Back in the 1990s, no one thought of Louisville as a Bourbon tourism destination. When the Courier-Journal published an article on the best Bourbon bar in America in the mid-1990s, the bar was Delilah’s in Chicago. Even when Bourbon tourism began after the turn of the 21st century, Louisville was simply the best place to stay as tourists ventured to Bardstown, Frankfort and Lawrenceburg to visit distilleries. Louisville is a central location to travel from and had better hotels and restaurants than these smaller towns, so people would stay in the city at night. There were no distilleries in the city to visit. That has changed in the last two decades.
Louisville now is a destination in its own right for the Bourbon tourist. There are plenty of distilleries to visit. Let’s start with the center of the city and move outward.
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience: Heaven Hill was the first company to get a distillery opened within the city with the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on Main Street. It is a small, one barrel a day distillery that was designed to attract and educate the Bourbon tourist visiting the city. The tour tells the story of Evan Williams and also the city of Louisville. It is a very good tour and a great place to start your Bourbon Grand Tour.
Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery: Michter’s was the first company to announce that they were placing a distillery and visitor’s center in downtown Louisville, but was one of the latest to open. The Fort Nelson Building had more structural damage than they knew when Michter’s purchased the building, but to Michter’s credit, they spent the money to save the building and now have a beautiful little distillery with the original pot stills and fermenters from Pennsylvania.
Kentucky Peerless Distillery: Corky Taylor wanted to bring back his family’s distilling heritage. The Peerless Distillery had been closed since the beginning of Prohibition, but Corky and his son, Carson, worked hard to build a new distillery and create whiskey for the family brand. They are family owned and Corky has taken steps to keep it that way even into the future. They have developed a great tour that tells their story. They have also built a top-notch distillery that makes great whiskey. This is more than just a visitor’s center for a large brand – it is where all of the whiskey they sell is made.
Jim Beam’s Urban StillHouse: This is a small location in the heart of downtown Louisville. They have a small pot still, but it is only used occasionally to redistill some new make whiskey. They do have a small bottling line and a visitor can bottle their own bottle of Jim Beam. They also hold regular, popular cocktail classes and do a very good job at educating the public on cocktail culture.
Old Forester Distillery: This is one of the newest locations in downtown Louisville. It is a bit of a hybrid of the other locations. They are a visitor’s center with a tour for Brown-Forman. Their main distillery in Shively does not offer tours. However, they are making more than a barrel a day for the tourist. They have a very nice, small distillery on sight, complete with a bottling line. It is their goal to make 30% of the Old Forester whiskey at this distillery. This is one place where a visitor can see a barrel being raised without having to go to a cooperage.
Angel’s Envy Distillery: Moving down the road on Main Street, the next distillery is Angel’s Envy. This is a beautiful old building repurposed as the distillery. They have a great tour and it is the distillery where they are making their Bourbon and rye whiskeys for future bottlings. Their tour is well organized and informative. It is here where a tourist will learn most about the process of finishing whiskey in secondary barrels.
Rabbit Hole Distillery: Rabbit Hole Distillery is another great tour to take to see the distilling process. They have designed the tour in such a manner that you wind upward as you progress. It is one of the few distillery tours I know of where you can see the top of a column still and to get a sense as to how tall it is. The tour also ends in a very cool upper level bar with rooftop seating outside that also makes very good cocktails.
Copper & Kings Brandy Distillery: This distillery is just east of downtown and, yes, they make brandy instead of Bourbon. However it is still a great place to visit with their four pot stills of different sizes, which are used for different styles of distillation. They make brandy and fruit based gin, absinth and vodka. They are masters of their craft and well worth visiting while in town.
Stitzel-Weller Distillery: This distillery is outside of the downtown area. The distillery is a mere shadow of its former glory with its column dismantled and the doubler moved to Shelby County into Diageo’s new distillery. However, the tour there is still very good. They have a visitor’s center with many great exhibits, showcasing the history of I. W. Harper and the distillery. They bottle the Blade and Bow Bourbon, made using the solera method. They used one of the last barrels of whiskey from Stitzel-Weller to make this whiskey, so by mathematical theory, there will always be a small amount of the Stitzel-Weller whiskey in the product.
There are other distilling related industries in the city as well for the tourist to explore. The Brown-Forman cooperage offers tours through Mint Julep Tours. Vendome Copper and Brass does not have a visitor’s center or tour, but I have been on tours where you walk down the street and look in the buildings to see the work being done. The big doors are usually open and there is a lot to see from the safety of the street. There is also the Frazier History Museum. It has been branded as the “Head of the Bourbon Trail” and there are many interesting and interactive exhibits to see.
Louisville has also increased its Bourbon Bar scene since the mid-1990s. There are now over 30 bars on the “Urban Bourbon Trail” in Louisville and the number keeps growing. The two latest are Justins’ House of Bourbon and Doc’s Bourbon Room. Justin’s House of Bourbon started in Lexington, Kentucky and expanded with a second location in Louisville. They are a bar and a liquor store where you can try vintage bottles of whiskey and even purchase some of these vintage bottles. Doc’s Bourbon Room has the goal of becoming a bigger whiskey bar than Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington D.C.. It has only been open a few weeks and they have made a decent start, but still have a way to go to match Jack Rose.
Louisville has become a destination for people wanting to learn more about Bourbon. While the rest of the state of Kentucky will continue to see plenty of growth in Bourbon tourism, Louisville will still be a central location to explore those distilleries in other towns, Louisville has become a destination in itself. Sometimes a tourist has only a weekend to visit Kentucky and they don’t want to spend their limited time driving the miles between distilleries. They can come to Louisville and dip their toes in the water of Bourbon heritage and find many great places to visit within 20 minutes of their hotel.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller