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31 Days of Louisville Love: A Bunch of Bourbon

Before Louisville, I was not a bourbon drinker. I drank margaritas, gin and tonics, and wheat beer (mostly Blue Moon). I don’t remember my first bourbon drink. I remember my first whisky drink — it was in Paris in 2004, and I was very sure I wanted a whisky soda (“Are you sure you do not want a sex on the beach?” Ew, no, garçon). What I wanted was a whisky and coke, and that’s what I thought soda was. Maybe I should have had the fruity drink. 

I like these, which I believe is a sign that I'm not a Kentucky native.

I like these, which I believe is a sign that I'm not a Kentucky native.

Anyway, I don’t remember my first bourbon in Kentucky, but I doubt I immediately loved it. I imagine it had to be iced down and sugared up. I imagine touring distilleries and hearing from tour guides about caramel and vanilla notes helped develop my taste. I only imagine, though, because now it’s hard to recall not loving bourbon. It’s what I want on your cocktail menu; it’s my go-to when I travel out of town. I love reading about it. I love learning about it. I’ll go on those distillery tours with any visitor who’s interested and regret that I haven’t visited all the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail yet.

I’m far from a bourbon-expert; I can never remember what exactly makes bourbon bourbon. But I know what’s not bourbon. I will miss living somewhere where the liquor stores have a wall of bourbon and staff who can tell me about their current favorite, affordable rye. We may be stocking bottles of Old Forrester in anticipation of the move (we only have one so far). I don’t know what the bourbon situation in Boston is, though this gives me hope. And they have Old Forrester everywhere, right? RIGHT?

The Louisville Hotel Bar Crawl

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. 

The Rathskeller -- creepiest event space available? 

The Rathskeller -- creepiest event space available? 

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).

I like Mardi Gras as much as the next person, but these sprinkles are ridiculous.

I like Mardi Gras as much as the next person, but these sprinkles are ridiculous.

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?  

Kentucky, you have ruined me

I am not that well-versed in liquors, but since moving to Kentucky, I've learned about bourbon and have started taking it for granted. I expect a selection of bourbon behind the bar, and when I ask for bourbon on a plane, I don't expect the following: 

Me: Do you have bourbon?

Flight Attendant: Is this bourbon? Shows me Jack Daniel's 

Me: Um... no... 

FA: I have bourbon, hang on. Goes to front of cabin, comes back and shows me Dewar's 

Is this bourbon? 

Me: No, that's Scotch

FA: Is this not bourbon? Shows me Jack Daniels again 

Me: No, but it will do.   


I have been that confused server ("What is 7&7?") -- and would probably still be confused if asked about brandy or Scotch. I just forget that outside of Kentucky, bourbon is not a given. 


Louisville To Do List

I have a bad habit of living places and failing to visit major sights. I saved St. Louis’s Arch for the last half year of college and have yet to see Cahokia Mounds. While studying abroad in Geneva, I went to two museums and never set foot in the UN (although I did have lunch at the UNHCR). I planned for a year to bike from my village in Togo to nearby waterfalls in Benin, but never did it. And the major venues, restaurants and historical sights I missed in my six months in New Orleans make up a list too embarrassing to even begin listing.

I’ve been in Louisville for almost a year now and I’ve seen the Colonel’s grave, been to a Bats game, listened to live music at Waterfront Park, eaten at Proof on Main (and been in the men’s bathroom at 21C), bet on races at Churchill Downs (no Derby, though) and picked blueberries at Huber’s. Yet there are many places I keep thinking about that could easily get pushed aside and go the way of the Beninese waterfalls.

So as Gabe and I headed out of state for our 4th of July weekend, we made a list. I’ve added to it, taking some recommendations from Louisville Magazine’s “50 Things Every Louisvillian Should Do” (June 2010). We’ve since been to Frankfort and Lexington (despite the title of this post, the list includes things outside of Louisville).

Kentucky's capitol (in Frankfort, in case you forgot)

Kentucky's capitol (in Frankfort, in case you forgot)

These To Dos remain:

- at least one distillery tour. We’d like to do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but I think visiting at least one distillery is a more realistic goal.

Jefferson Memorial Forest

Bernheim Forest - I like hiking. I’ve done zero hiking since last August.

Falls of the Ohio – I’d like to see fossils, since I can’t see any falls.

Mammoth Cave - According to the website, this is the world’s longest known cave system. True story: I’ve never been in a cave. Ok, that’s not a true story, but I’ve never been in a cave like this.

- Cincinnati – they have Trader Joe’s there

- the Old Seelbach Bar – F. Scott Fitzgerald drank here and featured it in The Great Gatsby. Louisville Magazine says I’m supposed to drink a Manhattan here, but I think I’ll just have the bourbon on ice.

- both the First Friday Trolley Hop and the Frankfort Avenue Trolley Hop (beware of the trolley clang if you follow this link)

- a drag show at Connection

- bike at least part of the Louisville Loop, which will one day be a connected 100-mile trail

- the Muhammad Ali Center

- the Louisville Zoo -  I always have mixed feelings visiting zoos, but I’ll go to any city’s zoo at least once.

What else? The Kentucky State Fair is on the agenda for August, but am I missing something you love about the area (notice that “the area” can extend to Cincinnati)? And if any of my three readers are interested in helping an item on this list happen (Gabe has been to some places and is less interested in others), let me know. I plan on being here for a while yet, but that’s the same thing I said about the waterfalls.