It was 11 a.m. in Louisville and I was contemplating a silky, amber and Very Old liquid in my glass.
Fortunately, I was primed to appreciate the art and culture of the Very Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey because Penny Peavler, dynamic president of the city’s freshly redesigned Frazier History Museum, had just given me a whirlwind tour of its new bourbon-focused “Spirit of Kentucky” permanent exhibition.
First, we assembled a mini bourbon barrel in the crafting section. Then, we lingered over the 22-foot-long oak “Gracious Table,” with a touch-sensitive surface like a giant iPad, and explored the museum’s digitized bourbon archives, which is full of stories, maps and interviews. And then, we emerged from Bottle Hall — a glamorous nook showcasing a bottle of every brand of bourbon produced in Kentucky today — and Peavler invited me into a fifth-floor office for some liquid history.
I took a slow sip. “That’s the Kentucky hug,” she said, reassuringly, as I gasped from the bourbon’s heat, still powerful after a half-century. The hug quickly turned to honey on my tongue. My quest to discover Louisville’s new spirit, through the liquid spirit that has underpinned the city’s economy since the 1800s, was off to a surprising start.
Over the next few days, I planned to follow Louisville’s urban bourbon trail, beginning with the new Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center on the Frazier’s ground floor, as a gateway to the city’s eclectic patchwork of neighborhoods beyond bourbon. Art, cocktails, food and music would be my guides.
Walking down Main Street’s “whiskey row” in the soupy September air, I glimpsed the broad Ohio River and tried to channel the 1800s. Then, I had just learned, Louisville was a major river town on America’s Western frontier, and sailors from all over the world would spill onto this strip for serious carousing.
Today, just past the historical brick facade of the Old Forester Distilling Co., which opened in June, a horse-drawn carriage fit for Cinderella clopped by. And on the corner of Seventh and Main streets, in front of the 21c Museum Hotel, I spotted a gigantic, gold-painted statue of . . . David. But this David, I soon discovered, is the work of a Turkish artist, inspired by Michelangelo but twice the size of the original, and belongs to the hotel founders’ world-renowned collection of 21st century art.
“Our free museum, open 24 hours a day, is about sharing different perspectives and opening minds,” the hotel’s museum manager, Karen Gillenwater, explained on our tour. In front of an eye-catching Kehinde Wiley — one of five canvases in the museum’s collection by this artist known for painting the official portrait of President Barack Obama — Gillenwater mentioned that she had just spoken with a Somali immigrant visiting for the first time. Down a corridor, we spotted his reedy frame bent close to a descriptive panel. “I’ve been in Louisville since 2004,” Jamal Ali said, shyly, when I asked. “I was inspired by a lot of people who lived here, like Muhammad Ali, and I can relate to these pictures, especially the one by the Cambodian artist who immigrated the same year as me.”
At Rabbit Hole Distillery, which opened in May, the architecture and art also reflect an expansive perspective. “There is a new generation of whiskey drinkers coming into the fold,” founder Kaveh Zamanian told me. “And bourbon is leading the charge.”
For the record, bourbon is a kind of whiskey. Visitors learn this, and more, during an hour-long tour of the soaring, Mies van der Rohe-inspired distillery in the revitalized NuLu (New Louisville) district, a mile east of downtown.
Afterward, visitors can settle in for a post-tour creative cocktail developed by the mixologists behind New York City’s acclaimed bar Death & Co. while exploring socially progressive contemporary artwork such as “Bridge (Victory),” by Los Angeles artist Glenn Kaino, in the sleek cantilevered lounge overlooking the Ohio River.
Less than a mile away, Copper & Kings American Brandy Distillery anchors Butchertown. Only one meatpacking plant remains in this once-downtrodden neighborhood along the railroad tracks. But the low-slung, industrial-chic distillery draws a new crowd with events such as screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and food trucks in the courtyard, or jazz concerts in the brand-new rooftop bar, Alex&nder. Cocktails such as “Guns ’n’ Rosé” (perhaps the prettiest cocktail to ever wet my lips) showcase the distillery’s brandy, which matures to the rhythm of rock-and-roll blasting through the basement barrel cellar.
Surprisingly, I also enjoyed a couple of bourbon experiences on the touristy “4th Avenue Live!” party strip near Louisville’s new convention center. I learned the “cocktail chop” while shaking up a whiskey sour at the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, which offers introductory cocktail classes as well as various bourbon education seminars several times a day. Then, a few doors down, past the Hard Rock Cafe and the Fudgery, I succumbed to a towering bourbon milkshake, garnished with housemade graham cracker pieces and a flame-toasted marshmallow, at James Beard Award-nominee Edward Lee’s fine burger place, Whiskey Dry .
Anyone who has been to Louisville knows it’s a polyglot city of voracious eaters. But still, I was surprised when I returned to Boujie Biscuits, a just-opened storefront in the Crescent Hill neighborhood that I had spotted earlier, for Sunday breakfast. The word was out and Cyndi Joyner, owner of the one-woman shop, had to lock the door for 15 minutes to keep up with demand. My patience was rewarded, though, with a hockey-puck-sized square biscuit, drenched in chicken pot pie sauce.
Over the course of the week, I also relished Louisville’s melting pot of immigrant and American regional cuisines. At Whiskey Dry, the waiter called roasted shishito peppers “the new okra.” At the unassuming Mayan Cafe in NuLu, pan-seared lima beans replaced black-eyed peas. And at bar Vetti, a stone’s throw from the sagging Victorian mansions of Old Louisville, shaved Kentucky ham came out as Italian-style prosciutto.
