1. Where to Stay
Ogle Virgil Marti’s neon velvet Landscape Wallpaper and Ned Kahn’s fog-exuding Cloud Rings sculpture at the art-filled 21c Museum Hotel (from $269), opened by bourbon heiress Laura Lee Brown in 2006. Request a balcony suite for a private terrace with views of downtown Louisville.
Order the Hot Brown—an open-faced turkey sandwich piled with bacon, tomato, and Mornay sauce—at the Brown Hotel (from $159), where the regional dish was invented in 1926. Scope out the hand-painted ceilings between sips of the 54 varieties of bourbon served at the mahogany bar.
Admire the chandeliers and opulent décor of the Baroque Beaux-Arts Seelbach Hilton (from $218), where Tom and Daisy got married in The Great Gatsby. Try a Seelbach Cocktail, made with Champagne, bitters, and bourbon, in the hotel’s wood-and-leather-trimmed Old Seelbach Bar.
2. Where to Eat
Sip an Old Fashioned Root Beer made with sassafras and seven-year-old W.L. Weller bourbon at Proof on Main. Pick one of four bourbon flights (three in each; $16 to $18) to pair with the house-cured charcuterie, like pork-jowl terrine and Kentucky bison tenderloin.
Sup on hearty, meaty comfort food at The Blind Pig, a Buchertown gastropub that just opened in March. Desserts and cocktails are similarly pig-centric: Vanilla ice cream is showered with pecan bacon brittle ($8) and the specialty Manhattan is infused with bacon ($10).
Choose from over 130 bourbons at Bourbon’s Bistro, which hosts five-course bourbon pairing menus led by master distillers once a month. Seafood is the unexpected specialty here—since landlocked Louisville is the air hub of UPS, dozens of fresh seafood cargo planes arrive daily.
3. What to Do
Watch oak barrels being hand-assembled at the Brown-Forman Cooperage, founded in 1945 (mintjuleptours.com). The steamed barrel staves emit fragrant notes of vanilla and caramel before being charred in a 482-degree flame. The deeper the char, the more intense the flavor.
Maximize your time and tasting moxie by narrowing down Bardstown’s distillery tours. Start at Woodford Reserve’s five-hour Bourbon Academy class ($150). It’s conducted by master distiller Chris Morris and includes multiple tastings, a bourbon-inspired lunch, and a production tour. Learn Heaven Hill distillery’s system for aging bourbon in oak during the Bourbon Heritage Center’s Behind the Scenes Connoisseur Tour ($25), then sip 27-year-old Parker’s Heritage (which runs $189 a bottle) in the barrel-shaped tasting room. Buffalo Trace’s free private tours feature moonshine tastings and a close-up look at the bottling process.
Peruse thousands of rare bourbon bottles, moonshine stills, and pottery jugs dating back to pre-colonial times at Bardstown’s Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. The spot hosts frequent auctions, where visitors can bid on antique liquor and bourbon artifacts.
4. Insider’s Tip
Impress the master distillers with expert bourbon shop talk. When you tour the rickhouse (warehouse), don’t be afraid to taste the seeping staves (barrel parts) on the money side (top lid) of the barrel. Ask what percent of the ground floor is lost to the angel’s share (the alcohol that evaporates). When tasting the white dog (moonshine), always ask what the mash-bill (recipe percentages of corn, barley, wheat, and rye) is, and make the distillers wince when you ask about the yeast strain, a proprietary secret in Bourbon land.
5. Oddball Day
Take a road trip to the northeast region’s famed Bluegrass, a 70-minute drive through horse country near Frankfort and Lexington. Before you go, order a plate of traditional honey-glazed ham and eggs ($7) at Wagner’s Pharmacy, a vintage diner favored by jockeys since 1922 for its proximity to Churchill Downs. Drive east to Midway, where you’ll find the lush gardens of Equus Run Vineyards. Stop in for a $2 tasting—the 2008 Pinot Noir ($24) is a standout. Continue eleven miles among scenic horse farms to Versailles. Fill up at Wallace Station, known for its famously large sandwiches served with locally bottled Ale-8 soda. Then head to Daniel Boon’s nearby grave site in woodsy Frankfort Cemetery (215 East Main Street, Frankfort), where you can check out the ornate graves of seventeen Kentucky governors. The elaborately carved marble headstones and the picturesque view over the Kentucky River are worth the trek. Afterward, circle back to Louisville to unwind at dive turned dance spot Magnolia Bar & Grill (1398 S. 2nd Street; 502-637-9052), a.k.a. Mag Bar, where twenty- and thirtysomethings down OlFo (Old Forester) while college kids dance on the weathered bar.
The Louisville tourism office runs the Urban Bourbon Trail website Just Add Bourbon, which compiles news from the major distilleries.
Malt Advocate is the leading national trade journal of whiskey and bourbon, reporting on trends and master distillers.
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