornung.
Head over to the 21c Museum Hotel on Whiskey Row to check out an impressive art gallery in the lobby before you hit Proof on Main where the cocktails are top-rated and the bourbon selection no less so.
Out in Butchertown, check out Butchertown Grocery, where Chef/Owner Bobby Benjamin’s fresh menu of richly satisfying dishes — like a porchetta panino, a shaved brussels sprouts salad with hazelnuts, apples, dried cherries and pecorino, chicken and waffles with crispy leeks and fois gras with french toast — pairs well with Beverage Director Nic Christiansen’s cocktails, like the Lady Midnight, with Old Forester Signature, bone marrow-washed Pedro Ximenez sherry, Becherovka liqueur and mole bitters. Upstairs, you’ll find the speakeasy-style Lola lounge.
This always busy breakfast and lunch joint is the only place I’ve ever eaten in which the name is perhaps a disguised warning about visiting too often! You’ve got to see the creations that these folks can base on the humble, but delectable biscuit. I had the Rockwell Supreme with fried chicken, cheddar, sausage gravy, an over easy egg and bacon and it was amazing. It also had the rare distinction of actually filling me up. It’s not on the bourbon trail so you won’t get a stamp, but, hey, there’s plenty of other opportunities for that.