The rebirth of bourbon in Louisville

Bourbon is once again the pride of Louisville, and its renaissance is breathing new life into the city’s dining and drinking sceneThursday, 23 May 2019

By Dominic Roskrow
Photographs By Lucy Hewett

I’m standing on a pristine walkway linking two large rooms. It’s made of heavy, old timber and feels like a bridge. Either side of me, I can see grand, projected visions of classic Kentucky — sleek racehorses, green fields, stunning waterfalls, rolling farmland. 

Behind me, a group of tourists are learning about the Ohio River — how it curves around the city of Louisville, how waterfalls and shallows make the river unnavigable here, and how, for this reason, freight had to be transported by land. Further ahead, by a stone wall, other visitors are discovering how Irish labourers recreated the limestone and shale walls of their homeland all across the state.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center is a state-of-the-art visitor experience in the heart of the state’s biggest city. Its very existence not only places bourbon whiskey at the heart of Louisville’s tourist offering, it puts the spirit up alongside horse racing as a key component of the Kentucky story. And more than that, it represents the rehabilitation of a drink that’s gone from zero to hero in the space of a few years.

As recently as a decade ago, bourbon was all but hidden from sight in the hip bars of downtown Louisville. When tourists came to the city, it was either to see Churchill Downs Racetrack — home of the Kentucky Derby — or to visit sites linked to the state’s two most famous sons: Colonel Sanders, who started selling fried chicken from a roadside service station, and Muhammad Ali, who’s said to have thrown his Olympic medal into the Ohio as a protest against the Vietnam War. If you wanted a bourbon experience, you left the city and headed off to the quaint town of Bardstown, about an hour south, or to any of several distilleries hidden away in rural Kentucky. When an urban bourbon trail was launched in Louisville in 2008, it offered just a handful of bars and restaurants.

That’s hard to imagine now. Encouraged by the enthusiastic support of Mayor Greg Fischer, bourbon has become Louisville’s lifeblood. All across the city, posters splash news of bourbon releases or upcoming boozy events, while bars compete to offer the most exciting, most exotic flights of whiskey. And best of all, the spirit is being made in Louisville once more.

Famous brands such as Evan Williams, Old Forester and Michter’s have opened visitor centres in and around the historic Whiskey Row, a block-long stretch of Main Street. Many of the neglected old buildings here are being renovated rather than demolished, something that’s helping Louisville to escape the faceless fate of other American cities. Nearby, new distilleries such as Kentucky Peerless, Rabbit Hole and Angel’s Envy have sprung up, producing new styles of bourbon, and are targeting younger drinkers. Bourbon is hip.

“It’s been some journey,” says Joe Magliocco, founder and president of Michter’s, which transformed a derelict Victorian building into a visitor centre, complete with a working pot still, bar and tasting area. “If we’d known what state it was in I’m not sure we’d have gone ahead with it. Certainly, I don’t think the accountants are amused. But the new developments have brought the heart of the city back to life. We live in exciting times.”

The change is palpable. In the early evening, downtown Louisville comes alive. New cosy and atmospheric bars echo with laughter, as drinkers gather to either sip bourbon or explore the mind-boggling selections of craft beers. The offering varies — often from night to night — with the range of both beers and bourbons written up on chalk boards, and the bourbons commonly sampled in flights of four, five or six, based around themes such as ‘old classics’, ‘the Beam family’, or ‘wheated whiskeys’. 

At Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar, I get talking to local celebrity Scott Carney, founder of, and multi-instrumentalist with, alternative rock band Wax Fang. “The craft and bourbon trends are intertwined,” he explains. “The whole craft thing has caught the imagination of a new generation, who are highly promiscuous in their drinking. Younger drinkers want new drinks — and that not only includes bourbons — but also whiskey-inspired spirits made from craft beer.”

Sweet spirit

Bourbon is certainly whiskey, but its relationship to, say, Scottish single malt is like that of the Dallas Cowboys to Celtic Football Club. In technical terms, while single malt is made using malted barley, bourbon is normally comprised of three different grains, with corn being the dominant component. In terms of production, single malt is made in batches in a pot still, whereas bourbon is distilled in a column still as part of a continuous process.

These differences result in two very different spirits. Bourbon is sweeter, its flavours dominated by stick candy, sweet spices, beeswax, sandalwood, tobacco and leather. It lends itself well to being mixed in to cocktails but tastes wonderful on the rocks in a tumbler. 

