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While we do continue to dream of international travel, with the flair of the exotic and unknown, we often crave easier trips that blend the immense beauty of the American outdoors with wonderful culinary explorations. To that end, ever since I moved to Atlanta a few years ago, with Bourbon Country in Kentucky within an easy half-day drive’s reach, I had been craving a hop in the car for a spin around the Bourbon Trail. For us, winters are all about either red wine or whiskey – and how can we not be loyal to the wonderful makers of the smooth bourbon that is an American craft tradition.
A couple of notes to keep in mind in exploring the Bourbon Trail: most distilleries do 1-hour-ish long tours and then longer 2-3 hours behind-the-scenes tours. After a few behind-the-scene tours, you may find that they all begin to sound alike. We highly recommend that you choose to do an extended tour at 1 or max. 2 of the major distilleries, such as Maker’s Mark & Woodford Reserve, and then enjoy the shorter intro tours anywhere else you go. Also, do keep in mind that some distilleries are 30 minutes to 1 hour apart – double check drive times as you plan, and look forward to enjoying the scenic views of Horse Country as part of the Bourbon Trail experience.
Speaking of “horse country” … my recommendations for visiting the Churchill Downs racetrack are under Day 7 below.
Here are some of the highlights from our fabulous week in Kentucky on the Bourbon Trail …
Justin and I arrived late in Louisville, Kentucky, after an afternoon of driving, and settled into the city at the very popular Bar Vetti, where we enjoyed bourbon cocktails and pizza, cooked in their wood-burning oven, at the bar.
We made sure to allow for a leisurely lie-in on our first vacation day. Our first visit of the day was a very respectable 1 pm 1-hour standard tour of Woodford Reserve Distillery located one hour outside Louisville. Dating back to 1812, this beautiful distillery is the oldest operating one in Kentucky. I would actually recommend you book the 2-hour tour (given only on Tuesdays & Thursdays at the time of our visit) and then stay to have drinks and perhaps a light snack on the charming outdoor patio with its stunning view overlooking the historic distillery. FYIs: This distillery dates back to 1812, was originally named Labrot & Graham, then renamed “Woodford Reserve” in 1996 and is now considered a National Historic Landmark. Mark Twain, a fan of Labrot & Graham, mentioned his attachment to the brand in a letter to Walt Whitman.
Our 3 pm tour was at the Four Roses distillery.
Dinner in the beautiful lobby bar of the famous Brown Hotel, a Louisville landmark and home of the historic Hot Brown sandwich – a huge platter of amazingly satisfying comfort food –a perfect ending to our day.
On my own for the day. Grabbed coffee & doughnuts (truly some of the best I’ve had) at aptly named North Lime Coffee & Donuts, on route to a stroll through historic Old Louisville with a focus on St. James Court and Belgravia Court (just south of Olmsted Park), experiencing by foot the gorgeous alleys and old homes. Next time – try a walking tour or schedule this walk before dinner at 610 Magnolia (Chef Edward Lee’s original first restaurant in the neighborhood).
At 6 pm we had a tour at Michter’s Distillery on Main Street. While this is a retail outlet and not the site of one of their distilleries, the sensory educational experience at Michter’s was the most enjoyable educational experience we had. We had to race to dinner, but would recommend allocating more time on Main Street around Michter’s for the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Waterfront Park and the unique 21c Museum Hotel with its art gallery and chef-driven restaurant.
In the evening, we enjoyed a lovely orchestrated dinner while sampling Annie Pettry’s cuisine at the well-rated Decca restaurant in Louisville. Utterly relaxing and worth all the hype. Plus, the three-course dinner with alcohol included was very reasonably priced. If you go when the weather is nice, we recommend reserving a table on the charming patio. Next time… we’ll try Decca The Cellar, which is essentially a wine cave underneath the restaurant featuring jazz and bar bites which, when we peeked downstairs, seems to be very popular with the locals.
Breakfast at Con Huevos restaurant, a James Beard semi-finalist featuring very casual dining with great authentic Mexican food.
Today's main event was spa day at the Omni Hotel. Our appointments at 3 pm provided just the right amount of time to enjoy the lovely rooftop pool & café privileges of spa guests. Next time… we’ll visit the hotel’s library bar with hidden speakeasy and bowling alley!
