It was 11 a.m. in Louisville and I was contemplating a silky, amber and Very Old liquid in my glass.
Fortunately, I was primed to appreciate the art and culture of the Very Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey because Penny Peavler, dynamic president of the city’s freshly redesigned Frazier History Museum, had just given me a tour of its new bourbon-focused “Spirit of Kentucky” permanent exhibition.
First, we assembled a mini bourbon barrel in the crafting section. Then, we lingered over the 22-foot-long oak “Gracious Table,” with a touch-sensitive surface like a giant iPad, and explored the museum’s digitized bourbon archives, which is full of stories, maps and interviews. And then, we emerged from Bottle Hall — a glamorous nook showcasing a bottle of every brand of bourbon produced in Kentucky today — and Peavler invited me into a fifth-floor office for some liquid history.
I took a slow sip. “That’s the Kentucky hug,” she said, reassuringly, as I gasped from the bourbon’s heat, still powerful after a half-century. The hug quickly turned to honey on my tongue. My quest to discover Louisville’s new spirit, through the liquid spirit that has underpinned the city’s economy since the 1800s, was off to a surprising start.
I planned to follow Louisville’s urban bourbon trail, beginning with the new Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center on the Frazier’s ground floor, as a gateway to the city’s eclectic patchwork of neighborhoods beyond bourbon. Art, cocktails, food and music would be my guides.
Walking down Main Street’s “whiskey row” in the soupy September air, I glimpsed the broad Ohio River and tried to channel the 1800s. Then, Louisville was a major river town on America’s Western frontier, and sailors would spill onto this strip for serious carousing.
Today, just past the historic brick facade of the Old Forester Distilling Co., which opened last June, a horse-drawn carriage clopped by. And on the corner of 7th and Main streets, in front of the 21c Museum Hotel, I spotted a gigantic, gold-painted statue of ... David. But this David, I soon discovered, is the work of a Turkish artist, inspired by Michelangelo but twice the size of the original, and belongs to the hotel founders’ world-renowned collection of 21st-century art.
“Our free museum, open 24 hours a day, is about sharing different perspectives and opening minds,” museum manager Karen Gillenwater explained on our tour. In front of an eye-catching Kehinde Wiley — one of five canvases in the museum’s collection by this artist known for painting the official portrait of President Obama — Gillenwater mentioned that she had just spoken with a Somali immigrant visiting for the first time. We spotted his reedy frame bent close to a descriptive panel. “I’ve been in Louisville since 2004,” Jamal Ali said, shyly. “I was inspired by a lot of people who lived here, like Muhammad Ali, and I can relate to these pictures, especially the one by the Cambodian artist who immigrated the same year as me.”
At Rabbit Hole Distillery, the architecture and art also reflect an expansive perspective. “There is a new generation of whiskey drinkers coming into the fold,” founder Kaveh Zamanian told me. “And bourbon is leading the charge.”
For the record, bourbon is a kind of whiskey. Visitors learn this, and more, during an hourlong tour of the soaring, Mies van der Rohe-inspired distillery in the revitalized NuLu (New Louisville) district, a mile east of downtown.
Afterward, visitors can settle in for a post-tour creative cocktail developed by the mixologists behind New York City’s acclaimed bar Death & Co. while exploring socially progressive contemporary artwork such as “Bridge (Victory),” by Los Angeles artist Glenn Kaino, in the sleek cantilevered lounge overlooking the river.
Less than a mile away, Copper & Kings American Brandy Distillery anchors Butchertown. Only one meatpacking plant remains in this once-downtrodden neighborhood along the railroad tracks. But the industrial-chic distillery draws a new crowd with events such as screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and food trucks in the courtyard, or jazz concerts in the new rooftop bar, Alex&nder. Cocktails such as “Guns ’n’ Rosé” (perhaps the prettiest cocktail to ever wet my lips) showcase the distillery’s brandy, which matures to the rhythm of rock ’n’ roll blasting through the basement barrel cellar.
Surprisingly, I also enjoyed a couple of bourbon experiences on the touristy “4th Avenue Live!” party strip. I learned the “cocktail chop” while shaking up a whiskey sour at the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, which offers introductory cocktail classes as well as various bourbon education seminars daily. A few doors down, I succumbed to a towering bourbon milkshake, garnished with housemade graham cracker pieces and a flame-toasted marshmallow, at Edward Lee’s fine burger place, Whiskey Dry.
Melting pot cuisine
Louisville is a polyglot city of voracious eaters. But still, I was surprised when I returned to Boujie Biscuit, a just-opened storefront in the Crescent Hill neighborhood that I had spotted earlier, for Sunday breakfast. The word was out and owner Cyndi Joyner had to lock the door for 15 minutes to keep up with demand. My patience was rewarded, though, with a hockey-puck-sized square biscuit, drenched in chicken potpie sauce.
I also relished Louisville’s melting pot of immigrant and American regional cuisines. At Whiskey Dry, the waiter called roasted shishito peppers “the new okra.” At the unassuming Mayan Cafe in NuLu, pan-seared lima beans replaced black-eyed peas. And at Bar Vetti, a stone’s throw from the sagging Victorian mansions of Old Louisville, shaved Kentucky ham came out as Italian-style prosciutto.
But a local standard, the Hot Brown sandwich, really fed my soul. Although there are haters, I am not alone in my affection for this open-faced turkey, bacon and tomato sandwich, smothered in Mornay sauce and baked in a small skillet. “We serve about 100 on a normal day; 1,000 during Derby season,” chef Jim Adams told me. The caloric fabulousness was enhanced by the old-school, wood-paneled setting of the English Grill at the Brown Hotel, a regal Georgian Revival that opened in 1923.
Pickin’ and jammin’
I had timed my visit to coincide with the second-annual Bourbon & Beyond festival, with a lineup of rock, country and bluegrass bands. Unfortunately, the rain gods decided otherwise.
Fortunately, the local musician I most wanted to see, Ben Sollee, agreed to meet me at a record-and-bookstore cafe on a reviving block in the city’s Portland neighborhood, west of downtown. Over tea, the self-described grandson of an “old-time Appalachian fiddler, coal miner and Baptist preacher” tried to capture his city’s music scene for me.
“The Kentucky practice is pickin’ and jammin’ with whoever is around you,” Sollee, 35, said. To experience what he called the city’s “aurally inclusive” music, Sollee recommended that I check what was on at Headliners Music Hall, as well as smaller venues such as Nachbar, Odeon, Zanzabar or Kaiju Bar.
Instead, I stumbled upon a Brazilian jazz ensemble in a speakeasy below a downtown sandwich shop. Jimmy Can’t Dance is the joint’s name, and there I happened to meet co-owner Dennie Humphrey. As we got to talking, he told me he was fresh off Louisville’s annual Jug Band Jubilee. “Jug bands were Louisville’s original contribution to American music,” he explained; “string bands and ragtime arrived via riverboat traffic.” That, combined with sounds made from puffing into a bunch of empty Brown-Forman Old Granddad bourbon jugs, he said, “made for some great musical roots.”
And so, even in a sandwich shop speakeasy, listening to Latin jazz, I was connected to the arc of Louisville’s bourbon history. Nursing my Old Fashioned, I noticed the show was sponsored by Rabbit Hole Distillery.