On this trip to Louisville, Kentucky for instance, I was walking back to the hotel from Baxter Station past a unit with its big delivery doors open. Being nosey I looked in and thought I saw pianos drying after being lacquered. Nice, I thought to myself, that someone is still making pianos in the city. Then I saw noticed the sign over the entrance which read…’Funeral Directors’. They were coffins.
You would be disappointed if taking a walking tour round the bourbon capital did not include stopping off to sample some of the city’s fantastic bars and of course bourbon.
Thankfully the good folks at the city’s Visitors’ Bureau came up with the idea of the Urban Bourbon Trail.
It’s a simple but effective idea. Use a passport to link together several bars which pride themselves on their bourbon collections.
You get a stamp at each venue and bingo! A brilliant way of introducing beginners and aficionados to the bourbon capital.
For me I looked at it as the chance to play a good game of bourbon golf: nine bars, eight working distilleries leaving one for a wild card bourbon.
Now to do this sensibly (and I mean drinking sensibly) it’s best to take a couple of nights, because the bartenders in a couple of stops are really friendly and if you get talking then who knows that’s going to happen.
Louisville has a way of spiriting away the hours sometimes.
The tee off spot for the game was the Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar & Lounge in the Galt House hotel, an old-fashioned styled bar tucked away behind a massive glass shelving unit stuffed with 165 varieties of bourbon. Here, the bartenders work on a lowered floor; their heads just level with the pumps.
The evening began with the light and delicate Basil Hayden and a brief discussion with a guest at the bar as to why wine is dead and whiskey is the way forward. I am sure when people say they don’t like whiskey it’s because they haven’t found the right one yet.
Though it’s tempting to stay in this lovely cosy bar, it’s time to walk to Baxter Station.
As you step out, a short walk away is the site where Evan Williams, Kentucky’s first distiller, died. Though there’s not much to see other than a plaque and an ATM machine where his place once stood.
It’s a short distance, about 25 minutes walk, out of downtown to Baxter Station.
It’s a semi sultry day and, as I walk under road bridges and past disused railway stations, heading deep into residential Louisville there’s the feeling of leaving the tourist trail.
The red leaves from the cherry trees coat the pavements, and because this is the US and not that many people walk further than car to shop, you can be a child again and kick your way though the drying leaves happily.
The walk has that feel of urban Americana: people sitting on porches, the picket fenced gardens, just add up to make the walk all the more pleasant.
When you get to Baxters you find a square unprepossessing block shape, but get inside and there is a high top bar with more than 100 bourbons to tempt you.
Stephanie, the barkeep during my afternoon visit, said she always served good bourbon in a decent glass. I was her first stamp and she was mine…aw special eh?
When I came back during the evening the bar was busier The drink for this spot was Four Roses Yellow Label, a good solid bourbon. However after chatting with the guys behind the bar – generosity it seems indeed knows no bounds – out came the new Thomas Handy for a Manhattan and some 23 Years Old Pappy van Winkle. The natives at the bar were pretty friendly and the staff superb. In fact owner Andrew drove me to the next watering hole, Proof on Main – above and beyond the call of bartending duty and breaking with my walking notion, but that’s what you call hospitality.
Jumping out of Andrew’s pickup on Main Street, back in the downtown area, I was arrested by a simply gorgeous sight, a myriad of golden yellow butterflies coating one outside wall of the bar.
Proof is not quite what it seems. Low lighting, high top tables and some funky beats mean this is a place for the hip of Louisville.
The very chic venue with some eye-catching statues is obviously going to be the main focus of your trip.
However the quirkiness of this place does not stop when you walk to the toilet. This is possibly one of the most seriously scenic walks as you wander through part of a 21st century museum stuffed with art works, projections and installations. Oh and look out for the red penguins...
However Proof goes even beyond being a bar/modern art gallery, it is also a boutique hotel and restaurant.
The tipple needed to be something equally as multi-faceted so we opted for Wild Turkey 101. A big bourbon with a dusty rye edge, creamy vanillas and bags of spice. Lots of layers to peel back to match the venue.
