While I was growing up in Louisville, the renowned Bourbon Trail, a collective of rural distilleries, seemed to keep us city dwellers—and our city’s bourbon heritage—at arm’s length. Not anymore. The wise folks at the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau four years ago uncorked the Urban Bourbon Trail, a group of bourbon-celebrating restaurants and bars.
To embark on an Urban Bourbon adventure, begin at the Louisville Visitors Center on Fourth Street—or at any of the 20 establishments on the Trail—and ask for an Urban Bourbon Trail Passport, a small book that includes bourbon history and tasting tips, recommendations on what to drink at each stop on the tour, and a map and comprehensive listing of stops. Or download the Urban Bourbon Trail smart phone app. Get your passport or app stamped at six of the stops and return it to the visitors bureau for your “bourbon citizenship” and a prize.
According to Nancy Stephen, communications manager and Urban Bourbon Trail specialist at the Louisville CVB, the program has exceeded expectations, and more than 100,000 passports are in circulation. There are 2,895 people—representing 14 countries, all 50 states and the District of Columbia—who have redeemed their passports and claimed their Bourbon Country citizenship.
I decided to do the UBT just as anyone else might, including inviting some friends and some downright-interesting people to join me on a bourbon-splashed trek.
Sunday, 5:06 p.m.
For inclusion on the UBT, a bar must stock at least 50 different bourbons. Bourbon’s Bistro boasts more than 130.
Bernie Lubbers strolls in like he owns the place, and he does seem well known there. Nationally hailed as the “Whiskey Professor” for Jim Beam, Lubbers crisscrosses the country like a roving troubadour, performing bourbon tastings anywhere that will have him. His book, Bourbon Whiskey: Our Native Spirit, is not only a thorough history of the spirit of Kentucky but also is a deeply personal journey through his own family history. He takes a seat next to me at the bar and orders: “Old Grand-Dad, with a splash of ginger and a splash of bitters.” I order the same.
“Why do you think bourbon is making such a comeback?” I ask.
“Because it’s something that’s been beautiful for 200 years, and they’re only now rediscovering that fact,” he answers.
“I’ve still never been able to drink an Old Fashioned,” I say.
“Which was invented [in Louisville], at the Pendennis Club by Colonel [James E.] Pepper,” Lubbers says. “He was a distiller, and went to the bartender and asked for a cocktail with bourbon but made in the old-fashioned way.”
“With mixology becoming such an art form, is it fair to say that bartenders have to be more precise with bourbon than they do with, say, a vodka?” I ask, sipping my bourbon.
“Sure. Vodka is vodka. By definition it’s supposed to be odorless, colorless and tasteless. Bourbon, on the other hand, has three different recipes. You can really have fun with it because each recipe can yield you three completely different cocktails … bartenders love that.”
We pay the bill, and the bartender stops us. “We can’t sell this,” he says, pulling a decanter out from behind the bar. “But you all need to taste this.”
“What is it?” Bernie asks as the bartender pours.
“An Old Fitzgerald, barreled in 1955, bottled in 1961.”
I never imagined I would be the kind of bourbon drinker who would distinguish a taste in things like this. It seems so pretentious. But that Old Fitz is, without question, the smoothest bourbon I’ve ever swallowed. As we finish, Bernie looks over at me and says, “This is why I love bourbon. What we are drinking has been in this bottle since Kennedy was president. We are, literally, tasting history.”
Proof on Main
Tuesday, 4:00 p.m.
Proof, located in the 21c Museum Hotel, is like walking into a scene out of A Clockwork Orange. Lots of blank minimalism peppered with all sorts of art—ranging from the banal to the abstract to the slightly disturbing. This is the perfect place for me to meet up with the Va Va Vixens burlesque troupe. Lisa Frye is the show’s producer, and Matt Goodlett is a writer/performer/stage manager. Madame Michon and Victoria D’Light are two of the troupe’s performers.
