It's December 2, 2013, and the cracked sidewalk leading to Bourbon's Bistro is bustling with camera crews, politicians, distillers, chefs and local Louisville celebrities. I'm there, too, holding a cocktail and a reporter's pad, waiting for Mayor Greg Fischer to give a press conference behind the bar with hundreds of Bourbons: How cool is that?
Standing next to a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel and with a Woodford Reserve Old Fashioned in his hand, Fischer begins his spiel, obviously trying to win the hearts and minds of Louisville Bourbon lovers. "Bourbon is a food group," Fischer said. "What Napa Valley is to food and wine, I want Louisville to be to food and Bourbon."
Fischer then explained his latest initiative—the Bourbon and Local Food Work Group, a 34-member group of local chefs, Bourbon distillers and tourism officials — that will, according to the executive order: "develop a plan to promote Louisville as the best culinary and beverage city in the world, thereby attracting national and international travellers to enjoy our internationally-acclaimed food scene and to become a gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail."
The local political beat writers in the room sighed a little bit, hoping for something juicier. But, the lone Bourbon writer (me) was as giddy as a schoolgirl. The city was arming its restaurants with even more Bourbon firepower than they already have. Whether Louisville can compete with New York, Chicago or San Francisco at the food level remains to be seen, but the Bourbon boom is certainly spilling over and the mayor's initiative complements Urban Bourbon Trail—the spark that revitalized Louisville's bar scene.
Started in 2008, the Urban Bourbon Trail is the city's answer to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. A paper passport and a Smart Phone app offer tips and freebies to the formal trail that requires restaurants be open for at least one year and have a minimum 50 Bourbons. The establishment must be a partner of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau with a special Urban Bourbon Trail annual membership fee of $295, in addition to the current investment in the Bureau's partnership program, and must be current on all advertising payments.
Other rules apply, but it goes without saying that Louisville has more Bourbon per restaurant capita than anywhere in the world. The quality of the 28 stops on the Urban Bourbon Trail varies and the upfront investment keeps many worthy establishments from joining the Urban Bourbon Trail.
The original Bourbon bar in Louisville, Bourbons Bistro set the precedent for all modern Louisville Bourbon bars. Opened since April 2005, the famous bar boasts 200 Bourbons or more on any given day and has the level of Bourbon intelligence not found in most places. A Bourbon Bistro bartender will be able to tell you when the Bernheim Distillery stopped making Old Charter, in case you were wondering, or he can talk about various Four Roses' yeasts. The owner is known to keep a few old dusty bottles sitting underneath the bar.
Brown Lobby Bar
Opened in 1923, the luxurious Brown Hotel boasts a two-story lobby featuring Bottoncino marble flooring, mahogany furniture and Palladian-style windows. It's even more stunning when you've got fine Bourbon, listen to the piano player, sip and relax. The problem with sitting in the Brown Lobby Bar: You're so content that you don't want to leave and before you know it, your trip is over.
Charr'd Bourbon Kitchen and Lounge
Unless you're staying in the Marriott Louisville East, you're likely to miss this stop, because Jeffersontown is far away from all the Louisville hotspots. Sadly, Charr'd is on an island in Suburbia. But, that doesn't mean the superb 130-plus-Bourbon menu does not deserve your love. The modern design makes you feel like you're inside a barrel.
Derby Café at the Kentucky
Derby Museum I teach Bourbon classes for the Kentucky Derby Museum, and it's one of the best-kept secrets in Louisville, almost hidden at Churchill Downs—the famous racetrack for the Kentucky Derby. Come sip a Bourbon at the Derby Café and listen to the sounds of horses past, present and future. There's no other venue that combines the majestic beauty of thoroughbreds and the caramel allure of Bourbon.
On the historic Whiskey Row and inside a former distillery company, Doc Crow's offers the best barbecue and oysters in Louisville. Since Louisville is the UPS North American hub, Doc Crow's procures oysters the day after and sometimes the day they're caught. Couple the great food with the craft cocktails and incredible Bourbon selection
Haymarket is Louisville's softer version of Delilah's Chicago, the legendary punk rock / whiskey bar. Whereas Delilah's has punk rock, Haymarket packs Star Wars action figures and forgotten pinball machines, but more importantly the bar maintains a stellar Bourbon selection and a strong local music scene. Carrying more than 100 Bourbons and 200 total whiskies with a decent craft beer selection, Haymarket is a straight whiskey kind of place. Don't come here wanting froufrou cocktails or gourmet food, because you're not going to get it. Now, you might find the first bottling of Elijah Craig or a barrel strength rarity.
The Silver Dollar
The Silver Dollar is Kentucky's most-famous honkey-tonk. It's won every damn award you can think of and received just about as much press as Kentucky native George Clooney. Whether it's the friendly pours of old dusty whiskey (1977 Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey and 1940s Old Grand Dad to name two) or the stellar private barrel selections of owner Larry Rice or maybe it's the strong whiskey cocktails or the better than-Texas Texas chilli, Silver Dollar is Louisville at its best—full of whiskey.
Don't let the fine-dining décor and classic Italian menu, this is a serious Bourbon bar with more talent behind the cocktail shaker than most cities. Volare boasts two winners of the Four Roses' Rose Julep Contest—Kyle Tabler and Isaac Fox—and they are truly gifted whiskey mixologists. If you want a superb Italian meal—maybe the pappardelle boscaiola or osso buco Milanese—Volare never misses the mark and the whiskey bartenders can pair the perfect cocktail.
The Rest of the Urban Bourbon Trail
The Rest of the Urban Bourbon Trail Asiatique
The Bar at BLU
Bristol Bar & Grille - downtown
Bristol Bar & Grille - Highlands
Dish on Market
Maker's Mark Bourbon House & Lounge
The Old Seelbach Bar
Proof on Main
Ramsi's Café on the World
St. Charles Exchange
Village Anchor Pub & Roost
Vincenzo's Italian Restaurant
Worthy but not on the Urban Bourbon Trail
Equus & Jack's Lounge