One of the benefits of the trail is that most of the bars are located around the 4th Street Live entertainment area and our next hole is the whiskied heart of the district.
As you walk round the block from Proof look out for the massive iron fronted offices of the various bourbon distillers, such as Heaven Hill, Brown Forman, and as the darkness closes in, and the streets empty a little, you can walk among these imposing frontages trying to image the hustle and bustle of trading in an age gone by.
Then you are snapped back to the modern age with the bright neon bright lights of 4th Street Live.
This is a concentration of bars and entertainment venues at the heart of the downtown area, and is the fairway for our next drinking hole.
Don’t let the name fool you; you can actually get a lot more than Maker’s Mark bourbon at the Maker’s Mark Bourbon House & Lounge.
The bar feels dark and intimate compared with the glitz and brash lights of other bars on the street.
There are dipped bottles of the eponymous bourbon in the reception area signed by celebrities. Also worth taking in are the liquor lockers. These spirit safes have some very famous names on the doors. Inside you can only guess at the liquid treasures these names have stashed away for their next visit.
The choice for this part of the course got me straight on to the green with Heaven Hill in the guise of Evan Williams Green Label. Not the biggest puncher in the world but perfectly balanced and enjoyable.
This bar nearly became the end of the night’s round of golf as the manager Cody and bartender Mike decided to treat us to a few off course bourbons and a couple of Scotches. Now you see what I meant earlier about Louisville having a way of spiriting away the hours.
Obviously this was all done in the name of research and education, especially for Cody who had not experienced the joys of Islay peat.
Bartender Mike, generous to a fault, also put a few other specials on the table to round the night off, including Woodford Reserve’s Seasoned Oak expression.
With the night still youngish, we all went firmly into the rough as we headed next door to a late closing Irish bar.. which for some reason we entered after being led through the kitchens, through another door and out into the pumping music. Honestly I do remember the woman dancing on the bar. These are those special events that only happen once in a while.
Having singularly failed in my original intention to do all the waterholes of the urban bourbon trail in one night, the plan evolved into completing the round the following night.
First though a spot of breakfast was in order. Now I know it’s not a bourbon bar, but if you are looking for somewhere to eat your own body weight in breakfast Toast on Market comes highly recommended.
You see all classes and professions drop in at Toast to start the day from cops to builders, to office staff and men with laptops.
A historic building in its own right, it used to house a theatre company in the 50s, and no one quite knows why the 15ft stained glass window with “Empire” emblazoned across it is there. The pancakes here are superb.
The opening hole on the second day’s scorecard was Bourbon’s Bistro. Though this is the furthest out it’s only a couple of miles from downtown and allows you to see more of the city’s less visited haunts, of that suburban Americana.
However this is America and the car reigns, I have to confess I did not walk out to this Frankfort Avenue haven.
That said, with a stunning collection of 130 bourbons, including some one-offs bottled just for the bistro, and some great food with constantly changing menus, this is a good place to start your hike, or mark it down as one to visit separately and have a spot to eat.
It being the afternoon, and the sun only just over the yardarm the spirit here was to be delicate and floral, after all we still have several holes to play.
Step in Elijah Craig 18 Years Old with its floral notes, fragrant almost smoked edge and bags of character. [you want it to be delicate but end up with something heavy?]
Need linking lines here maybe something about a trio of hotel bars to round off?
The final round kicked off with a trio of hotel bars, two historic and one modern, and a restaurant bar.
The opening drive took me to the impressively restored Seelbach Hotel.
It is so well done it is like if James Cameron did period hotels this is how they would be.
This legendary Louisville pile has a huge marbled lobby, sweeping staircases and of course a haunted lift. The tale goes that a woman was waiting for her husband having organised a rendezvous at the hotel to try and rekindle their marrage, only the husband never showed. He was tragically killed in a car accident on the way to the meeting. Later that day the woman’s body was found at the bottom of a service elevator shaft. No one seems to know whether it was an accident or if she deliberately jumped.
