Whether you call it the “Gateway to the South”, “Derby City”, or just “The ‘Ville”, if you’re looking for a weekend bourbon getaway, there’s no better place to start than Louisville, Kentucky.
We recently had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Louisville, and check out some of the sites. While there, we enjoyed our stay downtown at the Courtyard by Marriott – highly recommended as it put us a short walk to everywhere we needed to go. Here are some of my favorites stops:
Our first stop of the weekend also started off as the tribute to Kentucky’s first commercial distiller (or so the legend goes), Evan Williams. There are several tours and events available – note this is an “experience” – and not a commercial distillery/rickhouse tour. Remember – large urban areas and large amounts of flammable substances rarely intertwine. We opted for something more unique than just a diorama display – we went with the Speakeasy Tasting Experience.
We began by following the winding staircase down to the basement where we were observed what appeared to be a small reading nook and a rather large vault door. With a special knock and password, we entered a complete 1920’s-circa speakeasy. We sampled four whiskeys from Heaven Hill, including Pikesville Rye, Larceny, Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond, and the elusive Evan Williams 23-year bourbon (which I didn’t even realize existed).
The in-character bartender provided a ton of background on Prohibition in Louisville as well as each of the whiskeys we sampled. The gift shop became cramped as all the tours let out near simultaneously, but a large selection of glassware, paraphernalia, and bourbons – including that 23-year bourbon – were for sale. All in all, a great first stop – and another punch in the Bourbon Trail Passport!
Following a late afternoon tour, it was time for a bite to eat. With a great seat overlooking the riverfront, it was time to enjoy some of Kentucky’s finest beverages at Doc Crow’s. There was only one problem – too much to choose from! Bourbon, rye, whiskey, scotch and great cocktails – you should find something to your liking. The barbecue was awesome as well (we went with brisket and pulled pork). Across the street is Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen – another must-stop as well, featuring live music, plenty of shareable platters, and an extensive bourbon collection including some special, hand-picked barrels.
Okay – I’m a bit of a sucker for rustic apparel and chapstick the size of a shotgun shell. While we waited for our next tour the following day, we walked into the building adjacent that housed a Duluth Trading Company store. With stores across the country, this Midwestern icon hails from the small Wisconsin town of Belleville, just a short drive from Madison and New Glarus (home to New Glarus Brewing).
I confess that it was a bit of Mecca-visit for me. We walked out with a bag of armachillo apparel, suncatcher hats, and yes – chapstick that was disguised as a shotgun shell. It can only be described as “fun and functional”. I love the stuff and am planning a visit to their midwestern hometown soon.
This was just a short block from our hotel. In 2014, Brown-Forman announced their purchase and intent to return to their roots in downtown Louisville, only to be followed 10 months later by a fire that gutted much of the building. Fast forward four years to 2018, and Old Forester returned to the same building it once called home along Whiskey Row following a $45 million renovation.
Today, you’re greeted by an array of Old Forester bottles and a gift shop in a glass atrium crowned by a 44-foot copper column still. The tour and tasting lasted 60 minutes, beginning with the grains, mash tanks, still and barreling areas. This is a working distillery and aging rickhouse – albeit right downtown.
As the only distiller that owns their own cooperage, you can also witness the assembly and firing of barrels before they’re filled with the whitedog. Be sure to catch a glimpse of the array of Old Forester decanters from the 1940s-1960s designed by industrial art icon Raymond Loewy. These are absolute works of art, and if you’re lucky, you can still find some on eBay to add to your home décor or deck out your bar.
At the tasting, you’ll sample some of my very favorite “go-tos”, including Old Forester 86, Old Forester 100, Statesman, and the Old Forester Whiskey Row 1920. My wife has joined me on a number of tours, and this ranked as one of her favorites, not only for the tasty bourbons, but the opportunity to witness the working cooperage and gain an understanding of this vital part of the process. The building is beautiful, and while she’s not a bourbon lover, she really enjoyed the smoothness of the Old Forester 100.
One word. Stamp. Okay, three words – Bourbon Trail Stamp.
That’s the highlight. Maybe I’m being harsh, but outside of a passport stamp, this was just “meh”. It was fine. It’s in an area of Downtown full of bars and night-spots that I imagine are truly “electric” during Derby Week.
The experience is more of a “Disney-like” store than anything. There is a working still – like 10 gallons…maybe. Very small. And there is a nice bar where you’ll share a cocktail or sample four of their signature whiskeys. I recall receiving a “wild card” here, too, where we got to choose one of the Beam brands of your liking. If you’re traveling with a companion, that can be beneficial as you can try a couple of different pours – I know my wife enjoyed her pour of low-proof, high-rye Basil-Hayden.
One unique item to highlight is the opportunity to purchase a limited release – only available here – of Old Tub Bourbon. The story goes that this particular recipe and bottling was held-back for the Beam family as their favorite expression. You can purchase a 100 proof 375ml size bottle for around $20. This is a bottled-in-bond product and I’ll have to conduct a more formal review next time I’m in the area. In the meantime, you can check out some of Fred Noe’s Distiller’s Cut or Repeal Batch.
Here’s a short list of my stops for next visit:
- Belle of Louisville dinner cruise on the Ohio River.
- Bulleit Experience at Stitzel-Weller – how can one be so close and not visit the original home of Pappy?
- Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery – a recent addition to Whiskey Row and anchoring the corner of the block, just down the street from Old Forester. This is one bourbon you should try!
- Angel’s Envy – a great expression of bourbon here.
- Peerless – a producer of some artisanal ryes has recently added their first bourbon in decades.
- Rabbit Hole – another new edition to Louisville and one that shows some great notes.
- Brown Hotel – home of the quintessential “Hot Brown” sandwich – a Kentucky icon.