Jockey Silks bourbon bar
As I slid down onto the oversized chair, the creak of the leather brought to mind bourbon and cigars. It only made sense; I was getting comfortable in a corner of Jockey Silks, one of the oldest bourbon bars in Louisville.
The opportunity to sip a great bourbon sitting in its spiritual home is akin to a sculptor sitting at the foot of Michelangelo’s David, and I wanted to get it just right. That only seems a stretch to those who don’t know about Kentucky bourbon. I knew all that, but I needed every drop of the coming taste to fulfill my lofty expectations. This dimly lit room features dozens of bourbon bottles adorning the walls, displaying labels with distillery names such as Woodford Reserve and Four Roses, answering bourbon’s royal roll call.
The bartender didn’t hesitate when I asked him for suggestions. He followed with questions about preferred tastes and styles, along with asking what I drink at home. He thought for a moment, and then offered up sampler suggestions for our small group. A few minutes passed before the drinks were delivered. Elijah Craig Single Barrel, Weller, Old Forester — names I’d heard, but knew little about. It was a whirlwind from the more traditional bourbons (Knob Creek, Jim Beam, and Evan Williams) to the high-rye recipes (Basil Hayden and Buffalo Trace) and the sweeter wheat recipes (Maker’s Mark and W.L. Weller). The smell of the Elijah Craig was as good as it tasted. The sweet finish of Blanton’s and the near perfection of the accessible Weller’s Special Reserve were standouts that must be added to my home bar.
Sipping bourbon at Jockey Silks in the Galt House Hotel along Louisville’s famed Bourbon Row was just my appetizer for a three-day whirlwind visit I made this winter to Louisville and the surrounding region. It takes less than six hours to drive to Louisville from Memphis, and the city and surrounding region provide plenty of interesting options for an even longer stay.
The heart of the Bourbon Trail is less than an hour’s drive southeast of Louisville, so it only makes sense that the state drink is celebrated in the city. A visit to Bardstown and the distilleries themselves provides the full-monte bourbon experience, but a real taste of the genuine article can be had in the Bluegrass State’s largest city as well.
Four Louisville distilleries are open to the public for tours and tastings, three of which are downtown — Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Kentucky Peerless Distillery, and the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse. And about 15 minutes from downtown is the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience.
Another iconic Louisvillesymbol is seen at baseball games around the world, where a Louisville Slugger bat likely is in use. Louisville Slugger bats have been made in the heart of downtown on Main Street since 1894. Known as Museum Row on Main, this four-block stretch features several museums that are towered over by the giant wooden Louisville Slugger just outside the factory.
Louisville is a four-season destination where its symbols play a central role in the story, but certainly not the only one. I visited during Christmas, when downtown is transformed into a winter wonderland centered on an outdoor ice skating rink, a magnificent tree, and a holiday marketplace. And over at the Galt House Hotel, it’s hard to top the seasonal display provided there, with its dancing toy soldier bellmen, Christmas dinner show, children’s activities, and elaborate decorations.
But Louisville shines especially bright in May when the world’s attention naturally points to Kentucky during the Derby. The first Saturday of May brings the attention of the horse-racing universe to the iconic Twin Spires that adorn the top of Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. Louisville celebrates this race in style with a two-week party, otherwise known as the Kentucky Derby Festival. It all begins with “Thunder Over Louisville,” North America’s largest fireworks display, and includes races of other kinds — hot air balloons, steamboats, and a mini- and full marathon.
Attention on the Kentucky Derby Festival shifts to Churchill Downs the Sunday before the Derby, when the “Spring Meet” begins. The Kentucky Oaks is the Friday before the Derby, and the race for fillies arguably has become almost as popular as Derby day. Don’t have tickets for the Oaks or Derby? As long as you’re ready to party just show up the day of the race you want to attend and buy an infield ticket. You might not see an actual horse on the track because of the crowds, but you’ll find yourself in the middle of a huge party.
The Kentucky Derby
Whether visiting Louisville during Derby season or not, do make time to check out the Kentucky Derby Museum any time of the year. Several tours of Churchill Downs are available through the museum, including one that checks out the barn and backside.
If traveling with a family, Museum Row on Main provides a solid afternoon of fun. The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is a highlight for kids and sports fans. The Muhammad Ali Center pays tribute to arguably Louisville’s most popular son. This interactive museum tells the story of “The Greatest” across three levels filled with exhibits and galleries.
Nearby at the Frazier History Museum (no, not Joe; he was from South Carolina), visitors can learn about another side of the bourbon story in Kentucky. Throughout 2016, the museum’s “Spirits of the Bluegrass: Prohibition and Kentucky” tells the story of the temperance movement’s “Noble Experiment” and its effect on crime, politics, and culture nationally but with an added focus on the region at every turn. There are 10 stops on Museum Row in a four-block stretch of Main Street, providing more than a few options for a day of culture and fun.
Near Churchill Downs and the University of Louisville is the Speed Art Museum, which reopens this month after an extensive renovation that has kept the state’s largest museum closed for three years. A special exhibit debuts with the reopening that focuses on the permanent Speed Collection. The renovated galleries will focus on contemporary art and works devoted to Kentucky. The museum is free on Sundays through 2016.
The Big Four Bridge
For adventurous types, Mega Cavern of Louisville takes visitors underground just south of downtown. The old limestone quarry was designated as a fallout shelter in case of nuclear attack during the 1950s. Today, the only shelter it provides is from the sun. Visitors have a variety of options, including the world’s only underground zip lines, a ropes course, and a bike course. A tram tour is available for those who want a more leisurely experience through the cavern.
A Louisville visit during the holidays can include “Lights Under Louisville,” a 30-minute ride through part of 17 miles of underground passageways. Carloads pass through the cavern where nearly 900 lit characters and some 2 million lights present a holiday explosion of color, all underground.
Above part of the cavern sits the Louisville Zoo, where gorillas in the round and polar bears are the star attractions. Back downtown, visitors can get up close to the Ohio River. The Big Four Bridge is an old train bridge that connects downtown Louisville to Jeffersonville, Indiana. Walkers, runners, and bikers can pass between the two states on the pedestrian-only bridge that is free and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Bikes, surreys, tandems, and Segways are available for rent at the bottom of the bridge on the Kentucky side.
If visiting Louisville in the late spring into the summer, Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay Water Park provide amusement rides and water park fun. And for sports fans, the Louisville Bats, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, play downtown beginning in April.
Muhammed Ali Center
With an extra day or two in hand, make time for Bardstown. A stopover there isn’t really out of the way, especially if visiting Louisville via car. Take your time driving through the rolling hills, where you’ll quickly see the Jim Beam Distillery on the north side of the road.
Separated by only 40 miles or so, Bardstown is a different world than Louisville. This town of about 10,000 residents rolls out all the charm for its visitors who travel here for bourbon, food, shopping, and relaxation. The streets surrounding Court Square are filled with shops, boutiques, art galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants. A great spot for a meal is the Harrison-Smith House, a 1780s building that houses a restaurant with a menu that changes weekly according to what meats and vegetables are available. Next door is the Kentucky Bourbon House. Take a mixology class or just order a mint julep from the tiny bar. The mint is grown just outside the back door.
For a chance to get even more immersed in Kentucky’s bourbon heritage, check out Heaven Hill Distilleries, the largest family-owned bourbon producer in the U.S., or enjoy one of the complimentary tours at Barton 1792 Distillery. A visit to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History reveals an abundance of historic bourbon artifacts. Step downstairs and visit The Rickhouse in Spalding Hall and sample one or two of the more than 100 bourbons at the bar. If time allows, consider extending a visit by a day or two and experience some of the other distilleries in the region that stretch east toward Lexington.
After a night in one of the numerous bed-and-breakfast inns along the Bourbon Trail, you’ll probably be ready to hit the road south for home. Be sure you pack your souvenir bottles of bourbon carefully; they’ll provide fond memories of your Kentucky excursion for months to come.