Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail, once an achievable six bars, now comprises 26 bars and restaurants. I once thought about doing the original, and even had a partially-stamped passport. Then they let any bar with ample bourbon offerings join, and I lost interest. Instead, my husband and I came up with our own trail through the bars in hotels downtown.
All hotel bars are not equal. I can drink at Marriotts and Hiltons anywhere. For this excursion, I was interested in the historic hotels — the Brown, the Seelbach, the Galt House, and 21c, a hotel voted one of the top ten in the world by Condé Nast readers (for the record, the Seelbach is a Hilton hotel).
We talked up this hotel bar crawl idea for a while and likely would never have done it. Fortunately (unfortunately?), we talked about it with enough people that a couple friends latched on and made us set a date. On May 24th, we took a bus downtown and started at the Brown Hotel…
… where the lobby bar didn’t open for 45 minutes. Luckily, the J. Graham Cafe on the ground floor is open for lunch on Saturdays. We added their bar to our list and started with a round of Old Fashioneds.
The Brown, built in 1923, is home to the artery-clogging Hot Brown Sandwich, which the bartender offered us when we sat down (we passed). She made a perfect Old Fashioned, but the buffet brunch and Bee Movie on the bar TV ruined any historic atmosphere. There was plenty at our next stop, the lobby bar, which opens at 3 on Saturdays. Hand-painted ceilings, gold, mahogany, Oriental vases, deep couches, thick carpet, and a drink menu that includes a page of specialty cocktails. I had a Kentucky Cocktail, which is an unspecial mix of ginger ale and bourbon.
Next stop, the Seelbach Hotel, former F. Scott Fitzgerald hang-out. The Old Seelbach Bar, with its gold rail and dark green marble pillars, is slightly less opulent than the Brown lobby (no hand-painted ceilings), but feels equally historic. After our Seelbach Cocktails, we took a detour downstairs to the Rathskeller, a creepy event space best suited for vampire balls.
Our next drink should not have happened. While I’m sure Sway, the Hyatt bar, has good drinks, “The Ghost of Sway,” a white-bourbon and orange-flavored concoction, is not one of them. The Hyatt is also not that historic, nor is this location one of the top ten hotels in the world.
We walked off the Ghost on our way to 21C, where I had a pretty drink named Sprung in the shadow of the golden David. I misread (did not read) all the articles about the screening of this documentary and thought there was a Kehinde Wiley exhibit in the museum. I wandered around looking for it. I did not find it. I did find some pigeons.
Our final hotel, the Galt House, involved two bars, Jockey Silks and Al J’s (there are more, but seven drinks are more than enough). This was my first visit to Jockey Silks. Instead of bar stools, you sit in chairs with arm rests around a bar with a lowered floor. We drank our bourbon Sidecars and pulled up Patsy, Dolly, and Cher on the digital jukebox. We asked for snacks and got a wine glass of Goldfish crackers, then visited the real fish in Al J’s Lounge.
Al J’s, or the “fish bar,” sits in the middle of the skywalk connecting the two Galt House towers. The bar is an aquarium (fish bar!), and sitting at it, you look out over the Ohio River. There’s also an aviary, home to sad birds. I’ve had good bourbon drinks at Al J’s in the past, but for my final hotel bar crawl drink, I strayed from bourbon to a rum specialty cocktail, Summertime in a Glass. A sprinkles-rimmed glass full of sugary juice — this was the sign that it was time to go home (we didn’t, we went to a cigar shop and had cigars, which is the best way to counter a drink with sprinkles on it).
Halfway through our endeavor, someone said, “This was a great idea. This was a terrible idea. “ Both are true. I’m glad we did it, but I’ll never do it again.
What's your favorite hotel bar? Are there any other Louisville hotel bars worth a visit?