Given that history is so tangible in this place, with links to Al Capone, F. Scott Fitzgerald and such, I often find the actual bar feels a little too modern, I think its because I have never been a fan of TV screens in pubs and bars, they just seem out of place.
That said once you get past that and into the spirits behind the bar, which is almost the biggest piece of mahogany I have seen, this anomaly can be easily overlooked.
I settled on Buffalo Trace for this hole. The ‘standard’ bottling is such a complex whiskey, with spices, oak, liquorice and vanilla it is no wonder it is a favourite among bartenders for cocktails.
Louisville, outside of the hub of 4th Street Live, at night is relatively quiet so walking is fine and you are not going to hit any trouble other than panhandlers.
Just up the street from the Seelbach is another hotel bar on the trail, this time at the Brown Hotel.
The landmark hotel built in the 1920s in what is called Colonial Revival style is a Louisville star, with a glitzy lobby bar, and a small but select bourbon list.
As with the Seelbach there are plenty of claims to fame to be found under this roof.
In 1926 the hotel chef introduced the Hot Brown sandwich, consisting of an open-faced “sandwich” of turkey and bacon smothered with cheese and tomato.
Many famous people visited the hotel in its early years. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Lloyd George was the first person to sign the guest register, and Queen Marie of Romania also visited.
The famous French-born soprano Lily Pons was allowed to bring her pet lion with her, and it roamed free in her room.
The wonderfully extravagant lobby bar is a good place to kick back and do some people watching, or plan your next stop on the tour.
Obviously surrounded by such sophistication, we needed an equally highbrow drink. Welcome to the 1972 Ridgemont Reserve. This packs a lot of flavour and is one smooth drink. The impact is all in the finish, it just keeps on going.
So back down 4th Street and a walk of about 10 mins to the final part hotel bar odyssey is located in the Downtown Marriott hotel.
It was on the way here I spotted a pawnshop that was touting itself as a second hand Glock seller, the guns, beloved by Nazis, sitting incogruously along with baby carriages, furniture and watches. It is always a slight shock for a Brit to see guns so easily available.
Also if you walk a little further you can find, painted on the side of a firm’s building, the sincere slogan “You’re important to Gatchel’s”. Well it made me smile. Not as much as the sign earlier in the day at a pet food store which was selling dog sweaters and coats. I am sure there is a joke there to be made.
Anyway, getting back on course, you enter the Bar at Blu through a very unassuming door with a blue awning.
Inside the green awaits and it is a very contemporary spot offering plenty to keep you happy, from bourbon flights to infusions to cocktails.
It can get a little noisy if there is entertainment on so this isn’t the setting for a deep intimate conversation.
As this is a little different to the other bars the whiskey choice was Kentucky’s different distillery Woodford Reserve. Different because of those three lovely tall pot stills based on the ones from Scotland’s Auchentoshan distillery, whereas all bourbon distilleries use the continuous still.
This is a fairly heavy bourbon with a sort of cedar-tinged dryness dominating honey, fruits and chocolate notes.
Just round the corner is the final hole for this course. Z’s Fusion is again not a traditional bar, you sit with your back to the vast dining room, but again a great choice of bourbons, this time numbering 50.
Several appetisers, entrees and a dessert feature the magic ingredient.
The night I was in was quiet, but this made it perfect to sit back, chat to the bartender and get stuck into a piece of pie.
To finish and retire to the clubhouse, just Maker’s Mark was left. Due to the high content of red winter wheat in the mash bill the liquid is smooth and soft.
The perfect companion to sink the final putt with and toast a great walk round the bourbon capital.
The Bar at BLU
280 W. Jefferson St.
1201 Payne Street
2255 Frankfort Ave.
The Brown Hotel Bar
Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar
140 N. 4th St.
Bourbon House & Lounge 446 S. 4th St.
The Old Seelbach Bar
500 S. 4th St.
Proof On Main
115 S. 4th St.