The story of how I got into spirits begins with bourbon in the 1990's. I had wanted to learn more about wine, but found the commitment to drink a bottle and the expense a significant barrier for a lone bachelor. A friend of mine had discovered whiskey and insisted I give it a try, and bought me a bottle of Maker's Mark. I loved its sweet flavors (from the wheat) and the fact that opening a bottle didn't require having to finish it to enjoy it at its peak. I had never made the pilgrimage to Louisville, so when Marker's Mark invited me to fly out and visit the distillery for a quick trip, I couldn't say no.
The distillery is as quaint and as charming as you'd expect, with a little creek running through the grounds, gleaming copper stills, and plenty of stone and oak. Giant wood tanks are still used for open fermentation of the bourbon beer or wort, with a smell that reminded me of the oversized bowls of cereal on Saturday mornings. While walking along the grounds, we got a chance to meet the VP of Operations, and the first woman to ever hold that position, Victoria MacRae-Samuels.
After a full tasting, including some tasting some deliciously sweet white dog (unaged whiskey) only available at the distillery, I was set loose on the town to discover the surprisingly great cocktail scene Louisville had to offer. The Silver Dollar has a ton of quirky charm and the biggest tequila and mezcal list in town, along with a massive bourbon whiskey collection, and some of the best bartenders in the city. Decorated with Christmas lights all year round, and an old barn feel, it feels like a restaurant and bar plucked out of a movie, set on a Texas-Mexico border town. The Chicken and Waffles ($17, buttermilk pan-fried chicken breast with a house-made waffle, maple syrup) are the standard all others aspire to. Meat is a speakeasy style bar with a clever themed menu that breaks down the potency of the cocktails into Well Done (easy, lower alcohol) to Rare (stiff, spirit driven). The free food in the snack carousel can range from take out pizza to simple dried fruits and nuts. Despite the name, there is no meat in here, though Blind Pig and it's renowned Bison Burger wait below, on the first floor.
If you're going to go downtown, avoid the Forth Street Live nonsense (like partying in Fisherman's Warf) and instead head over to St. Charles Exchange, the restaurant-bar from the same folks who run the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company in Philadelphia (and named after the business that served as the front for the biggest bootlegging operation in the country), the St. Charles has that pre-prohibition elegance and kick ass drinks. The Hoping The Moon Explodes ($11, Rittenhouse Rye, Cynar, Benedictine) is a dazzling balancing act of strength and finesse, but it was the secret off-menu Bartenders Breakfast, that is the perfect way to clock out for the evening.
Leaving the city after a very brief visit left me wanting to return for more, but I couldn't shake the feeling of finally meeting someone you admired from afar. Fortunately, Louisville was all I had hoped it would be.