It's taken me awhile to get this Louisville travel guide post up because there's so much I want to share about our trip! Mike and I have wanted to do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail for years, a trip we finally took over a long weekend with some great friends. Long story short: the Bourbon Trail experience my greatest expectations!
Aside from wanting to tour their famous bourbon distilleries, visiting Kentucky always felt like a sort of homecoming for me. My dad's parents are both Kentuckians; my grandfather's family once owned a farm in Bardstown. What was once a small farming community during my grandfather's childhood has now become the bourbon capital of the world! Not only did this trip teach me a lot about bourbon and how it's made, I learned a little bit more about my ancestry. And if there's one thing the people of Kentucky impressed upon me it's their pride in where they're from. That, and their Southern hospitality. Everyone we met was SO SO friendly, conversational, and helpful!
Kentucky horses grazing outside of Woodford Reserve distillery
Bourbon Trail Quick Tips
I'm working on a separate "Bourbon Trail Survival Guide" post because it's a whole topic of its own that I have a lot to say about. We visited 12 distilleries on our trip and I learned a ton! You can see some sneak peeks below.
For now I'll share a few quick pointers every one should know before planning their trip.
The Bourbon Trail distilleries are mainly spread out in an 'L' shape, extending south and east of Louisville. They're referred to as the "south" and "east" forks.
The Urban Bourbon Trail is a mixture of distilleries and restaurants/bars that carry a highly curated selection of local bourbons.
Within Louisville proper you'll find "Whiskey Row" on Main Street.
There's a separate Craft Bourbon Trail for smaller scale distilleries.
The Kentucky, Urban, and Craft Bourbon Trails have their own passports you stamp at every distillery/location to record your visit.
Willet distillery in Bardstown, KY
When planning your Bourbon Trail trip you need to research which distilleries you most want to visit, check where they're located on a map, and see how they fit into your schedule. NOTE: Most of them require driving and are pretty spread out. We used Mint Julep Tours to help us create our itinerary. We booked their private car service to drive us out to the more remote distilleries far outside of Louisville, including Jim Beam and Maker's Mark. Mint Julep Tours is the BEST! They made the whole experience seamless. Their knowledge of the Bourbon Trail helped manage our expectations about what is reasonable to fit into one day. I'll be sharing more about the five-star Mint Julep Tours experience in my Bourbon Trail Survival Guide coming out soon!
Where We Stayed
After researching on our own and reading some local blogs, we settled on staying at the Omni Louisville. Y'all. This hotel has everything you can possibly imagine, and then some. Several bars and restaurants, a high-end market for coffee and scratch-made breakfast, a rooftop pool with a bar and lounge, a speakeasy with a bowling alley (!!), a spa...the list goes on. When we plan our return trip (because we're now obsessed with the Bourbon Trail) we'll definitely stay here again. Why fix what ain't broke? The rates in July were very reasonable FWIW.
The cozy yet refined Library Bar
Grab coffee, cold-pressed juice, and a breakfast toast at Falls City market.
The entrance to Pin + Proof speakeasy
Other hotel recommendations: The Brown Hotel // The Seelbach Hilton Hotel // 21C Museum Hotel
Where We Ate
Three things you must order when in Louisville: a mint julep; a Hot Brown sandwich; and fried chicken! We ate ALL the fried chicken on our trip and it was AMAZING! For the record, we didn't go into the trip thinking "we need some Kentucky fried chicken." In fact, we learned the locals do not tolerate you even calling it that, which I get. That being said, they do have some damn fine fried chicken that foodies and locals alike brag about for good reason.
The first night we ate at The Eagle on Bardstown Road, a walkable 'where the locals go' district outside of downtown Louisville. The chicken and mac 'n' cheese were heavenly. We tried some of their local craft beer which was tasty!
Our last day we grabbed a famous fried chicken sandwich at Royals Hot Chicken. I will be dreaming about that sandwich for years to come. Buttery bun, crispy chicken, mayo, shredded lettuce...a true classic.
While out on the Bourbon Trail we ate at Kurtz Restaurant in Bardstown. Talk about southern charm! Everything on the menu tastes like your grandmother made it. And all their drinks taste like a true Kentuckian makes their own cocktails. We ordered Maker's Mark mint juleps that knocked our socks off! Our waitress told us "I make 'em like I drink 'em." And that's the best bartending philosophy I've ever heard.
