Kentucky is bourbon country, and Louisville is the capital. Home to distilleries and brand experiences from the likes of Jim Beam, Old Forester, and Evan Williams—all part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail—the birthplace of the Old Fashioned, and the setting for the most exciting two minutes in sports and a bonafide cocktail holiday, the Kentucky Derby. Whether it’s a Mint Julep in your hand, a decadent Coffee & Donut cocktail from Whiskey Dry or simply a neat pour made down the block, Louisville is a bourbon drinker’s paradise and one of the greatest whiskey cities in the world.
Uber or Lyft are your best bets. Taxis can be scarce and the municipal bus system, TARC, isn’t conducive to a proper urban expedition. The major distillery visitor centers outside of town can require an hour’s drive, so a car rental and non-drinking driver are necessary unless you utilize an organized tour company.
When to Go
Kentucky Derby Festival begins in April and continues through the famous race held the first weekend in May. It is by far the busiest (and priciest) time to visit the city; hotel rates soar. Two major bourbon events, similar in name but not in approach, occur annually. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held in September, brings droves of enthusiasts to sleepy Bardstown, although more of the events have migrated to Louisville in recent years. The Kentucky Bourbon Affair, held in September, is a more intimate event, offering distillery dinners and barrel selections, that includes up-close access to master distillers.
Where to Drink
Bars and restaurants in Louisville that have extended-hours licenses can serve until 4 a.m., although many elect to close by 2 a.m., which is when all areas outside Louisville cease serving.
One of the first bourbon bars in Louisville’s “bourbonism” revival, it carries more than 130 bourbons and antique whiskeys. Vintage photos and 1970s decanters evoke a bygone era.
Next door to the Seelbach, this bar is home to more than 170 bourbons, with proprietary bottles and some exceedingly rare selections.
Hell or High Water Bar
Tucked discreetly behind Whiskey Row, this swank speakeasy-style bar offers thoughtfully crafted original cocktails, many designed around premium whiskey.
North End Café
A laid-back bar offering more than 60 bourbons at reasonable prices, like Pappy 12 year old for under $20.
The Silver Dollar
Only Kentucky whiskeys can be found on this 250-plus pour list, which includes rare, antique single-barrel selections, housed in a restored 1890s firehouse.
Where to Stay
21c Museum Hotel
Sits on Main Street among the distilleries, featuring an art gallery and the bar/restaurant Proof on Main with its impressive whiskey list.
Just two blocks off Main Street, this new hotel offers extravagance with high-end whiskey mini-bars and an upscale bourbon shop on the ground floor.
An iconic Louisville institution with a restored 1900s bar that offers a large collection of single-barrel selections. Part of the original Urban Bourbon Trail.
Where to Shop
With a selection of over 650 whiskies, you can find standards, hard-to-find selections, and your new favorite.
Old Town Liquors
This shop has cultivated a large selection of hand-picked single-barrel bottles that can’t be found elsewhere.
Westport Whiskey & Wine
Let the knowledgeable staff guide you to the perfect bottle, with everything from small batch to single barrel selections in the tasting room.
Grab a single-barrel rye at Kentucky Peerless. These are very limited editions, sold only in the gift shop. That’s right—buy rye in bourbon country, you rebel! Stick around long enough and you’re almost bound to run into a master distiller. Or, you can take home a bottle signed by a master distiller from Frazier History Museum. Visitors can fill their own bottle of Urban Stillhouse Select at Jim Beam’s Urban Stillhouse, just one of many distilleries that offer exclusive whiskeys.
Hire a Guide
Mint Julep Tours
More than just distillery tours. Tour a cooperage, take a cooking class, or visit unique behind-the-scenes sights.
Copper Still Tours
Travel in style to curated distillery tours, with catered food and drink.
Taste of Louisville
These distilleries are operating tours or making whiskey right in the heart of downtown Louisville. Some of these selections may include whiskey sourced from other distilleries or crafted at their larger facilities outside of the city.
Angel’s Envy—93 points, $50
A secondary period of maturation in port pipes lends this silky straight bourbon flavors of ripe, berry fruit.
Booker’s 2018-02 “Backyard BBQ”—93 points, $75
Each batch varies but, typical of Jim Beam’s Booker’s bourbon, this shows concentration and muscle, oozing with caramel and laced with root beer notes.
Bulleit 10 year old—91 points, $40
Earthy, leathery, and spiced, this Kentucky bourbon shows nice maturity. Bulleit is currently distilling at its Shelbyville, Ky. facility.
