These Are the Best New Bourbon Experiences in Louisville
Sample Pappy Van Winkle (without going broke), bottle your own whiskey or let the pros do what they do best
Louisville, Kentucky is famous for a few things: the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Fried Chicken, hometown heroes like Muhammad Ali, and bourbon. Kentucky still makes 95% of bourbon in the United States and the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail begins at the Frazier Museum in Louisville, winding through the Bluegrass State to more than 40 different distilleries, including many new craft distillers competing with the big boys.
Even if you don’t make it a mission to visit every distillery, we’ve rounded up some of the highlights: new tours, secret bars with awe-inspiring bourbon lists and newly renovated spots worth checking out. October is the busiest time of year to visit (from Chicago, we’re only talking a five-hour drive), but also one of the best, with brilliant autumn colors and comfortable temperatures.
Below, find some of the newest and most exclusive bourbon experiences you can find right in and around Louisville.
Watch Hill Proper
Nothing foreign, nothing clear and no beer. That’s the motto for this new bourbon bar that opened in April, boasting the largest American whiskey collection in the world. Watch Hill Proper is in the Norton Commons neighborhood of Louisville, with more than 1,700 unique bottles available for 1.5 oz pours or half pours. This is your best bet to taste Pappy Van Winkle at a reasonable price, along with smaller brands you’ve maybe never heard of before, like Four Gate. Founders Josh Howes and Tommy Craggs aim to build a community around bourbon, hosting weekly meet and greets with distillers and blenders. There’s a full kitchen too, so you can pair bourbon with lobster hush puppies, steak tartare and foie gras cheesecake.
When Angel’s Envy launched in 2011, they pioneered the concept of finishing bourbon in a secondary barrel, and now they’re most famous for their flagship port wine finish. Over the years they’ve also finished bourbon in Caribbean rum, sherry, Madeira and ice cider barrels, too, with each different type of barrel adding unique accent notes and aromas. The distillery and visitors center just completed an $8.2 million transformation and expansion, and they also relaunched their most exclusive bottle your own single-barrel bourbon tour this summer. This experience is limited to just six people each day on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. You’ll don goggles and work your way through a mini bottling line, rinsing the glass, filling the bottle, sealing and labeling just like the pros do. Each barrel is the equivalent of 250 bottles, so you’ll walk away with a truly unique bourbon bottled at 115 proof that you couldn’t get anywhere else. If you have time, stick around for a cocktail at the Angel’s Envy bar upstairs, which is only available for tour guests.
Neat Bourbon Bar & Bottle Shop
When the Kentucky Vintage Spirits Law was enacted in 2018, it paved the way for bars like Neat to purchase unopened bottles from individuals that are not otherwise available from a wholesaler. That means the vintage collection here is mind-boggling and growing all the time, with rare finds like Blanton’s Takara Black and Takara Gold that were released exclusively to the Japanese market and 1958 Stitzel-Weller Cabin Still. General Manager Craig Rupprecht is a certified bourbon steward and specializes in curating “dusty” flights of vintage bourbon for guests based on your palate, preferences and budget. The bar has become an industry favorite for reasonable prices on elusive bottles, and you can even stay next door at one of the new suites and lofts at Bungalou Stay & Play. Overnight guests get access to extended hours at the bar too — if the alleyway red light’s aglow, then the bourbon flows.
Barrels & Billets
There was nowhere in Louisville that you could blend your own bottle of whiskey until Barrels & Billets launched their whiskey blending classes in February, right beside the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. Most of a bourbon’s flavor (and all of the color) comes from the new charred oak barrels it’s aged in, and this class showcases the difference in flavor imparted by European versus American oak, along with cherry wood, maple and smoked oak. You’ll taste through six different woods, rating each on flavor and finish, before trying your hand at blending a recipe that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The mash bill for all of the whiskey is identical, so the difference in the charred wood barrels is the only variable that’s changing. There are no wrong answers here, and if you mess up, just shoot it back real fast and start over.
Frazier Museum Craft Your Own Cocktail Experience
The Old Fashioned is Louisville’s official cocktail, and you can learn to make a traditional one tailored to your taste in the craft your own cocktail class at the Frazier Museum. Part of the museum’s new exhibit, The Commonwealth: Divided We Fall, the 30-minute class is offered daily for just $26, which is less than the price of museum admission and an Old Fashioned at a good bar elsewhere in town. You’ll sidle up to a bar already stocked with everything you need: sugar cubes, a rocks glass, bitters, oranges, a big square of ice and Old Forester bourbon. After muddling your own simple syrup, you’ll choose from seven different bitters ranging from cardamom and spiced cherry chocolate to rose citrus and peach. Then it’s time to pour the bourbon over ice, stir and add an orange twist. Don’t miss the Spirit of Kentucky exhibit on the third floor after class to learn more about the history behind your favorite spirit and glimpse some antique, pre-Prohibition bottles.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
Admittedly, this is a bit of a drive from Louisville, but the trip to Frankfort is worth it. The world’s most award-winning distillery is in the midst of a $1.2 billion expansion, and there’s never been a better time to visit. All tours and tastings are complimentary at Buffalo Trace Distillery, and the new visitors center has tripled in size, so tours run like clockwork. This is a working distillery, and the 400-acre property is home to 1.3 million barrels of bourbon at any given time, so you’ll dodge just-filled barrels rolling past while learning about the bourbon-making process, from fermentation and distilling to filtering char and barrel aging. You’ll even tour excavated ruins of the original distillery. Request an intimate behind-the-scenes tour for a more personalized experience, including a peek into the experimental cold storage warehouse. You won’t find coveted Pappy Van Winkle available to purchase, but each day there are bottles of Weller, Blanton’s or Eagle Rare released in the gift shop.
Three More Bourbon Experiences You Shouldn’t Miss
North of Bourbon has excellent Creole-Cajun food including gumbo, catfish nuggets and crawfish boudin balls. Try the frozen Kentucky coffee for dessert, a secret recipe boozy bourbon coffee slushie that we suspect includes Buffalo Trace bourbon cream.
Bourbon & Beyond is the ultimate music festival for bourbon lovers, taking place each September at the Highland Festival Grounds at the Kentucky Expo Center. Jack White, Pearl Jam, Kings of Leon and Alanis Morissette were headliners in 2022, and you’ll want to book tickets early for next year.
Chocoholics need to try the bourbon chocolate truffles by Art Eatables. Certified bourbon chocolatier Kelly Ramsey crafts bonbons from dozens of local bourbons and has three retail locations around town.
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