It’s easy to mindlessly scroll Instagram and lust over far off places. Exotic beaches with water so blue it doesn’t look real, temples as old as time and lush green landscapes in faraway places. I tend to focus on these types of trips. The 15-hour flight and ten vacation days kind of travel. It can be easy to get wrapped up dreaming of these destinations, but what about the amazing places in your own backyard?
Living in the Midwest is great, but the winters and in-between months can be really hard. There is not much to do other than tough it out with Netflix and pop some vitamin D supplements. We don’t have mountains to hike, or beaches to visit. So, we decided to escape for a long weekend and take advantage of the Good Friday holiday. We didn’t want to fly because we had three back-to-back trips this winter with some pretty heinous international travel. While we were looking at destinations that were within 4-5 hours driving distance from Detroit, Louisville popped up on the radar. This city was not high on my list, but my husband has always wanted to visit the bourbon trail. So, I agreed and a few weeks later we were off to Louisville.
I don’t love bourbon and I didn’t know much about the city before visiting, but I was blown away by Louisville. The food. The people. The scenery. The bourbon. Louisville is a ten out of ten destination if you like to eat and drink your way around a city. I’ve never considered myself very into southern culture, but since I’ve been back I find myself dreaming of the rolling green hills, the country horse farms, delicious southern food and yes, even the Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Day 1: Friday
We left Detroit after work on Thursday and arrived in Louisville close to midnight. We stayed at the AC Hotel in the NuLu neighborhood named after “New Louisville” which is an up and coming neighborhood east of Downtown. Some of the best restaurants in the city are up and down Market Street in NuLu. Before our tour, we ran across the street to Please & Thank You coffee shop. It was the cutest local coffee shop with great eat-on-the-go type breakfast foods.
We used Ken Tucky Tours for our bourbon tour. They were the sweetest couple and incredibly knowledgeable about Louisville and bourbon. Ken’s wife Suzy even sent us over a huge list of things to do when visiting Louisville. I’d highly recommend them over some of the bigger companies due to their attention to detail and incredible southern hospitality.
We started our bourbon trail tour with a tasting at Four Roses. Remember when I said I didn’t drink bourbon? I was reminded of this when I had three hefty tastings at 9:45 AM. I am also not even going to pretend like my palette is sophisticated enough to describe the taste of bourbon. So I will just share what I learned. In order for a spirit to be dubbed Kentucky straight bourbon it must follow five rules in the distillation process, and then age for a minimum of two years in a brand new, charred wooden barrel. These rules are regulated by the federal government and date back to when people first started to make bourbon in Kentucky.
After we did our tasting at Four Roses we headed to Woodford. Woodford reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky derby. All of the cocktails made at Churchill Downs on Derby Day are made with Woodford. This was our first distillery tour and the grounds are absolutely gorgeous. The smoke from the distilling process turns all of the tree trunks surrounding the distilleries a dark black color. The starkness of the dark trunks and the bright green leaves gives the area around the distilleries a moody look. It makes me wonder how good this process can be for the environment. I’ll save that thought for another day.
As a non-bourbon drinker, I liked the taste of Woodford the best. It was the smoothest and most flavorful in my opinion. After we finished our tasting we headed to a cute little spot called Stave for lunch. Stave is nestled between Woodford and the Jim Beam aging location. Think southern lunch classics like fried chicken sandwiches, ham, and cheese with homemade biscuits. Also, great bourbon cocktails! 😉
We had some time to kill so we stopped by this amazing distillery called Castle & Key. The building was abandoned and the owners have done an amazing job of restoring the property while keeping its integrity. The grounds of this place scream modern country chic wedding. Kentucky brides where you at? Book this venue! Any who, I digress.
Castle & Key isn’t dishing out bourbon just yet due to the aging process. I believe they said the first batch would be ready later this year. In the meantime, they have some other great spirits like vodka and gin and tonic on tap. Castle & Key also has “experiences” because apparently, they are too fancy for regular ol’ tours. We didn’t do one of these because they are a bit on the pricier side. If you don’t want to do an “experience”, sit outside and enjoy the sunshine.
Our last stop on the tour was Buffalo Trace. If you’re going to do a tour anywhere I recommend it here. It’s one of (if not the) oldest continuously running bourbon distillery. Most places had to shut down for the prohibition years, but a few select distilleries were able to stay open on the grounds of “medicinal purposes”. During prohibition there were three times the amount of bourbon prescriptions written then there were people living in Kentucky.
That’s a good comparison to the amount of bourbon aging in Kentucky today. There are 4 million people that live in the state of Kentucky. Yet there are 8 million barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses. The popularity of bourbon has skyrocketed in the last few years. A lot of the demand is coming from international players like Japan. They simply can’t keep up with production and meet the aging requirements fast enough.
If you like Bailey’s I would recommend grabbing a bottle of the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream. It was the BEST way to have bourbon in my opinion. It’s made with real cream and requires refrigeration after opening. Our tasting guide mixed it with a splash of root beer and I could have sipped on that all day.
My favorite part about bourbon country was driving through the rolling green hills along the back roads nestled with the blooming red bud trees. It truly is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. We passed some incredible horse “farms”. I put the word farm in quotes because when I think of a farm I picture a weathered red barn with dirt floors. These are not farms. They are multi-million dollar estates that house prized stallions like American Pharoah that get studded out for $200,000 a pop. Upon learning this information I immediately Googled how I can acquire a racehorse so I can retire at 30.