Bourbons with a higher wheat content are even sweeter, with banoffee pie and caramel flavours. Higher-rye-content bourbons are crisp and clean, with pepper and chilli spice notes. Older bourbons are deliciously oaky, and the very best bourbons may have dark chocolate, glacé cherry, liquorice and menthol notes.

These days, in Louisville, there’s no shortage of places to try the good stuff. Newcomers to the city could do a lot worse than to head to The Old Seelbach Bar on 4th Street, part of the hotel (now a Hilton) where Al Capone would hold court. It’s a place for serious whisky appreciation — where drinkers reverentially sip bourbons in an atmosphere of hushed, library-like formality; the dark oak panels transporting them to a bygone era.

Then there’s Proof on Main, part of the boutique 21c Museum Hotel Louisville, a popular restaurant and bar with a selection of over 120 Kentucky bourbons. When I visit, chargrilled octopus proves an ideal partner to a locally produced sour beer, which is itself washed down with a glass of Old Forester, in acknowledgment of the newly opened Old Forester Distillery across the road.

After that, well, maybe Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen, also on Main Street, where a sign proclaims that ‘if bourbon ain’t the answer, you’re askin’ the wrong question’. Here, a largely bearded clientele drinks their bourbon accompanied by bowls of chilli with crackers. It’s a young, friendly, loud bar, where the staff are chatty and impressively well versed on the whiskeys they serve. 

But, of course, it’s not just bars — distillers are also at the heart of this bourbon renaissance, with many new operators taking tradition and giving it a modern twist. The Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company, for instance, was once Kentucky’s second biggest distiller until it was closed down during Prohibition. But it’s been re-established by Corky Taylor, a fifth-generation relative of the original founder.

“We’ve all the heritage of the old distillery but we’re taking a different approach to whiskey making,” he says. “Most of the bourbon made in Kentucky uses the sour mash process — adding the spent grain from the previous distillation into the next mash bill. We don’t do that, so our method is a sweet mash method. And we’re adding more water to the spirit, putting it in the barrel at a lower strength than most distilleries do. We’re combining the past with a different approach for the future.”

Up at Butchertown, Copper & Kings is taking the spirit of experimentation even further. Its wild gardens are designed to attract a rare local butterfly in the summer, its grounds contain spaces for rock concerts and barbecues, and its interior is adorned with modern art. Here, owner, Joe Heron, makes, not bourbon, but brandy. However, he’s also putting bourbon from various craft distilleries into brandy casks — and putting his brandy into bourbon ones. At the top of the building, the bar hosts a tasting class, and at the far end of it a group are trying a range of hybrid spirits. This is frontline spirits innovation.

“There’s a momentum here,” Heron says. “New ideas attract people, who in turn want to try new ideas. But in turn that brings them back to the history and heritage of the region. Some of the best ‘new’ drinks are based on ancient recipes. Provenance and heritage are not being sacrificed by progress.”

The rehabilitation of bourbon happens to reflect the growing stature of Louisville itself. While it’s long been one of the more characterful American cities, it’s now also in the middle of an immense hotel-building programme, while its conference centre has reopened as an entertainment venue able to stage the world’s biggest shows. This civic renaissance is certainly being felt in Butchertown, once run-down, but now home to boutique stores and chic restaurants — in fact, it’s just the kind of place where a weird and wonderful, bourbon-inspired brandy distillery might fit in.

On the trail

For spirit lovers, however, the key renaissance has been that of the Urban Bourbon Trail itself. What began in 2008 with just five downtown watering holes now has 44 participating restaurants and bars, and there’s a waiting list. To be accepted, an establishment must stock more than 50 bourbons and have a ‘significant bourbon culture’, not to mention ‘staff who can explain the nuances and tasting notes’ of the spirit.

What the trail lacked, though, was a focal point. And that’s where its fascinating new Welcome Center, on the first and second floors of the Frazier History Museum, comes in. This multi-million-dollar interactive experience was designed and built by Imagination, the English company behind the stylish Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. Inside, it joins the dots between the geography, history and culture of the State of Kentucky, and places bourbon at the heart of it. The main attraction is a large able containing what can best be described as a giant iPad. By tapping on-screen icons, visitors can open files on historical characters, distilleries, current distillers, and individual brands. There is a wealth of information to unveil, and when there is a connection between two subjects, a light trail links them across the table.

“There are 600 different stories and entries,” says the museum’s president and CEO Penny Peavier. “The beauty of it is that it can evolve, and we’ll be adding more stories to it. The hope is that visitors will bring new information, which we’ll be able to add to the story so that it grows to be the definitive source of information on bourbon.”

