Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail — the famed countryside ramble connecting the region’s major distilleries — is a well-known caper for visitors to Louisville. But many people don’t realize you can tour and taste the wares of many of the same great bourbon makers without leaving the city.
Downtown Louisville’s Whiskey Row features over half a dozen iconic brands — including Old Forester, Evan Williams, Angel’s Envy, Michter’s, and relative newcomer Rabbit Hole — in facilities that offer tours, tasting rooms, and bars open to the public. The Urban Bourbon Trail can provide a few hours or a full rollicking day of local history, spirits education, and guided tastings.
Whiskey Row is anchored on one end by the Muhammad Ali Center, a spectacular museum dedicated to Louisville’s own “The Greatest.” Along the way, you’ll encounter the Frazier Kentucky history museum and Louisville’s other popular tourist target, the Louisville Slugger museum.
It’s impossible to get lost on the walk, with yellow navigation signs, interactive kiosks, and street-strolling docents to help. As you walk past historic buildings, worth admiring in their own right, you can stop and puzzle over a massive golden replica of Michelangelo’s David right on West Main. I could research how and why it got there, but I prefer to leave it a mystery; just another point of curiosity along Whiskey Row.
Here are three stops I can recommend, each representing a different kind of touring experience, plus one bonus destination.
1. Evan Williams Whiskey Experience
A Big Production
Whiskey Row is full of claims about first this, oldest that. But Evan Williams claims two legit firsts: Evan himself was the first commercial distiller in Louisville, back in 1783, and the current facility, located across the street from the Colonial-era original, was the first to bring whiskey tourism downtown in 2013.
As soon as you enter the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, you know you’re in for high-production values. In the entryway, a giant whiskey glass fountain endlessly pours and spills — water, however, not whiskey. The hour-long basic tour we took had a Disney feel, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. It was a combination of multimedia story-telling, movie set recreations, and a demonstration of contemporary distilling.
In one room, we saw a kind of animated diorama depicting Evan Williams himself, including a scene where his simple still is being hauled ashore at Louisville’s original wharf in the 1780s. We were walked through recreations of Whiskey Row at various points in history, including Prohibition, when the doors of distillers, distributors, and bars were chained shut. Through a huge picture window, we observed the facility’s artisanal distillery, all shining pipes and cylinders surrounding a pot still that looked like a huge copper wood-burning stove. It turns out one barrel a day.
Our tasting was in Max & Harry’s, an unconvincing replica of a mid-century watering hole. We were led through the paces of a whiskey tasting: Smell the little tulip-shaped glass first (pass it from one nostril to the other), taste its flavors (caramel and vanilla… maybe licorice?), and feel the mild burn as it slides down (lovely!). Law limits the volume of each pour, and that’s a good thing. We had a long day ahead.
This did not — I should point out — stop us from retiring while awaiting our next tour, to ON3, the Williams Experience’s contemporary cocktail lounge. You can visit without taking a tour. We had our first cocktail and made our first friends here.
Pro Tip: Each distillery on the row — in fact practically every bar in Louisville — offers variations of the mint julep. It’s the official drink of the city’s most joyous pride, the Kentucky Derby. It’s a mix of bourbon, simple syrup, and mint delivered any number of ways, most authentically muddled and served in a copper cup packed with pebbled ice. ON3’s, like nearly every one I sampled along the row, was quite sweet. But our new touring buddies drained them enthusiastically.
2. Old Forester
Drinking In The Factory
In contrast to Evan Williams, Old Forester is a sprawling facility, housing a higher-volume-production distillery. A visit to Old Forester is a straight-on factory tour. If you want a grounding in how corn is transformed into a bottle of brown, it’s the place to go.
Following a brief bit of history (like how Forester held one of the rare distilling licenses during Prohibition, purportedly for medicinal purposes), we saw huge vats of mash quietly bubbling as the yeast did its thing. We saw how the result, known as “beer,” is turned into “low wine” and then “high wine” (clear whiskey, aka white lightning). This all happens in the 44-foot-high column still — 2 feet in circumference — that rises through the facility like a copper rocket.
Finally, the liquid is put in barrels, and that’s the highlight of the tour. The barrels impart 50 percent of the flavor and 100 percent of the color, the guide told us. You’ll witness a handmade oak vessel first get toasted (to draw sugars to the surface), then charred (to caramelize the sugars). The flames shoot up through the barrel like a blast from a drag racer’s engine.
Pro Tip: The long stand-up bar downstairs may be packed, but some tastings are quite distinctive. My flight let me sip through Old Forester’s history, with products said to be made with the actual recipes dating from 1870, 1897, 1910, and the 1920 Prohibition-style.
Sampling From The Top Shelf
Michter’s is marketed as a connoisseur’s brand of booze, with its bottles priced around $50 and up. Its tour is persistently dedicated to demonstrating why its distillations are a cut above the rest. Our guide at Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery talked about Michter’s cost-be-damned approach: its finicky, expensive, and often proprietary methods of sourcing, milling, distilling, and aging. (Fun fact: The historic brand went bankrupt under previous owners in 1989, was revived by investors in 1996, and was only then positioned as a luxury brand.) A Michter’s visit is a good choice if you want to understand — and taste — bottles that occupy the top shelves of the liquor store.
Unlike the others, Michter’s is a one-room tour (making it the best choice if anyone in your party has issues with mobility). The distilling operation is very small, essentially for demonstration only. The highlight was the two vintage squat pot stills, the old-world-style appliances that create the small batches Michter’s is known for. The tasting was extremely well-annotated by our guide and was preceded by “sensory training,” which consisted of nosing glass jars full of spices and other foodstuffs to prime us for the smells and tastes of various Michter’s products.
Pro Tip: The Fort Nelson facility has a gorgeous bar, which reviews suggest offers spectacular cocktails. Alas, I’ve got to take their word for it. It was packed elbow-to-elbow and we didn’t stay.
4. Barrels & Billets
Right next to the Louisville Slugger museum and across the street from Michter’s is Barrels & Billets, a one-trick pony worth a wacky ride. When you enter, you fill out a 13-item questionnaire on your smartphone, soliciting your tasting preferences. (Mellow? Oaky? Favorite cocktail?)
After a short wait, a machine that looks like a cross between a Keurig coffee maker and a milkshake mixer expels a blend of up to six whiskeys, in proportions intended to reflect the flavors you like.
Mine came out way sweeter and more spice-forward than I prefer. “User error,” maybe. It was not a bad shot, but it didn’t feel like “mine.” My buddy, on the other hand, got one that was nicely dry, reflecting his preference of rye over bourbon. In any event, if you really like “your” whiskey, you can buy a bottle with a personalized label.
The whole thing is a hoot and it makes a fitting way to end any bourbon experiences along Whiskey Row.
Pro Tip: Lacking reservations, we just stumbled in for the “custom” experience. More detailed and informative tours and events are available with reservations.
If you visit over the weekend, you absolutely must make reservations beforehand, and frankly, you should anyway. All facilities take reservations through their websites. Days and hours vary, but most are closed Mondays and all of them close before dinner time. No reservations? Get on a waitlist, and in the meantime, you may be able to belly up to the public bars that each facility features to sample flights and cocktails.
If you visit a few places, you’ll inevitably make some new friends. After tastings, the crowd gets quite sociable, and we ran into a few folks hitting the same establishments we did. While crossing the street, we bumped into more of our new drinking pals. One of them high-fived me out of nowhere. Cheers!
For details on the self-guided Whiskey Row walking tour, including maps and navigation tips, visit the Louisville Bourbon District online. Bourbon Country offers an app, trip planner, and “passport” to document your visits.
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