Dinner at MilkWood restaurant at 7:30 pm, perhaps a bit over-hyped but we really enjoyed Chef Edward Lee’s Korean-southern fusion, particularly his take on Korean fried chicken. Recommendation: MilkWood is connected to the Actors Theater of Louisville so when you reserve a table, consider buying tickets for the play following dinner.
Brunch: Royals Hot Chicken in NuLu, the hip, affluent East Market District of Louisville, was not as succulent as Hattie B’s of Nashville and more crunched for space inside, but it offered a cool outdoor space and definitely good soul food.
Walked over to Joe Ley Antiques, a famous warehouse antique store in NuLu, which was amazing, with tons of cool stuff, including coffins and old toys. Go wander through the many floors if you like vintage collections.
Drove to Formé Millinery and met Jenny, the official milliner for the Kentucky Derby. Going a step beyond the average master milliner, Jenny uses machines from the 1800s to weave her stunning hats. A unique experience.
On our drive back, we were inspired to stop along the river and enjoy afternoon cocktails and a fire pit along with the awesome views from the patio at River House Restaurant and Raw Bar.
Dinner that evening at Seviche 7:30 pm (out on Bardstown Rd)… request table near window and try one of their unique takes on bourbon cocktails. We so loved their Aztec chocolate bitters and pecan liquor take on an old fashioned that we make it home quite often now. A little ’90s in decor but we both agreed the best cocktails and food of trip – definitely recommend!
Planned to do jazz at 9 pm at Jimmy Can’t Dance near Main Street – but were blissfully asleep by 10 pm – so it’s on our bucket list for next time.
Stopped for quick café lunch at the Star Hill Provisions farm-to-table restaurant at the Maker’s Mark distillery, where we were treated to the best distillery tour of our visit to Kentucky. Why?… seemingly because the company is very much a well-run family business. Plus, the woman who conducted our tour is a devoted employee who had been working there for 20 years, and we were fortunate to take the long behind-the-scenes tour. Beautiful old buildings, great history, cool stories in an environment that felt really intimate & personal.
Next stop was nearby Old Talbott Tavern in the charming historic town of Bardstown, where we particularly liked the old tavern room where people used to eat & drink in the 1700s. While walking the town, we heard folks talking about a bourbon speakeasy called The Blind Pig known for its generous pours and great drink. FYI: the passkey to get in, at least during our trip, was “1920” – the first year of prohibition.
We were hoping to get to Willett Distillery which is only a few minutes from Bardstown, but did not make it in time. Willett has craft brands, including Johnny Drum, Willett Bourbon Whiskey & Old Bardstown so, one more visit for next time!
Gorgeous weather at the end of the day inspired us to try The Garage Bar back in NuLu. But it was PACKED – definitely the place all the 20/30 somethings go to with their dogs, and this was the first really nice day in a while so everyone was hanging there. Ping-pong tables, outdoor bar, very good pizza, and friendly puppies everywhere. Reservations recommended.
Kentucky Derby Museum and Churchill Downs – Everyone says to book a 7 or 8:30 am tour to see the horses train in the morning for the May Derby and reserve well in advance. Since these early am tours were already booked, we took the 10 am Van tour which, as it turned out, may well have been preferable. Because our tour was in a van, we went back to the stables where few tourists go. (The early-morning tours focus on the tracks.) All the horses had just finished their training so were being cooled down and washed, including famous $3M+ horses and their crews. We watched the stable cats hang out, and the horses be cooled down. We highly recommend this tour. Van only. Allow enough time afterwards to walk through the large museum & see the excellent movie.
Lunch at Wagner’s Pharmacy, the world famous diner where all the Churchill Down staff go. Try to get seats in the front “original” room as the back room is where you’ll find only tourists.
We then headed back into our car for the ride back to Atlanta, with my birthday present (bourbon!) overflowing in the back seat. While Louisville and Bourbon Country may not be an afternoon drive for everyone in the US, it is worth the trip. It is one of the few historic places in the U.S. with a true artisanal craft tradition dating back to the 1800s that is still flourishing today.
For more information on Kentucky tourism visit https://www.kentuckytourism.com.
For more information on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (“KBT”) and Kentucky Bourbon Craft Trail, visit https://kybourbontrail.com/
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