Kentucky is the Napa Valley of bourbon

Sep 5, 2018 at 12:28 pm
At Woodford Reserve, a multi-course meal for about 60 people attending.On-site chef Nat Henton prepared the food, which was paired with Woodford Reserve cocktails.  |  Photo by Casey Chalmers of Kertis Creative
At Woodford Reserve, a multi-course meal for about 60 people attending.On-site chef Nat Henton prepared the food, which was paired with Woodford Reserve cocktails. | Photo by Casey Chalmers of Kertis Creative

Louisville and Kentucky are becoming the Napa Valley of Bourbon, as Susan Reigler writes below. To help celebrate National Bourbon Heritage Month, here is LEO's list of bourbon events, and a few tricks for getting a taste of the elusive Pappy Van Winkle.

The mantra has been mounting for years, and now is coming alive, finally. 

Kentucky is the Napa Valley of Bourbon.

In Louisville and across the Commonwealth, distilleries big and small have been building, building and building, and hiring and hiring.

Distilleries are adding hotels and bed and breakfast inns, restaurants with acclaimed chefs and even bars (thanks to a new state law). Hotels are adding bourbon attractions.

“Take our place,” Bill Samuels, Jr., chairman emeritus of Makers Mark Distillery, told a panel of top industry leaders and observers. “My son, who is running it, is absolutely committed that we will have the first Michelin-starred restaurant in the state of Kentucky, and he has the resources to do it. He’s in the process of doing a feasibility for a $14 million inn.”

The 10 other legacy distillers are doing the same, he said. “And that’s a lot of job opportunities that aren’t just hooked to making whiskey.”

At that same panel discussion Louisville–based bourbon historian Michael Veach concluded that, indeed, “Kentucky is being rebranded as the Napa Valley of Bourbon.”

Bourbon for Food Lovers

For just over a decade, James Beard-nominated Chef Ouita Michel has been chef-in-residence at Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles. The proprietor of several acclaimed Lexington area restaurants, including the Holly Hill Inn, Michel has directed preparation of meals for special events at the distillery, as well as the excellent breakfasts and lunches served to people coming to the distillery to make private barrel selections. (Steak and eggs with buttermilk biscuits have been served in the morning. Pork tenderloin and bourbon bread pudding at lunch.)

This summer, Woodford Reserve hosted Saturday night Summer Dinners. The last one, in August, included an optional tour of Ashford Stud (home to Triple Crown champion American Pharoah) and an outdoor screening of “Seabiscuit.” A series of Friday Night Live concerts with buffet dinners and optional distillery tours continues through September. The menu for these features chicken “bourbonaisse” (spice rubbed and finished with Woodford Reserve barbecue sauce) assorted seasonal vegetables and pies from Michel’s Midway Bakery.

Bardstown Bourbon Company, a new “collaborative” distillery in Nelson Country (it makes whiskey for other brands as well as its own), has considerably upped the distillery attractions ante with its recently-opened Bottle & Bond Kitchen and Bar. The sleekly modern decor is the setting for a menu that draws from traditional Kentucky fare, executed with gourmet flair by a top flight team of chefs. Felix Moss was recruited from the famed Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. Two veterans of acclaimed restaurants in NuLu, Brandon Habenstein (RYE) and Dan Calloway (Decca) are also members of the trio.

Featured dishes, available at both lunch and dinner, include an array of salads and sandwiches using fresh, often locally sourced ingredients. Chicken-fried oysters in a delicate, yet crunchy, crust; pan-seared Brussels sprouts with bourbon-glazed bacon and blue cheese; and bourbon rubbed baby back ribs that melt away from the bone. Desserts such as bread pudding with bourbon sauce naturally make an appearance, but you might think about one of the “boozy milkshakes” to end your meal.

Then there’s the bar. Backlit shelves displaying Bardstown Bourbon Company’s bottles stretch from the top of the bar counter to the 30-foot ceiling. About 200 whiskeys (selected by bourbon authority, Fred Minnick), as well as draft craft beer and a well-assembled wine list are all part of the beverage program.

Bourbon enthusiasts will find their favorite pours, which start around $4. But, there is also an impressive collection of vintage whiskeys, many bottled decades ago. For example, if your VISA credit limit is high enough, you could indulge in a $2,500, one-ounce shot of 16-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve from 1990, barrelled at the famous Old Fitzgerald/Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Looking for a taste of pre-Prohibition whiskey? The bar has Cedar Brook bourbon from Anderson County, bottled in 1892. The brand won a medal at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. Your pour sells for $1,600. Or, if rye is more to your taste, try the Old Overholt, bottled in 1908. It’s $1,250 per shot.

It’s important to note that this growth in on-premise bars for distilleries is recent. A state law took effect in July 2016 allowing by-the-drink sales at distilleries. A second law that makes the consumer experience at our distilleries similar to California wine country took effect on June 1 this year. It allows bottles purchased at distilleries to be sent to the customer’s home (a six-bottle-per-person, per-day limit).

Maker’s Mark hasn’t yet achieved a Michelin star, but it has taken an important first step by hiring Chef Newman Miller and putting him in charge of its restaurant Star Hill Provisions. Lunch, including cocktails if so desired, is available Wednesday through Sunday. Thanks to Maker’s relatively remote location, (It’s about 45 minutes from Bardstown and 90 from Louisville), a large number of visitors eat there. Classics such as Kentucky burgoo and perhaps the best BLT I’ve ever eaten (with thick cut bacon, fresh tomato, herbed aioli), are lunch staples. Special multi-course dinners paired with bourbon are offered on Saturday nights, May through October. Tickets are $100 and include an optional distillery tour. If you haven’t seen the warehouse ceiling by famed glass artist Dale Chihuly, go on the tour. Rob Samuels, an art lover, commissioned the 36-foot by six-foot blown glass installation, about 1,300 separate pieces. “The Spirit of the Maker” is a truly unique feature and certainly qualifies as Napa-esque. Be sure to look for the cherubs frolicking among the multicolored, abstract glass pieces. They are a playful nod to “the angel’s share,” whiskey that evaporates from the barrels during aging.

