Travel: Louisville bourbon tour offers new distilleries, historic bars
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Bourbon lovers don’t need much of an excuse to celebrate their favorite beverage. But September is Bourbon Heritage Month, which provides an extra reason for travelers to explore the many sites and attractions that feature the fabled liquor.
And Louisville is a terrific destination for a bourbon excursion, located at the confluence of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the city’s own Urban Bourbon Trail.
The Urban Bourbon Trail highlights Louisville’s best bourbon bars and restaurants. The latest “passport” for the trail was released this month, bringing the total number of stops to 39, so even visitors who have followed the trail before will find something new.
Each of the bars on the Urban Bourbon Trail features an outstanding selection of bourbons and an appreciation for using the drink in fine cocktails or in pairings with food.
Although it shouldn’t need saying, visitors who plan to sample at more than a stop or two should be sure to bring along a designated driver. Better yet, Louisville has plenty of other transportation options, so let someone else worry about driving for the day. Uber proved to be a convenient way to travel between my hotel and downtown stops, and I didn’t have to worry about trying “just one more” delicious cocktail or new bourbon bar.
With so much to choose from on the Urban Bourbon Trail, and limited time, I opted to visit a couple of the most-historic bourbon bars in the country.
The 16-story, Georgian-revival Brown Hotel has been a posh dining spot since opening in 1923. The drinking — at least the legal drinking — came 10 years later with the end of Prohibition. Guests have ranged from the Duke of Windsor to Barack Obama, and Al Jolson to Louisville hometown hero Muhammad Ali.
The magnificent Brown Lobby Bar is opulent, but not fussy, with high, decorated ceilings and huge arched windows and doorways. Visitors will often find a piano player, and always one of the finest selections of bourbon anywhere, including plenty of the amazingly popular and hard-to-find (and expensive) Pappy Van Winkle.
I’m a big bourbon fan, but I find Pappy-mania to be a bit crazy, if amusing. A bar manager told me, however, that he sells plenty, including a 28-year-old variety at $800 a shot.
Another Louisville gem and trail stop is the Seelbach Hilton Hotel, opened in 1905. The hotel was a Prohibition-era hangout for the likes of Al Capone and Cincinnati mobster George Remus, who inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character Jay Gatsby. (Fitzgerald was also a frequent guest.)
The Seelbach still drips elegance. And the hotel’s Old Seelbach Bar, authentically restored to its early 20th-century decor, has another massive and impressive bourbon collection.
Although the 21c Museum Hotel is a relatively new addition to the Louisville scene, the hotel’s Proof on Main bar is a perfect fit for the Urban Bourbon Trail. Guests will find more than 120 bourbons and fine, hand-crafted cocktails as well as interesting displays of contemporary art.
The statewide Kentucky Bourbon Trail features 10 Kentucky distilleries, including four in Louisville. A new stop on the trail is the Angel’s Envy distillery, which opened its visitors center in October. The downtown Louisville stop offers tours, tastings and a private bar where visitors can buy a special after-tour cocktail.
Just a few miles from downtown Louisville is the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience, on the site of the historic Stitzel-Weller distillery. Visitors can learn about Bulleit bourbon and rye and tour the beautiful old facility, which still features a towering smokestack that reads “Old Fitzgerald,” a bourbon brand now made by a different distiller. The history of bourbon brands, owners and distilleries is a fascinating subject to explore along the trail.
Other Kentucky Bourbon Trail stops in Louisville are the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on Main Street in the heart of “Distillery Row” and the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse in the 4th Street Live entertainment district, a fun place to visit even if — heaven forbid — you’re not a bourbon drinker.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter