When you think of Kentucky, two things immediately come to mind — horse racing and bourbon whiskey. But until recently, it hasn’t always been a hot spot for the luxury traveler outside of big events like the Kentucky Derby.
However, thanks to the influx of luxury boutique hotels and the growth of custom tours of the Bourbon Trail, Kentucky has become a year-round destination perfect for the spirits-loving traveler.
Why, you ask? Bourbon and whiskey are having a renaissance. According to the Distilled Sprits Council of the United States, sales of American whiskeys (bourbon, Tennessee and rye) grew 7.8 percent in the past year alone. A specific focus on craft style and premium spirits — for which bourbon country is famous — is definitely a contributing factor.
Navigating the 70-mile swath known as the Bourbon Trail, which essentially weaves from Louisville to Lexington, and its cousin, the Urban Bourbon Trail, can prove tricky without the right guide, so we’re here to steer you in the right direction.
Fly into Louisville and enjoy a short cab ride to 21c Museum Hotel Louisville. You’ll find close proximity to nightlife and upscale restaurants at this modern, art-filled hotel. Don’t miss the iconic “Red Penguins,” an exhibition throughout the hotel featuring cheeky statues of the cute, flightless birds.
Spend your first afternoon shopping and exploring. Stop by Clayton & Crume, a hip local leatherworks store with great belts and accessories; Circe, a women’s shop with designer brands like Zimmerman and Kevyn Aucoin Beauty; and the Peacock Boutique, a women’s retailer that features top names like Rag & Bone and Issa.
Shops like Formé Millinery and Dee’s Hats, both area staples, specialize in custom-made hats and fascinators for the derby, weddings and other big events.
If you don’t want to shop, grab a quick bite to eat around Central Avenue before heading to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Though racing has concluded until April 2017, you won’t want to miss the year-round onsite museum, where you’ll learn about the history of the track and the big races in family-friendly, interactive exhibits. Save time for the walking tour — you’ll get to meet a real thoroughbred racehorse as well as Winston, the resident miniature horse.
That night, ease in to bourbon country at 21c’s in-house restaurant, Proof on Main, where you can sip more than 75 different bourbons (try the bottled-for-the-bar Woodford Reserve or Pappy Van Winkle) and seasonal, farm-to-table fare with an upscale twist, like Farmer Joe’s hen roulade with rye berries, heirloom carrot and cock’s comb jus, or line-caught halibut with squid ink mole and crispy kale. But make it an early-ish night; your bourbon country jaunt starts in earnest in the morning.
A driver is a must if you’re planning to hit the bourbon trail. We love Matson & Gilman, a boutique tour operator that can plan your entire trip, concierge-style, or just offer a professional local guide and driver. Founded by former Kate Spade marketing whiz Nicole Stipp and writer Kaitlyn Soligan, the tour company specializes in high-end, individualized experiences.
We’d suggest hitting no more than three to four distilleries in a day. Select a mix of established brands, like Bulleit or Buffalo Trace, to start. The big distilleries have more comprehensive tours and will ground you in the processes and nuances involved in making bourbon.
Then, in the afternoon, head to a smaller distillery (such as Jefferson’s or Four Roses), where you can fill in the gaps and learn how craft producers put their own spin on the spirit. Jefferson’s, for example, ages one of its popular varieties (Ocean Aged) in metal barrels in container ships going across the ocean for a unique cold-aging process, and it also offers a special pre-made Manhattan blend.
Stop for lunch somewhere along the trail — we love the sandwiches at Wallace Station in Versailles. Chef Ouita Michel dishes out gloriously filling Southern dishes at Holly Hill Inn in Midway.
Staxx BBQ at Buffalo Trace’s distillery is a convenient place to fill up. You’ll eat hearty traditional barbecue in an original distillery firehouse, surrounded by authentic equipment used by workers in the 1950s and ’60s.
When you head back to Louisville, make a final stop at new artisan distillers Copper and Kings, one of the first to make brandy and absinthe in Kentucky. Don’t miss the rooftop tasting room, which offers a great downtown view of the city.
That night, head over to historic The Brown Hotel, where you’ll dine in the upscale English Grill. Book the Chef’s Table experience for a memorable night. No matter what you do, don’t forget to order the hotel’s signature Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and Mornay sauce. And if you want to conclude things with something sweet, try the derby pie, a chocolate and walnut tart that is a Dixie delight.
Still have room for more bourbon? Walk downtown and hit the Urban Bourbon Trail, a collection of distilleries, bars and tasting rooms stocking anywhere from 50 to 150 unique bourbons on top of the roster of creative cocktails and lineup of great live music.
You can use an app to track where you’ve been, or pick up a real-life “passport” at downtown’s Louisville Visitor Center.