Where Bourbon Lovers Stay

Obviously, bourbon travelers need places to sleep. The first area hotel to brand itself specifically to bourbon was the Louisville Marriott East, off of Hurstbourne Parkway near Interstate 64, convenient base for exploring the distilleries near the corridor between Louisville and Lexington. The “Official Hotel of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” the Marriott’s Charr’d Kitchen and lounge is also part of Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail (more about that shortly) and has several guest rooms that incorporate décor elements such as bourbon barrels.

Also located on Louisville’s East Side, Chateau Bourbon is a bed-and-breakfast in Norton Commons. Missy and John Hillock will get your day of bourbon touring off to a proper start with a three-course, Southern-style breakfast that includes a bowl of bourbon granola (drunken cherries are involved), and welcomes you back in the afternoon for cocktail hour. Customized bourbon tastings are available, too.

The new Omni Hotel in downtown Louisville uses design elements in the lobby (rounded walls, charred look ceiling) to evoke the inside of a bourbon barrel. The hotel has a speakeasy, Pin + Proof, that combines a bar and a bowling alley. I’m not sure that I have ever thought of bowling alleys as clandestine, but the space is appropriately dimly lit, stone arches give an impression of being underground and cocktails meant to conjure Prohibition are served.

Possibly the most Napa of accommodations is under construction at the Willett Distillery just outside of Bardstown. President and Chief Whiskey Officer Britt Kulsveen and her brother, Master Distiller Drew Kulsveen, are members of the third generation of their family distillery business. They have been slowly adding features to the property, which is a stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. The Coffee Shop at Willet, in partnership with Quills Coffee, is open on the ground floor of the visitors’ center. A spacious Bar at Willet on the second floor will probably open later this year and feature a full line of the distillery’s whiskeys, as well as cocktails. Also under construction is a five-bedroom bed-and-breakfast overlooking a spring-fed lake and the warehouses of neighboring Heaven Hill. The B&B, plus two guest cabins being built in the distillery’s woods, will let overnight guests sleep in close proximity to whiskey barrels that are likewise “sleeping,” albeit for several years, rather than a few hours.

Louisville’s Bourbon District and the Urban Bourbon Trail

It is no secret that Louisville’s public transportation system (TARC) is not especially user-friendly. This dilemma for visitors without a car has been helped by the creation of a walkable Bourbon District along about 15 blocks of Main Street, stretching from Peerless Distillery at North 10th Street to Angel’s Envy Distillery at 500 East Main St. This was historically Whiskey Row, which, before Prohibition, had nearly 90 bourbon-related businesses, including distillery offices, spirits trade journal publishers, warehouses and wholesalers. Orange (bourbon-colored?) signs have been placed on the sidewalks with information about the businesses that once occupied the Row.

In addition to Peerless and Angel’s Envy (both in renovated historic buildings) whiskey is being distilled in small quantities at the Evan Williams Bourbon Bourbon Experience (owned by Heaven Hill) and in larger quantities at Brown-Forman’s Old Forester Distillery, in the building that once housed the company’s offices. (The tasting room is where company founder George Garvin Brown’s office was.)

Right behind and below Old Forester, on West Washington Street, look for a white glass globe over a door with the “Hello Curios” in black letters. That’s the entrance to Hell or High Water, a new speakeasy. Make a reservation because the bar will not admit more people than it can seat. After confirming your identity with the door person, you’ll pass through a hidden door in the back of a small room and go down a steep-ish flight of stairs, where a corridor leads to a turn and through a curtain into the bar. The large front room has banquettes upholstered in red plush. Another area resembles a library, complete with sofas, chairs and end tables. There are even several small, private rooms tucked in different corners. Period jazz plays on vintage radios to accompany patrons sipping expertly-crafted cocktails.

Back on Main Street, find restaurants and bars that are on the Urban Bourbon Trail, which means they have to stock at least 50 different whiskeys and have dishes that use bourbon as an ingredient. On Main or just a block off on a side street, are Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen, O’Shea’s Downtown, Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse and Raw Bar, Side Bar, Down One Bourbon Bar & Restaurant, the Troll Under the Bridge, Bristol Bar & Grille — Downtown and Proof on Main.

Notably, Proof is located in the 21c Museum Hotel, which caters to bourbon and modern art enthusiasts. You can’t miss the place, since a four-story, gold replica of Michelangelo’s David stands out front. Many of the often thought-provoking exhibits change regularly and the bar, dining room and guest rooms are all decorated with modern art, too.

But wait! There’s more.

Plans are afoot for the opening of Michter’s Distillery and visitors’ center in the restored Fort Nelson Building. Word is that could happen within the year.

Of course, Main Street is also home to other Louisville institutions such as Actors Theatre and the Kentucky Center for the Arts. Plus, several museums are there — the Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory (can’t miss the giant bat leaning against the building, not to mention the to-scale baseball “embedded” in the window of the plate glass factory next door) and the Frazier Kentucky History Museum.

It’s at the Frazier where bourbon tourists will find the newest addition to our “Napa.” The museum has partnered with the Kentucky Distillers Association to be the site of The Kentucky Bourbon Trail® Welcome Center. It has been designated the official starting point of the trail to help visitors plan their trips — food, lodging and other attractions throughout the state’s bourbon-related locations.

With the growth of all this Kentucky whiskey tourism, a certain American wine-growing region may soon be known as “Bourbon Country of the West.” •