Matt and I order Elmer T. Lee on the rocks, and my companions and I circle up in the corner near a window overlooking Main Street. Of all the art that adorns the room—aluminum origami cranes overhead, clay models and statues, and paintings scattered precisely on walls—I turn my eyes to the large statue of David that recently was erected outside the window where we’re gathered. “I haven’t seen the other side yet, but …”
“Yep, it’s all there,” Matt answers before the question is asked. “No olive leaf on him.”
“I love it!” Lisa replies. “That’s what I was afraid of … I was wondering if they were brave enough to leave it or did they put a fig leaf over it … or just have it broken off.”
“I think it’s supposed to be a little bit kitschy,” Michon says.
“That’s a lot kitschy,” I retort. “A 30-foot David in the middle of downtown … ”
“Gold,” Lisa adds. “Liberace gold.”
“Well ... speaking of public nudity, how did you all get into burlesque?” I ask. If anything, I’m known for my smooth conversational transitions.
“I got into the circus first,” Michon begins. “Then coming to Louisville, I found that this was a good way to be performing circus skills, and there was an audience for it. Also, I think it’s the perfect way to celebrate the beauty and skill of the human body … especially the female form.”
“Was it weird the first time going out there, knowing that, after all the practices and buildup, now you actually have to go out there and take your clothes off in front of people?” I ask.
“Yeah ... very,” Michon answers.
“We both posed nude in front of drawing classes,” D’Light says. “That was my first experience being naked in front of people.”
“I always felt comfortable in a modeling context,” Michon adds, “in front of artists and painters and art students. It’s a very different thing to be in front of hundreds of cheering people ...”
“With the singers, the dancers, and the acrobats, your show really has a very cabaret feel to it,” I say.
“I’ve always been drawn to that variety show type of thing,” Lisa says. “I pushed for that more than just the straight striptease. I’d rather have a theatrical storyline, make it really funny, and mix it up.”
The Old Seelbach Bar and The Bar at BLU
Thursday, 8:00 p.m.
With its dim lighting and long mahogany bar, The Old Seelbach Bar looks like something out of The Great Gatsby. On second thought, it is. F. Scott Fitzgerald set Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding at The Seelbach. The night we stop in, it is quiet.
Kentucky Monthly’s higher-ups join me—Steve and Kay Vest, Kim Butterweck and her husband, Josh Lindau. The ladies drink the Seelbach Cocktail, a world-famous drink that marries bourbon and champagne in a feminine flute. I haven’t figured out how to drink bourbon from a glass with a stem, so the other gentlemen and I drink a Horse’s Neck cocktail, which consists of bourbon, ginger ale and a lemon peel garnish.
After we finish up at The Seelbach, we walk the three blocks to The Bar at BLU at the Marriott. It’s Bluegrass and Bourbon Night, which takes place every Thursday. Hickory Vaught is the man in charge, leading a rotating group of musicians through an infused brand of music I find hard to define. There is an intangible fusion of jazz, and the song selections aren’t the hill songs I’d expect—they’re reconstructions of classics like Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.”
The bar itself couldn’t be any more different than the Prohibition speak-easy feel of The Seelbach. It’s well lit and has sharp, modern furniture. The place is small, though, so if you’re there for a seat, be bold. Steve asks permission and then slides onto a couch with a couple of ladies enjoying more room than they need. They are soon fast friends.
Once again, the sexes split—the men have Marmalade Old Fashioneds, and the women order Chocolate Julep Martinis. We can’t keep ourselves from discussing the challenges of the print-media industry, current events and interesting things (at least to us) that have happened while on assignment. We find the conversation endlessly entertaining and genuinely fulfilling, but it would bore anyone whose life isn’t consumed by phrases such as “word count,” “ad space” and “point size.”
Hickory had packed up and left by the time we depart. We stroll out of the hotel, and the city seems quiet, but I guess most cities seem so after midnight on a Thursday.
Sunday, 8:10 p.m.
We dip into Asiatique, seeking shelter from a raging mid-summer storm. The place is nice, with décor in the vibrant colors prevalent in Asian culture. You can enjoy not only bourbon here but also a selection of Japanese whiskeys and award-winning cuisine.
