Urban Bourbon: Bourbon Trail Gives Enthusiasts Their Best Shot
With its strategic location on the Ohio River, Louisville was once the epicenter of the bourbon world. Now the city is stirring up a brand-new cocktail of bourbon-flavored entertainment aimed at reclaiming, and celebrating, its storied past.
“Whiskey Row,” as Main Street was once known when bourbon shipping along the river was in its heyday, is coming alive again. The Louisville Downtown Development Corp. has hired an Indianapolis firm to design a bourbon district along 14 blocks of Main Street that will eventually mix bourbon bars, visitor experiences and even a couple of micro-distilleries. A group of investors is developing a block of historic buildings saved from demolition in the 100 block of Main with the promise of bourbon-related tenants. And both Michter’s and Heaven Hill have announced plans to open visitor centers on Main Street that will include boutique distilleries.
While the small towns where bourbon is crafted — known collectively as the Kentucky Bourbon Trail — are drawing record numbers of visitors, their big-city cousin is getting seeing a steady flow of bourbon tasters, too. The Urban Bourbon Trail, a collection of Louisville restaurants and bars that prominently feature and celebrate America’s only native spirit, was launched in 2008 to give Louisville a stake in bourbon tourism. Today, the original list of seven establishments has grown to 19 — from the history-drenched hotel bars at the Brown and the Seelbach to the dark, clubby atmosphere of Jack’s and Maker’s Mark Lounge to the quirky interior of Proof on Main, overseen by a leering bronze sculpture of Pan.
In fact, the city’s hip bourbon scene was a primary reason that Lonely Planet declared Louisville its top U.S. travel destination for 2013. “Bourbon reigns in Louisville,” said Robert Reid, the publisher’s U.S. travel editor.
Bourbon enthusiasts can certainly indulge pretty much all day long here, starting with Dish on Market’s “President’s Breakfast” — egg, toast, bacon, fruit and a shot of bourbon, said to be what President Harry Truman had every morning following a walk.
Visitors mark their progress along the Urban Bourbon Trail either on printed or electronic passports and receive a T-shirt after collecting six stamps. Currently, 100,000 passports are in circulation, and more than 4,000 people from 17 countries, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have redeemed them, according to the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau. The pool of finishers is pretty evenly divided between men (55%) and women (45%), belying the myth that bourbon is a man’s drink. (For more about that, see the sidebar on Bourbon Women.)
Participating venues must offer a minimum of 50 bourbons; some, like the Galt House’s Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar, carry up to 150. Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing communications for the visitors bureau, says she’s noticed a trend of new bars and restaurants touting that they will have “50 bourbons or 50 whiskies” — or more — regardless of whether they are on the Urban Bourbon Trail. Charr’d Bourbon Kitchen & Lounge in the recently renovated Marriott Louisville East, for instance, promises to carry at least 80 bourbons in a nod to the minimum bottling proof of the spirit.
“I have to giggle a little to think that we just set this number  for the UBT — with much consultation with bourbon brands, I might add — and it’s become sort of this gold standard,” Yates said. “In any other market, I think having 20 bourbons on your menu would signify you were serious about it, but in Louisville, you have to step up your game to stand out.”
Even restaurants that don’t have a whiskey focus are giving a nod to bourbon. “I think that really underscores how much bourbon is truly part of our culture and lifestyle in Louisville,” Yates said. “The best example that comes to mind is that Mayan Café, which is now serving spirits, has a new drink they call Don’t Worry About It. The menu just says it’s got Woodford, no other ingredients listed, and not to worry about it. How cool is that?”
Soon to join the Urban Bourbon Trail is the Silver Dollar, a honkytonk in a rehabbed firehouse in Clifton. The vibe at the Silver Dollar is inspired by California’s Bakersfield Sound, but its 50 or so bourbons are all Kentucky brands, said Susie Hoyt, the bar’s beverage director. “It’s really important for us to preserve that tradition of bourbon and Kentucky. Bourbon is this great, awesome thing that’s respected around the world and it originated here. It’s a local thing, and we are proud of that.” Kentucky distillers produce about 95% of the world’s supply of bourbon, following the strict guidelines set forth in a federal law passed in 1964 that declared it a distinctive product of the United States. Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred white-oak barrels. No flavorings or colorings can be added — just water. Hoyt thinks bourbon’s agricultural nature appeals to today’s consumers.
“I think a lot of people are into the quality of the food and drink they are consuming, and they want to know where it’s from,” she said. “They’re into organic food, local, fresh — they’re trying to stay away from preservatives. It’s the same thing when people have a cocktail. They enjoy it more if it’s made with fresh juice and higher-quality ingredients.”