It’s an ambitious project, and you sense some trepidation about the numbers the city needs to attract to make the bourbon experience a tourist success story. But down at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Bernie Lubbers — brand ambassador of Heaven Hill (which owns the Even Williams bourbon brand) — has no doubts at all. “These things tend to go in cycles,” he says. “But the big difference is that bourbon has always had a good story to tell. It just wasn’t being told. It’s like the city of Louisville was ashamed of it. It just wasn’t mentioned. But all the qualities were there. Bourbon is wrapped up in the history of the state, and it’s always been one of the world’s tastiest and purest spirits. 

“It’s a great drink but it has waited a long time for its chance to shine. Today, Kentucky is a big building site as the distilleries gear up to meet the demand for our whiskey across the world. We have a great story to tell, and now Louisville has the perfect platform from which to tell it. These are golden days indeed.”

Stars of the urban bourbon trail

Bourbons Bistro, Louisville
Much of the menu here is inspired by bourbon and the bar has over 130 types. Highlights include the ‘wheated’ flight, comprising Old Fitzgerald Prime, Weller Special Antique and Maker’s Mark. 

Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort
Around 50 miles from Louisville, this distillery creates some of the world’s best whiskies. It also has a great visitor centre and offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes Hard Hat Tour. 

Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Louisville
This museum offers guided tours and an atmospheric speakeasy bar where visitors can savour a whiskey or two. 

Proof on Main, Louisville
This Main Street bar of 21c Museum Hotel, Louisville’s first boutique hotel, stocks expressions bottled exclusively for it. Gets lively at weekends. 

Old Talbott Tavern, Bardstown 
Bardstown is bourbon’s spiritual home, and the Tavern is the focal point for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Jesse James once drank here, it’s said. Where better to sip a Wild Turkey 101? 

Bourbon Pairing

The bold flavours of bourbon make it an ideal partner to a range of foods. Try it with the following:

Chocolate desserts
Even the most basic bourbon — such as Jim Beam — works well with chocolate desserts. Ice cream, cake, mousse, and cheesecake all go well. Some of the more intense bourbons, such as George T Stagg, work with the very darkest chocolate, their minty and cherry notes pairing perfectly.

Jambalaya
Made with peppers, chorizo and Cajun spices, Jambalaya pairs well with bourbons with a high spicy rye content. Woodford Reserve would be ideal. 

Smoked salmon
This is another food that goes well with spicier bourbons. And bourbons with lemon and orange notes are ideal for a range of fish. 

Cheese
This is a case of trial and error, but as a rule of thumb, plainer and harder cheese such as cheddar or Red Leicester work with sweeter, lighter bourbons like Maker’s Mark, while bolder cheeses work with stronger, spicier bourbons.

Barbecued meat
The fruitiness of bourbon makes it the perfect barbecue tipple. When savoured with a burger, a chargrilled beef steak or well-cooked pork, it’s a marriage made in heaven.

Five to try

Stagg Jr
Released annually in limited-edition batches, George T Stagg is one of the most sought-after whiskies there is, hence you’ll struggle to find it. Stagg Jr, however, is a very worthy consolation. With an alcohol strength of more than 60%, it delivers a cherry and menthol punch like no other whiskey.

Maker’s 46
Great as Maker’s Mark is, Maker’s 46 significantly raises the bar. Expect oaky and spicy notes on top of the regular soft and sweet flavours. 

Blanton’s Original Single Barrel
Most whiskies are a mix of many casks, to ensure a consistent taste. Single barrel whiskies vary from barrel to barrel, but don’t be put off — Blanton’s will delight every time. Expect plenty of fruit.

Four Roses Single Barrel
Four Roses is a clean, sweet, fruity bourbon; the single barrel version has the dial turned up to 11. The grains are at their sharpest, there’s a delicious wave of spice, and an intense oiliness holds the whole fruit bowl together.

Very Old Barton
This bourbon is matured for six years — in truth, not very old, even by American whiskey standards. But a great all-rounder nonetheless, with lashings of vanilla and oak, and floral, sandalwood and tobacco notes. 

ESSENTIALS

Getting there
There are no direct flights from the UK to Louisville, though one-stop options include Virgin Atlantic and Delta from Heathrow and Manchester, plus American Airlines from Heathrow.

Where to stay
Omni Louisville has doubles from $206 (£158), and Embassy Suites by Hilton Louisville Downtown offers doubles from $156 (£119). Both room only. 

How to do it
My America Holiday can tailor-make a two-week Kentucky Bourbon Trails self-drive trip, with three nights in Louisville, from £1,585 per person. Includes flights, hotels and car hire.

More info
gotolouisville.com

Published in issue 5 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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