If you're headed to Louisville for next weekend's 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, you've probably got whiskey on your mind. But while the city and its signature brown spirit have become synonymous, Louisville's craft-cocktail scene is having a moment, too.
No doubt, Louisville is a straight-ahead bourbon town, and visitors will find expressions here they won't find anywhere else. Things could get even better, with the state considering legislation that would let anyone sell old unopened whiskey bottles to bars or restaurants. If it passes, some cool vintage stuff could be showing up soon on (or off) menus.
"There are probably more bottles of bourbon tucked away in attics in Kentucky than anyplace else in the world," Kentucky Distillers Association president Eric Gregory told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "It just stands to reason, because we are the birthplace of bourbon and we have been producing the great majority of the world's bourbon for now over 200 years."
But the city hasn't missed out on the craft-cocktail boom, and you'll find plenty more than Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours. Plus, bars here stay open until 4 a.m.
"The city has evolved a lot," says Matthew Landan of Haymarket Whiskey Bar, which stocks about 400 bourbons, some for sale by the bottle. "It's incredibly more advanced than it was when I moved here 12 years ago."
The rise of the region's whiskey visibility and the city's cocktails scene has been a symbiotic one, says Brian Elliott, master distiller at Four Roses Bourbon. When he was a kid, Louisville wasn't widely known for much beyond the University of Louisville Cardinals and that big horse race at Churchill Downs. That began to change in the mid-1990s as foodie culture took root nationwide and the craft-cocktail renaissance bubbled in the wings. As tastes changed and chefs and bartenders answered consumer demands for authentic, quality ingredients, Kentucky whiskey offered Louisville homegrown artistry.
"At the same time that people started caring about the craftsmanship of their cocktails, bartenders were looking for quality ingredients and the story behind them," Elliott says. The same had happened with food, and whiskey was prized as a local product. "It's such a part of the culture here that inevitably it became kind of a centerpiece of cocktails and food."
Cocktails, marinades, glazes, dessert syrups- any way you can utilize whiskey has been tried.
"Now the scene in Louisville is remarkable," he says. "I don't think you can think about Louisville without thinking about the food scene, and that goes hand in hand with the cocktail scene."
Four Roses' Kentucky roots date back to 1888; the brand was one of a half-dozen allowed to be sold during Prohibition for medicinal purposes. "You could actually get a prescription," Elliott says. For what? "Well....that was probably more about your relationship with your physician than anything."
After Prohibition, Four Roses became the top-selling bourbon in the U.S., and the brand was purchased by Seagram's, in Canada. While the company kept exporting Four Roses' original recipe to Europe and Japan, it remade a Canadian-style blended whiskey for the U.S. That continued until 2001, when Japan's Kirin bought the brand and reinstituted the original style.
You'll now find Four Roses in cocktails like the Petal Pusher at Martini Italian Bistro, in East Louisville. But it's also among the local whiskeys on the shelves of cocktail bars like Meta, a Daniel-Craig-cool industrial-style hang (next to a downtown strip joint) with marble counters and original drinks traced to their classic influences: For example, try the Northern Lights, featuring un-aged brandy from locally distilled Copper & Kings along with bourbon-barreled gin, Yellow Chartreuse and dandelion bitters; underneath that you'll find the classic from which the drink gets its inspiration, the Alaska.
A few blocks in one direction takes you to the regal Brown Hotel, where you can enjoy a Mint Julep in oaky opulence along with the famous Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich topped with bacon, tomatoes, Pecorino Romano cheese and Mornay sauce developed in the 1920s to appease hangry wee-hour clubgoers. Head another direction and you'll find the historic Seelbach Hilton hotel, which opened in 1905 and poured drinks for the likes of Al Capone and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Not far away is the fascinating Proof on Main, a whimsically artful cocktail bar and restaurant attached to the renowned 21c Museum Hotel. (You'll know it by the strawberry-pomegranate-themed Lincoln limo parked outside, and if not that, then the gold, four-story-high statue of David.) Look through a thoughtful drink menu bursting with fruit and herb and try the outstanding False Flattery, a mix of ginger liqueur, Hum botanical liqueur, lime, simple, tiki bitters and mint. Then check out the contemporary art gallery in back while you sip.
A 2014 Imbibe magazine story traced the scene's roots to long-gone pioneers like Meat and 732 Social, but those led to local granddaddies like the Silver Dollar, a Southern cocktail honkytonk rocking a former firehouse and once named one of the nation's best whiskey bars by GQ magazine. But there's other gems on the menu, too, like the Juke Box Mama, a bright blend of aquavit, Aperol, vanilla syrup, lemon and sparkling wine.
Farther out, in a developing area called NuLu, or New Louisville, is Garage Bar, an informal bourbon den housed in a former auto service garage and whipping up wood-fired pizza; a few minutes' walk away on Market is Rye, where you can partner cocktails with lamb burgers and more from an internationally inspired menu.
I found one of my favorite Louisville spots in Butchertown, a historic neighborhood east of downtown. A stone's throw from the Copper & Kings distillery, Lola is the cozy, late-night sister to the excellent Butchertown Grocery restaurant. Lola's dimly lit, vintage vibe is backed by a refreshingly inventive cocktail menu; down some beignets or tasty mushroom fries and sip a Golden Porsche, featuring Copper & Kings brandy and absinthe, lemon and two Italian bitter liqueurs, or a luscious Lady Midnight (pictured at top), with Old Forrester bourbon, bone-marrow-washed sherry, honey liqueur and mole bitters.
Take the time to get to the other side of the freeway and you'll find the quirky Louis' The Ton, with some of the best cocktail names in town - take Life in the Shruburbs, or Not Drunk, Just Buzzed. Or head a few miles southeast of downtown to Germantown, where the speakeasy-style Mr. Lee's Lounge has a reputation for Southern hospitality and sparse illumination; table servers are beckoned via little lights on the wall.
For fine Southern dining and great cocktails, head to Jack Fry's, in the Highlands, or Bourbon's Bistro, in the historic Clifton neighborhood adjacent to Butchertown. As always, it comes back to bourbon.
"Any bartender in this city worth their salt is going to be heavy on bourbon," Haymarket's Landan says. "Just like anyone in London is going to know their gin drinks, or someone in Mexico City can talk about agave.... That's what's going to set us apart from anywhere else in America."