We did a great job pacing ourselves all day. So, we were feeling ready to take on the nightlife in Louisville. Before dinner, we grabbed a drink at a spot in NuLu called Rye. They had great cocktails and a new American inspired menu. I got a few oysters because I can’t resist a glass of champagne and a good oyster. Even in bourbon country.
Friday night we went to dinner at Milkwood. A must if you’re in Louisville. Edward Lee brings an Asian flair to classically southern dishes like pork shoulder with curry oil and coconut milk grits. This meal was one of the best I’ve had, and I don’t say that lightly. We started with smoked chicken wings with homemade white BBQ sauce, mussels with Thai chili sauce, lime and cilantro, and beef tartare with toasted coconut and curry wonton chips. I am having taste flashbacks while I write this. We rounded out our meal with the aforementioned pork shoulder. It had me Googling coconut milk grits recipes before we even paid the bill. I could talk about this meal for the rest of this blog post, but I’ll spare you.
Day 2: Saturday
We called it an early night on Friday. Give us some credit, we did take our first shot of bourbon at 9:45 AM. Somehow we made it up in time to go to an Orangetheory fitness class on Saturday morning. Even the instructor was impressed we made it to an 8:15 class the day after a bourbon tour.
After we sweat out the bourbon we hopped over to Quills coffee for a bourbon caramel latte and a bite to eat. The housemade syrup is not too sweet and gives the latte great flavor without overpowering the coffee. The breakfast sandwiches here were amazing! They had lots of great vegan and veggie options on the menu.
My husband’s favorite bourbon is Bulleit. So, he wanted to head there to visit the tasting room. It was about a 15 minute drive from the hotel. The bar in the tasting room is adorable with an 1800s era bourbon distillery meets mid century modern feel. They have a great selection of craft cocktails which is my preferred way to drink bourbon.
After the tasting room we drove back into the city and dropped off the car. Then we ventured out for our favorite kind of day while traveling: drinking and eating. We started at Feast BBQ to get some lunch and this was southern barbecue at its finest. We split a brisket plate and two sides and it was the perfect amount of food. It was cold and rainy the entire weekend. This was a bummer because we couldn’t take advantage of the many patios that Louisville’s bars and restaurants have to offer.
Despite the sub 50-degree temps I opted for a bourbon ginger ale slushie at Feast. I was FREEZING! But it was so worth it. If it had been a hot day, Andrew may have had to carry me home. Alas, the cold weather slowed my frozen drink consumption down significantly and we headed to the brewery next door.
Akasha brewery had a great selection of beers ranging from sours to IPAs. And you guessed it, bourbon barrel aged ales. It had a massive bar and board games that kept us entertained while we waited out the waves of rain before we headed to our next spot.
To round out our day drinking adventure we went to Copper and Kings to check out Alexander bar. This is totally walkable from NuLu especially on a nicer day. Our umbrella got a lot of use and we had cocktails to warm up when we got inside. The outdoor space here is massive! Around every corner is outdoor seating, firepits and a great view of the city. Copper and Kings is known for its liqeurs and their bar program is mainly focused around leveraging their spirits in craft cocktails. We had a drink and then headed back to the hotel to relax before dinner.
We walked to Garage Bar down the street for a pre-dinner drink. Their menu had affordable cocktails and a pizza-centric menu. Wanting to try as much food as we could, we opted to head somewhere else for dinner. First, we stopped at Nouvelle wine bar. The bartender from Rye the night before gave us this recommendation. They had a great selection of wines and a chill atmosphere. The staff was a bit standoffish and less friendly than I had encountered at the other spots we visited. Lacking the southern charm, if you will. Don’t let that deter you though! They offer wine by the 3 oz pours up to a bottle. This is great for trying lots of varieties if that’s your style.
For our dinner selection we chose Decca. Mostly because it was a freezing four minute walk, but also because it was high on the restaurant lists. We got a spot at the bar and had amazing food and service. The cocktails we had here were the best we had all weekend. I strayed from bourbon (sacrilegious I know!) and opted for a spicy mezcal cocktail. It was everything I could want in a good drink. For dinner we shared a beet and ricotta toast that was outstanding ,and finished with a braised lamb pasta dish with homemade wide noodles. Decca is worth your full attention for a meal. I will be back.
After dinner we went to a fun local bar across the street called Taj. They have a great bourbon selection and a laid-back, inviting dive bar style.
Day 3: Sunday
It would only be right if we celebrated Easter by hitting up a local brunch spot. I snagged reservations last minute at Proof on Main which is a part of the boutique hotel, 21C. 21C is a museum hotel that showcases some trendy and interactive art exhibits in its lobby and throughout the hotel. Proof on Main was a great spot for brunch! They had an Easter tasting menu that included sweet carrot bread with bourbon mouse, eggs Benedict with homemade southern biscuits and a mint julep inspired dessert.
Sunday was a gorgeous bluebird day. I tried not to let the fact that it rained from the second crossed the Kentucky line Thursday night until the day we left to get to me. It just means that now I have to go back to experience Louisville at it’s finest; sunshine filled days at Keeneland or Churchill Downs taking in some horse races and sipping on a mint julep. If you’ve never considered visiting Louisville, or even Kentucky, (don’t worry because I didn’t either), but I’m here to tell you – GO! It was one of the best cities I’ve visited in the U.S. and whether you like bourbon or not, the lush green countryside and southern hospitality will enchant you into wanting more. Maybe even wanting some Kentucky Straight Bourbon.