Evan Williams Bottled in Bond—86 points, $17
A tasty bargain-bourbon with classic caramel and butterscotch notes, suitable for casual sipping or mixing.
Kentucky Peerless Straight Rye—91 points, $100
Fruit-driven, with orange, peach, and vanilla custard, this whiskey tastes mature beyond its years, which landed the small craft distiller a spot on Whisky Advocate’s Top 20.
Michter’s 10 year old Single Barrel Rye (Barrel 18E560)—92 points, $160
An annual release worth splurging on for its rich toffee and caramel draped over leathery oak and warm apples.
Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style—91 points, $60
Part of the “Whiskey Row Series,” this high-proof bourbon offers chocolate-covered cherries and baking spices.
Rabbit Hole Rye—84 points, $60
Made with 95% rye and 5% malted barley, this revels in the floral notes of young rye and comes laced with plenty of cinnamon.
Distilleries to Visit Beyond Louisville
Buffalo Trace (Frankfort)
This national historic landmark is home to Pappy Van Winkle whiskeys and other cult favorites. A variety of creative, complimentary tours allow you to follow a barrel through the distillery or walk the excavated distillery of founder E.H. Taylor Jr.
Castle & Key (Frankfort)
The beautifully preserved grounds of the former E.H. Taylor Distillery are home to the 1887 castle-like distillery, springhouse, and gardens. Vodka and gin are currently available while their whiskey ages.
Jeptha Creed (Shelbyville)
This small farm-distillery uses heirloom Bloody Butcher corn and other ingredients grown on the 1,000-acre family farm. Their on-site bar and restaurant serves light lunch and custom cocktails made with Jeptha Creed whiskeys, moonshine, and vodka.
Four Roses (Lawrenceburg)
The Spanish mission-inspired architecture of the distillery is home to the two mashbills and five yeast strains used to craft their unique blends. Take a walking tour of the distillery and enjoy a guided tasting of their three signature bourbons.
Heaven Hill (Bardstown)
The newly constructed Bourbon Heritage Center showcases the history of brands like Evan Williams. Travel through rickhouse Y and enjoy a tasting in the world’s largest bourbon barrel.
James E. Pepper Distillery (Lexington)
This resurrected brand has made its home on the historic grounds of the Old Pepper Distillery. The distillery now produces whiskeys, bourbon, and ryes in addition to barrel-aged ales.
Jim Beam (Clermont)
On these scenic and historic grounds, well-known bourbons are distilled using water from nearby limestone streams. Enjoy a bourbon-inspired meal at Fred’s Smokehouse after your tour.
Kentucky Artisan Distillery (Crestwood)
This “farm to bottle” distillery uses grains grown on the neighboring 700 acres of farmland. This is home to Jefferson’s Reserve, Whiskey Row, and Iron Quarter bourbons.
Limestone Branch Distillery (Lebanon)
This small distillery revives an old family tradition of distilling whiskey. Settled in the same town as their ancestors, the master distillers craft Yellowstone bourbon and Minor Case rye whiskey.
Lux Row Distillery (Bardstown)
One of the newest stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, this distillery opened in early 2018. The spacious grounds and production facility are home to popular brands like Rebel Yell and Ezra Brooks.
Maker’s Mark (Loretto)
This distillery has maintained the same old-fashioned processes since opening in 1953. Take a tour around the scenic grounds and dip your own bottle in the signature red wax.
New Riff (Newport)
This urban distillery utilizes a groundwater aquifer located directly beneath the building to craft its non-chill filtered bourbon and rye whiskey, as well as gin. They plan to experiment with new styles of whiskeys, including malted rye.
Town Branch Bourbon (Lexington)
This versatile distillery crafts Town Branch whiskeys in addition to gin and coffee-bourbon liqueur. A variety of bourbon barrel-aged beers are made at the sister brewery across the street.
Wild Turkey (Lawrenceburg)
The distinctive red and green warehouses at this distillery are home to whiskey favorites Wild Turkey 101 and Longbranch. The distillery’s visitor center is inspired by Kentucky tobacco barns and features a gorgeous view of the Kentucky River.
This distillery traces its heritage back to 1936 and has taken great care to maintain its history by restoring the warehouses and cistern room. They now produce a wide variety of whiskeys, including Old Bardstown, Rowan’s Creek, and Willett Pot Still Reserve.
Woodford Reserve (Versailles)
This scenic distillery was once home to Elijah Pepper’s whiskey production. The historic grounds include 100 year old cypress fermenters, a gravity-fed barrel run, and a distinctive trio of copper pot stills.