Louisville, Kentucky: the land of fast women, beautiful horses and a history so deeply rooted in distilling bourbon you can’t walk down Whiskey Row without catching a contact buzz. We Louisvillians are proud of our heritage, so much so that we’re offended when out-of-towners have the audacity to drink Tennessee whiskey in our city — in other words, if you come to my bar and order a Jack Daniels, my resting bitch face WILL pierce your soul. It’s happened, y’all. Much to my liking, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience (528 W. Main St.) kept its doors open past regular hours to entertain First Friday Trolley Hop goers and give us natives and visitors alike a chance to soak it all in, meet the distillers and get sufficiently sloshed along the way.
Upon entering the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience lobby, visitors are greeted with a glorious piece of art I’d really like to own: an oversized Evan Williams bottle fountain pouring out intoxicating amber liquid that I can only hope is actually bourbon. My mind begins to race, “is this one of those ice statues at weddings that you’re supposed to put your mouth under to catch the shooter? I feel like it is.” In a split second decision, I started climbing over the red velour rope when my friend, Sam, grabbed my arm and gave me the, “that’s frowned upon,” look. FINE. We moved on and began our self-guided tour past the beautiful bronze mash tanks that line the glass walls of the distillery.
Up the stairs and beyond walls of bourbon barrels, we made our way into a throwback of a room labeled Phil Hollenbach Co. and met our bow-tie-clad bourbon host, Jean. Jean poured us hefty samples of Elijah Craig 12 Year and explained why small batch bourbons are commonly higher in proof: “They’re so smooth, we try to sneak as much alcohol in as possible.” The Phil Hollenbach Co. was the first distributor of Anheuser Busch products in Louisville and Phil himself was a bourbon distiller. Modeled after PHC on Whiskey Row in 1890, Jean showed us the old mail slots, and come to find out, many men at this time would have their mail delivered to places such as this, so they had an excuse to get whiskey on a regular basis. I decided I’m totally going to use that — the next time I come home blacked out, missing a shoe and a debit card, I’ll simply tell my boyfriend that I had to go get the mail. Ah, the old post office number; Gets ‘em every time.
Continuing on past the true-to-life Whiskey Row facades lining the hallway, we entered the 1960’s room, home to a half-moon shaped bar and bountiful amounts of orange shag carpet, era-specific art and two more smiling bourbon hosts. “If this were a real bar in Louisville, I would hang out here,” said my friend Sam. “You would hang out in a van by the river if they served booze, dude,” I told him, but couldn’t help agreeing that this spot was legit as fuck. We tasted the Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, aged 10-plus years, which is a rye-heavy bourbon. “You’re going to feel it from your head to your toes — we like to call it the Kentucky Hug,” said Andy, our bearer of bourbon behind the bar. Mmmmm, the Kentucky Hug. Now that’s some sex right there.
We tried the delectable Larceny, a small batch wheated bourbon, and continued on to the gift shop where Artisanal Distiller Charlie Downs, was signing bottles and chatting with guests. Downs, who comes from three generations of distillers and has been employed by Heaven Hill for 39 years, is passionate about bourbon and its history in Louisville. “Everything we do here is done by hand. I classify myself as an artist.”
As we began our descent back downstairs to meander elsewhere for the evening, Marketing Coordinator Kelly reminded us to stop by the basement speakeasy for a cocktail. Well twist my arm, darlin’, and soon Sam and I found ourselves beyond a trap door and at another bar, this time with a myriad of cocktails and wine available. I asked the suspender-sporting barkeep what was so intriguing for him about the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. “Before Kentucky was established, it took a person with a certain gumption to come to Kentucky and set up shop,” he told us, “those people made bourbon.” Well, I’ll drink to that. •