If you like bourbon, after a visit to Louisville, you will absolutely love it.
While I’m no expert, bourbon is my favorite whisk(e)y, and during a recent visit, I couldn’t wait to get home to apply my new insights to bourbons on my bar.
America’s great gift to the world of spirits permeates the culture of Louisville, home to Churchill Downs, Muhammed Ali and the Louisville Slugger. Just about everyone is fluently knowledgeable and enthusiastic about bourbon. The lobby of the Louisville Omni has the contours of a barrel, and spiral pieces of metal or wood invoking coopers’ hoops are commonplace. Every bartender serves up excellent cocktails, particularly the Old Fashioned, developed at Louisville’s Pendennis Club.
What is bourbon? Bourbon is a whiskey, but very few whiskeys are bourbon. Bourbon must be made in the United States from at least 51 percent corn and aged for at least two years in new American oak barrels. Also, it can only be brought to proof with distilled or iron-free water. Kentuckians say their unique natural water is a secret to their quality.
A distiller will serve samples straight-up, but you may want to also try a particular bourbon on ice, preferably one large ice cube, where gradual dilution reveals layers of flavor and allows the drinker to find the magical moment.
Smell the bourbon from a few inches above the glass. Some suggest doing it with your mouth open. First, take a tiny sip and move it around your mouth to remove the dust and brace for the alcohol. The second sip is the official one to enjoy. That burn behind your sternum is the “Kentucky hug.”
If you are just starting out, Basil Haydens is a light bourbon ideal for sipping. This rich, honeyed bourbon smells of sweet grain and tastes of vanilla and oak. $40. ★★★★
A hip brand from the same distillery that brings us Four Roses, Bulleit Bourbon smells of caramel and orange rind with flavors that are perceptibly sweet, spicy and oaky. Bulleit is a sweet bourbon in the same class as Knob’s Creek or Maker’s Mark. $31. ★★★★
My house bourbon has been Larceny, the best of all worlds — fruity and spicy with character of orange and cinnamon, and fall spices. This bourbon finishes warm, however, delivering a strong Kentucky hug. That prominent character makes it an ideal lead for cocktails. $27. ★★★★ 1/2
Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail offers a mix of tourist experiences by blue-chip brands Jim Beam and Evan Williams and some well-financed newcomers, such as Rabbit Hole and Copper & Kings. Bourbon is no longer a choice between Evan Williams, Jim Beam and Old Granddad.
Free buses can help you get around to the dozen or so tasting rooms. Tours will give you some history and take care of the driving.
Need something else to do with all this bourbon? Make some Old Fashioneds, Paper Planes and Kentucky Bucks.
I have long appreciated and enjoyed bourbon. A visit to Louisville, like nothing else, will ignite a passion for it, showing that bourbon is diverse and a heck of a lot of fun.
GRADE: Exceptional ★★★★★, Above average ★★★★, Good ★★★, Below average ★★, Poor ★.