Mark Parris, Lindsay Boling and Tyler Jackson are stand-up comedians—each slowly but steadily clawing their way to the middle. We sit down and, due to the inclement weather, we are alone.
“I hope it tornadoes,” Lindsay says with a smile. “And we stay in here drinking bourbon all night.”
“What does the ‘Passport’ say to drink here?” Tyler asks.
“Bourbon,” Mark answers.
We take the bartender’s recommendation—bourbon with ginger beer and lemon—and she pours, ices and shakes the drinks, setting a martini glass in front of each of us. Now, I have inadvertently run headlong into bourbon in a stemmed glass, and I know I am going to have to drink with my pinky out. We tap rims and drink. It’s unnatural but not necessarily painful.
“I was thinking about stuff we would talk about at this,” Tyler says. “And I figured you’d ask me, ‘What’s your favorite bourbon?’ ”
“Well, then … what’s your favorite bourbon, Tyler?”
“Bulleit Bourbon. It’s the first bourbon I ever drank straight that went down smooth.”
And so the night continues—drowning in booze and banter. That evening, as we sit there, Asiatique feels like a rip in the time/space continuum, a wrinkle where friends gather for an evening of foolish conversation while storms rage around us.
Ramsi’s Cafe on the World
Monday, 7:15 p.m.
Tom Sobel spent 25 years in his office on the second floor of Comedy Caravan, which is located across the street from my next stop: Ramsi’s. Tom is a booking manager for stand-up comedians and launched the careers of Patton Oswalt, Jay Leno, Steve Harvey and Sinbad. Roseanne Barr dedicated a chapter of her autobiography to Tom Sobel’s influence on her career.
On our way to the door to Ramsi’s, we pass through a brick archway leading to an ornate, fountain-adorned patio. Inside the restaurant, it’s casual, with dark wood and third-world artwork adorning the walls. The cuisine spans the globe—from Italian to Cuban and Spanish to Creole.
We each order a Black Maple Hill small-batch bourbon, neat, and split a quesadilla. Tom is someone who, in just a few years, has become a good friend. Time spent with him requires a lot of listening and almost no talking. He tells some stories of bourbon and life during the heyday of stand-up in the 1980s. With a sly shift of the eyes and a guilty smile, he begins each story with: “Now, this is off the record …”
We finish our drinks and leave the restaurant, saying our goodbyes on the sidewalk. As we part, it occurs to me perhaps there’s more going on around this culture of spirits than I had bothered to notice before.
• • •
Maybe bourbon’s greatest legacy is not so much its history, or the flavors it provides, or even the pleasant feeling many seek. And maybe the Urban Bourbon Trail isn’t just a glorified pub crawl or savvy promotion. Perhaps bourbon’s most enduring legacy, and that of the UBT, is the conversations experienced by good friends over a good drink.
Bourbon + Horses
One of the newest additions to the Urban Bourbon Trail is The Derby Café at the Kentucky Derby Museum. Once you’ve finished lunch and perhaps a Derby Café Julep or bourbon flight named for a Derby winner, swing upstairs for “Urban Bourbon @ Kentucky Derby Museum.”
The room feels heavy in dark red and barrel brown—like you’ve found yourself in the bottom of a Maker’s Mark bottle. The exhibition includes a collection of artifacts that span the history of our state’s lifeblood and its role in the lives of Kentuckians.
Starting in the 1700s through the modern-day Urban Bourbon Trail—it’s all covered here in some capacity. Most interesting was the collection of memorabilia left over from Prohibition, a nightmare I can’t imagine waking up in. On display is a prescription written by an M.D. to a patient for a bottle of bourbon (I need a doctor like that).
The virtual bartender is, by far, the most interactive part of the exhibit, and it’s endlessly entertaining. Navigating with a touch screen, you can receive lessons from experts on how to correctly taste bourbon or how to properly make select bourbon cocktails. Another of the fantastic interactive displays is when you get to use the information garnered from the virtual bartender to distinguish bourbons using nothing but your nose.
“Urban Bourbon @ Kentucky Derby Museum” will be on display through the end of the year. For more information, visit derbymuseum.org.