There’s a spirit flowing through Louisville, and that spirit is Bourbon. Eight companies own 13 distilleries that produce more than 99 percent of the whiskey in the United States. Ten are in Kentucky. So there you have it.
When in LOU-uh-vull, do as the LOU-uh-vullians. Bourbon cocktails, Bourbon paired with main courses, Bourbon with dessert. My plan is to taste as many bourbon cocktails and bourbons as I can.
We meet for drinks at Mr. Lee’s. It is pitch black inside this upscale speakeasy. My eyes adjust slowly, and it’s a good few minutes before I can read the menu. I order The House Smoked Old Fashioned made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, black tea, bitters and a subtle hint of smoke. Some cocktail! I’ll have another. I just pull the handle that hangs between tables to alert the bartender.
The Lobby Bar at The Brown Hotel is where old money, new money and no-money-but-aspiring, meet for cocktails. In keeping with tradition, I enjoy a Kentucky Derby made with Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon, sorghum syrup and pink grapefruit juice. It is rare to see this old world opulence in a hotel dining room these days, and the white tablecloth English Grill, with its old school comfortable chairs, is conducive to relaxing. With my entrée, I indulge in a Brown Manhattan made with Larceny Bourbon, vermouth, orange bitters and bourbon cherries. Prime rib eye Delmonico steak is an elegant cut, medium rare and served simply. There is charm in the sparkling chandeliers, the impressively suave service and in every inch of this dining room.
In old Louisville, Buck’s is a step back in time to the ambience of the black and white movies of the 1940s, with its dark green walls and an abundance of white flowers. I expect to see Joan Crawford walk through the doors at any moment. There are more than 70 Bourbons listed on the drinks menu, as well as cocktails. I like a citric cocktail at lunch, and The Bourbon Bee with Old Forester bourbon, honey and lemon is sublime. I love the old fashioned fine china, all mismatched, and am certain it enhances my lunch of crispy fish with hot sweet chili.
At The Butchertown Grocery, décor is a mix of classic and cutting edge; the selection of Bourbon is vast. But first, I taste Paper Plane 11, a cocktail of Old Grand Dad 100 Bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino, lemon and grapefruit. Inspirational. The menu is deliciously innovative. Here is a salad of mixed greens, jalapeño blue cheese ice cream and candied pecans, tossed with pear-praline vinaigrette. With my 55-day aged prime ribeye, truffle fries, and side of Bourbon barrel grits, I sip an Old Fashioned made with Old Forester Bourbon.
Construction cranes fill the skyline above a resurgence of neighbourhoods. Still, the land- mark is Churchill Downs. It has been the home of the Kentucky Derby, the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports, for 143 years. The horses are like living sculptures on the manicured track. I place my bets and win my first four races, until advice from a stranger ends my winning streak. I drown my sorrows in another Forester Bourbon Mint Julep, the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, served in this year’s official glass, and meander to the incredible buffet that offers all the local treats: hot-spicy fried chicken, the Hot Brown, and classic chocolate and walnut Derby Pie. The Kentucky Derby Museum and Barn and Backside Tour at Churchill Downs is a thrill. Its signature exhibit is a 360° movie screen, where The Greatest Race is shown hourly. We sit in the centre of the track, in the heart of the Kentucky Derby race, mesmerized by the visual experience and the sound of the thundering hooves all around us.
Saving the loveliest for the last, we meet at Smokey’s Bean Coffee Shop (closed since date of publishing) and begin our tour of Victorian homes. Author and historian David Domine leads us on his award-winning tour based on his books, America’s Most Haunted Neighborhood and Old Louisville. What a joy it must be to live here among the stun- ning designs, courtyard gardens, fountains and magnificent front entrances! I have found my “dream house.” My urge to ring the doorbell and ask to come inside is strong. Domine has a wealth of anecdotes about the Bourbon barons, racetrack royalty and tobacco tycoons who have lived here. They say that these beautifully restored huge three-storey homes sell for $3-$400,000. In the 1800’s, when homes were taxed by the width of the lot, some built Shotgun Houses. Open the front door to these long, narrow houses and fire a shotgun. The bullet will fly straight out the back door. Restored and brightly painted, they are an architectural phenomenon.
I could live happily ever after in fairy-tale Old Louisville. The bold equestrian culture, exciting dining scene and resurgence of fine art galleries such as the Speed Art Museum make this one of the most spirited and affordable cities in America I have visited.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.