We also ate at Mussel & Burger Bar on the recommendation of our hotel bartender. The restaurant's vaulted ceilings and vintage chic decor contrasts with the casual fare in the coolest way. Their burger menu is very extensive and has combinations I've never thought to try.
Other restaurant recommendations: Proof On Main on Bourbon Row // Butchertown Grocery // The Brown Hotel for their famous Hot Brown Sandwich // Neighborhood Services in the Omni Hotel for their Hot Brown tater tots // Garage Bar for pizza, games, outdoor family fun // Harvest for farm-to-table fare
Where We Went
Since the purpose of our trip was to do the Bourbon Trail, the Bourbon Trail we did. In three days we visited 12 distilleries which, judging by the reaction of the Woodford Reserve barkeep when we told her this, is both impressive and aggressive. We came to play, folks. Honestly, with a toddler you never know when you'll be galavanting off on parents-only trips so we wanted to squeeze in as much as possible in the time we had.
On Friday, we booked a private car with Mint Julep Tours to tour the South Fork of the Bourbon Trail. We did tours and tastings at Jim Beam and Maker's Mark (highly recommend both!), a tasting only at Heaven Hill, and stopped by Willett to grab some merch (read: bourbon that's hard to find in North Carolina). The farmland countryside is SO picturesque, like something out of a painting. I can't tell you what a fabulous day we had, how much we learned, and how much we LOVED the experience! Dipping our own Maker's Mark bottles into their iconic red wax was super cool; we even got them to paint a barrel head with it for us to hang in our game room!
So many labels to choose from in the Jim Beam bourbon tasting!
Bourbon Heritage Center at Heaven Hill
Connoisseur tasting experience at Heaven Hill
Maker's Mark's gorgeous campus
Strong branding everywhere you look at Maker's Mark
Suiting up to dip my own bottles of Maker's Mark
We stayed in Louisville on Saturday to visit the distilleries on the Urban Bourbon Trail and "Whiskey Row." We visited Michter's, Old Forester, Evan Williams, Stitzel-Weller/Bulleit, as well as Angel's Envy and Rabbit Hole. You learn pretty quickly that all the distilleries share the same information on their tours about how bourbon is made. With this in mind we decided to only do tastings on Saturday and just chit chat with the employees on the history and particulars of each distillery. We stopped by the Louisville Slugger Museum and snapped a picture in front of the humongous baseball bat out front!
Hand-crafted cocktails at Michter's Bar at Fort Nelson
Bourbon flight at George's Bar in the Old Forester distillery
Quick cocktails at Stitzel-Weller Bulleit
Mixing Old Fashioneds at Rabbit Hole
Since we drove to Louisville we had the ability to stop by a couple additional distilleries on our way home located along the East Fork of the Bourbon Trail. We went to Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve and will definitely go back for full tours and tastings on our next visit!
Non-bourbon places worth visiting: Muhammad Ali Center // Churchill Downs // Kentucky Derby Museum // Historic Old Louisville
Bourbon Trail Superlatives
I truly enjoyed every single distillery we visited for different reasons. Each one had their high points and in some ways stood above the rest! If I was giving out "best of" awards here's how I would hand them out to the different distilleries we saw.
Best Tour: Jim Beam
Best Tasting: Maker's Mark
Nicest Grounds/Facility: Maker's Mark
Best Cocktail: Michter's
Best Southern Hospitality: Stitzel-Weller Bulleit
Biggest Distillery: Buffalo Trace
Fanciest Distillery: Woodford Reserve
Best View: Rabbit Hole
Best Value Bourbon: Old Forester
Smoothest Bourbons: Knob Creek Single Barrel (Jim Beam); Eagle Rare (Buffalo Trace); Maker's Mark Private Select
Hardest-To-Find Bourbons (even in KY): Blanton's, Weller, Mckenna 10 Year, Pappy Van Winkle (all Buffalo Trace brands)
As you can tell we did A LOT! Mostly bourbon-related activities but even having visited so many distilleries we haven't even scratched the surface of all there is to do and see on the Bourbon Trail. I really want to go back to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby even if we don't go to the actual Derby because it is a party town and would be a blast! And I want to see all the hats up close and in person.
Have y'all been to Louisville or ventured down the Bourbon Trail? Are you a bourbon drinker? If not, I encourage you to try a bourbon cocktail this fall once the temps cool off a little bit. They're best enjoyed on cool afternoons watching football, tailgating, or relaxing by a fire.
Thanks for taking time to stop by The Tony Townie today! Watch for my Bourbon Trail Survival Guide post coming out soon!