The Silver Dollar aims for quality ingredients in its craft cocktails, she said. “All our juice is fresh every day. Our cocktail cherries are organic Michigan cherries. We try to be as local as we can. I mean, if someone orders a bourbon and Coke, I pretty much have to give them bourbon and Coke. But instead of buying ginger beer, now we juice our own ginger.”
Of course, as you’d expect at a place whose web address is WhiskeyByThe- Drink.com, many of the Silver Dollar’s customers are taking their bourbon neat.
“People here know about bourbon, and they want to try different kinds,” she said. “My favorite to shoot is Charter 101 from Buffalo Trace. You definitely feel the burn, but it has great character and a nice woody note.” Asked for an overlooked gem, she suggested Old Grand-Dad 114, bottled by Jim Beam. “It’s inexpensive, but it’s really delicious, neat or in a cocktail. It’s kind of a sleeper on the shelf.”
Carla Carlton is director of development communications at Bellarmine University and an award-winning freelance writer. She writes about all things bourbon in her blog, The Bourbon Babe.
THE URBAN BOURBON TRAIL is a culinary and cocktail experience in Louisville that features 19 bars and restaurants. A passport, which can be picked up at the Visitors Center (Fourth and Jefferson) or at any of the stops on the trail, guides guests through the experience. After receiving six stamps on the passport, guests can receive a free Urban Bourbon Trailblazer T-shirt.
1767 Bardstown Rd.
The Bar at BLU
280 W. Jefferson St.
Baxter Station Bar & Grill
1201 Payne St.
2255 Frankfort Ave.
Bristol Bar & Grille – Downtown
614 W. Main St.
The Brown Hotel
335 W. Broadway
425 W. Ormsby
Corbett’s: an American place
5050 Norton Healthcare Blvd.
Derby Cafe: at the Kentucky Derby Museum
704 Central Ave.
Dish on Market
434 W. Market St.
Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar
127 W. Main St.
Equus & Jack’s Lounge
122 Sears Ave.
Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar
140 N. 4th St.
10001 Forest Green Blvd.
Maker’s Mark Bourbon House & Lounge
446 S. 4th St.
The Old Seelbach Bar
500 S. 4th St.
Proof On Main
702 W. Main St.
Ramsi’s Café on the World
1293 Bardstown Rd.
11507 Park Rd.502-708-1850
INDUSTRY WOOS BOURBON WOMEN
When Peggy Noe Stevens decided to start a group that would provide educational and networking opportunities for women who enjoy bourbon, she knew there would be interest. She just didn’t anticipate how much interest.
“In just over a year’s time, we are close to 500 women,” said Stevens, a brand strategist, master bourbon taster and the founder of the Bourbon Women Association. Launched in the spring of 2011 with an event at the Governor’s Mansion, the association now has members in 20 states, Canada and Australia.
Stevens attributes the growth to the “unique, exclusive, interactive, behind-thescenes events we have offered.”
Those have included barbecue and bourbon with Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe at the Knob Creek House; a private cooking demo with Heaven Hill bourbons by Brown Hotel executive chef Laurent Geroli; an after-hours tour of the Derby Museum and Four Roses bourbon tasting with master distiller Jim Rutledge; and a private tour of Maker’s Mark with Victoria MacRae-Samuels, the only female vice president of operations in the bourbon industry.
“What has really impressed me is the caliber of women who are coming to these events,” Stevens said. While members come from many walks of life, they share some common traits, she said. “Bourbon Women are confident, sophisticated and adventurous; they know what they like.” Attending association events “is a tremendous networking opportunity.”
Of course, not everyone can make it to Kentucky, the center of the bourbon universe. So Bourbon Women went to them this past year, with a series of “Take Flight” events in notable venues in Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Boston and Chicago. A trip to Los Angeles is planned for 2013.
“There are women in a significant number of states that want to start Bourbon Women chapters,” Stevens said. “One of our challenges is how to grow the organization with outreach to other states.” A near-term goal is to have an annual Bourbon Women conference in Kentucky that would “bring like-minded women together” for a series of educational meetings and events.
In addition to continuing to educate women about bourbon and other styles of whiskey, Stevens said, “we hope to be more involved with the industry—being ambassadors, working with the Kentucky Distillers’ Association on legislation. The bourbon industry has a huge economic impact for the state of Kentucky.”
That explains why “Kentucky bourbon” is typically her answer when she’s asked to name her favorite bourbon. “But the particular one really depends on the mood I’m in,” she added. “Am I feeling kind of low-key and wanting to relax, or am I in a cocktail mood on a Friday night with my girlfriends? That helps determine which bourbon I choose.”
Want to be a Bourbon Woman? To become a member of the Bourbon Women Association (annual fee: $50), visit BourbonWomen.org and click on “Join Bourbon Women” under the Membership tab.