Beyond the barrel: becoming a bourbon believer in Louisville

There are more bourbon barrels aging right now in Kentucky than there are residents. And no wonder – the Bluegrass State proudly produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon supply. Louisville – aka ‘Bourbon City’ – goes beyond the barrel to serve up distillery experiences, tours, classes, tastings, events and lots of cocktails. Get ready to let this spirit move you.

Experience Louisville’s urban bourbon scene ©️ Jay’s Photo / Getty Images

Bourbon basics

Bourbon is a specific type of whiskey, and one that plays by its own set of rules. As declared by the United States Congress in 1964, whiskey must be at least 51 percent corn-based, aged in charred new oak barrels, stored at no more than 125 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof to achieve true bourbon status.

Though Louisville’s Whiskey Row was once the ‘Wallstreet of Whiskey’ until the 1900s, Louisville saw most of its Whiskey Row shuttered during Prohibition, although wily customers could still purchase from a few that kept operating for ‘medicinal purposes’. While production returned to the city post-Prohibition, there were no distilleries with a visitor component until 2013, when the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience launch opened the floodgates for rebirth.

Inside Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.

Where the magic happens

Now, Louisville claims 10 distillery experiences within city limits, all providing unique opportunities to learn about bourbon (and taste some, too). Visitors can take their pick from familiar brands or discover something new at craft facilities. Two years ago, Kentucky passed a state law allowing distilleries to serve cocktails on premises, giving visitors incentive to linger longer.

After admiring the rickhouse storage, on-site cooperage and barrel charring room, Old Forester guests can belly up to George’s Bar for a cocktail on the same spot that housed the distillery’s original offices in the late 1800s. In the NuLu district, the Finishing Room bar is open only to Angel’s Envy tour participants; the distillery also hosts classes and a fill-your-own-bottle experience. Likewise, visitors can bottle their own bourbon, take classes and enjoy daily tastings at the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse.

The Bar at Fort Nelson inside Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery features a cocktail list thoughtfully curated by spirits historian/author David Wondrich, and the Alex&nder bar at Copper & Kings in Butchertown boasts stunning views of the downtown skyline and craft cocktails made with American brandies aged in bourbon barrels. Distillers Kentucky Peerless, Rabbit Hole, Kentucky Artisan and Stitzel-Weller round out Louisville’s distillery experiences.

A man holds a mint julep cocktail at the Kentucky Derby ©️ Bloomberg Creative Photos / Getty Images

Other ways to explore

With more than 40 stops to cover, you’ll want to pace yourself while investigating the Urban Bourbon Trail, an anthology of local hotels, bars, restaurants and attractions that all curate between 50 and 150 bourbon varieties and feature their own bourbon-inspired drink or dish. Pick up a trail passport at participating locations and you’ll get a t-shirt and certificate after earning stamps from any six spots on the list. Book & Bourbon Southern Kitchen at the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport makes it easy to snag your first (or last) check-in.

Mint Julep Tours leads full-service guided adventures through local and regional bourbon attractions, and recently added a progressive Southern Supper Series to its lineup. A fleet of electric tuk tuk-style Bourbon City Cruisers arrives this spring.

No need to select a designated driver for Sour Mash Tours’ two-hour walking/tasting excursions through NuLu, Butchertown and Whiskey Row. Or, make like a Top Chef and follow a self-guided Louisville itinerary developed around destinations featured on the show’s Kentucky-based season.

A glass of bourbon being poured at Mr. Lee’s Lounge in Germantown. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.

Hidden bars and speakeasies

Bourbon City’s most clandestine watering holes make guests feel like they’re in on a local secret, if you know where to find them.

Perched over Butchertown Pizza Hall, Cabel Street Bar lures in jazz and bluegrass musicians for intimate performances; follow the staircase and the music to the second floor. A block away above Butchertown Grocery, Lola proposes casual digs with food service, music and inventive cocktails. At Jimmy Can’t Dance, patrons must first walk through Another Place Sandwich Shop to access the basement for drinks and more live tunes.

You probably won’t find Hell or High Water unless you know to look for the ‘Hello Curio’ sign on the back side of Whiskey Row. Once inside, swank decor and a meticulously assembled cocktail list make the effort worthwhile (reservations are strongly recommended). Also hidden in plain sight, the only indication you’ve arrived at Mr. Lee’s Lounge in Germantown is a small metal nameplate outside the humble brick storefront.

Best times to visit

Guests can happily sip bourbon in Louisville all year long, but certain annual events merit planning a trip around. The spring/summer season into fall is the most appealing time to visit weather-wise, but hotel rates are often lower in the winter.

The Bourbon Classic each February celebrates the liquor with a decadent weekend of tastings, culinary showcases, and co-mingling with bourbon professionals and enthusiasts. April brings Mint Julep Month when you’ll find classic and creative interpretions of the drink all over town, followed by the iconic Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. Old Fashioned Fortnight accounts for the first two weeks in June, commemorating Louisville’s official cocktail with fun events and promotions including the Kentucky Bourbon Affair.

Bourbon also flows through a series of eclectic Louisville-based summer music festivals – Forecastle, Bourbon and Beyond, Louder than Life and Hometown Rising. National Bourbon Heritage Month in September rounds out the schedule with horse racing at Churchill Downs.

Louisville at dusk. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.

Where to stay

The historic Seelbach Hilton and the Brown Hotel both honor their Kentucky terroir with striking architecture, bourbon bars and top-notch Southern hospitality. New kid on the block as of 2018, the Omni Louisville incorporates bourbon principles into its decor, art and modern layout. Meanwhile, the Louisville Marriott Downtown is hot off a multimillion-dollar refresh that added rickhouse-style details and a glass room off the lobby for private bourbon storage and tastings. Look for boutique Hotel Distil to join Whiskey Row in 2019.

For something a little cozier, Louisville claims a pair of bed-and-breakfasts that highlight bourbon themes – farmhouse-chic Chateau Bourbon in Norton Commons and the lovely Louisville Bourbon Inn in Old Louisville.

Lonely Planet has produced this article for Louisville Tourism. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our editorial policy of independence and impartiality.

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