But a local standard, the Hot Brown sandwich, really fed my soul. Although there are haters (“touristy,” I was told), I am not alone in my affection for this open-faced turkey, bacon and tomato sandwich, smothered in Mornay sauce and baked in a small skillet. “We serve about 100 on a normal day; 1,000 during Derby season,” chef Jim Adams told me. The caloric fabulousness was enhanced by the old-school, wood-paneled setting of the English Grill at the Brown Hotel , a regal Georgian Revival that opened in 1923.
I had timed my visit to coincide with the second-annual Bourbon & Beyond festival, because I was interested in its “Beyond” component: a multiple-artist lineup of rock, country and bluegrass bands. Unfortunately, the rain gods decided otherwise.
Fortunately, the local musician I most wanted to see, Ben Sollee — lauded by national critics and audiences for his genre-bending creativity — agreed to meet me at a record-and-bookstore cafe on a reviving block in the city’s Portland neighborhood, west of downtown. Over tea, the self-described grandson of an “old-time Appalachian fiddler, coal miner and Baptist preacher,” tried to capture his city’s music scene for me.
“The Kentucky practice is pickin’ and jammin’ with whoever is around you,” Sollee, 35, said. To experience what he called the city’s “aurally inclusive” music, which he somewhat reluctantly defined as “a rock-and-roll song with a hip-hop beat and a country soul,” Sollee recommended that I check what was on at Headliners Music Hall (where he usually performs), as well as smaller venues such as Nachbar, Odeon, Zanzabar or Kaiju Bar.
Instead, I stumbled upon a Brazilian jazz ensemble in a speakeasy below a downtown sandwich shop. Jimmy Can’t Dance is the joint’s name, and there I happened to meet co-owner Dennie Humphrey. As we got to talking, he told me he was fresh off Louisville’s annual Jug Band Jubilee. “Jug bands were Louisville’s original contribution to American music,” he explained; “string bands and ragtime arrived via riverboat traffic.” That, combined with sounds made from puffing into a bunch of empty Brown-Forman Old Granddad bourbon jugs, he said, “made for some great musical roots.”
And so, even in a sandwich shop speakeasy, listening to Latin jazz, I was connected to the arc of Louisville’s bourbon history. Nursing my Old Fashioned, I noticed the show was sponsored by Rabbit Hole Distillery.
More from Travel:
The Brown Hotel
335 West Broadway
Opened in 1923, the 16-story Georgian-Revival hotel (home of the famed $20 Hot Brown skillet sandwich, served in the two restaurants and lobby bar) is an old-school favorite. Rooms from $175.
21c Museum Hotel
700 West Main St.
The contemporary, art-filled boutique hotel boasts a free art museum, chef-driven restaurant and one of the best bars in town. Rooms from $199.
412 South Fourth St.
Chef Edward Lee’s third Louisville restaurant’s menu includes creative burgers that pair with whiskeys from around the world. Entrees start at $13.50.
1813 Frankfort Ave.
The cute, owner-owned storefront serves up comfort food on a homemade biscuit, served in a box. Biscuits from $8.
813 East Market St.
Chef Bruce Ucán’s indigenously inspired farm-to-table restaurant is a local favorite for power lunches. Don’t miss the lima beans. Entrees from $10.
800 South Fourth St.
Enjoy fresh Italian fare in a stylish ambiance. Entrees from $10.
The Frazier History Museum
829 West Main St.
The museum documents and reinterprets stories from the past, including “The Spirit of Kentucky” permanent exhibit, which covers the history, craft and culture of Kentucky Bourbon. Admission $12; seniors, $10; children, $8.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center
829 W. Main St.
Located on the first floor of the Frazier and founded in partnership with the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the center helps visitors plan their trips to bourbon distilleries and navigate the hot spots of Louisville’s burgeoning bourbon, culinary and nightlife scenes. Free.
Rabbit Hole Distillery
711 East Jefferson St.
A multilevel glass-and-steel urban distillery, built around a 48-foot-high copper column still. Tours end at Overlook, the distillery’s rooftop cocktail bar, with scenic views of the Ohio River. Tour, with tasting, $23. Cocktails from $12.
Copper & Kings American Brandy
1121 E. Washington St.
No bourbon here, but plenty of brandy, gin and even absinthe goes through the pot stills. The staff makes the fun music playlists, and the rooftop Skydeck at Alex&nder, the distillery cocktail lounge, is a cool place for a sundowner. Tours from $15. Cocktails from $10.
Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse
404 South Fourth St.
The small working distillery and bottling line take a back seat to loads of Jim Beam merchandise and bourbon in the gift shop. Every 30 minutes, there’s a 15-minute “Taste of History.” But the real highlights are the bottle engraving setup, plus tableside cocktail classes and bourbon education seminars offered throughout the day. The “Taste of History” tour costs $8; cocktail classes from $18.
Old Forrester Distilling Co.
119 West Main St.
Behind the gorgeous 19th-century brick facade on Main Street, there’s a state-of-the-art distillery. Pop in for a tour, or take a cocktail class on the ground floor George’s Bar. Tours from $16. Cocktail classes from $25.
Jimmy Can’t Dance
119 South Seventh St.
You’ll know you’re there when you see the bouncer outside the door of Another Place Sandwich Shop . With live acts most nights, the cozy speakeasy is free Wednesday-Thursday; $10 on weekend nights.