While Louisville, Kentucky is the largest city in the bourbon distilling area, it hasn't always been the best place to enjoy a well-crafted bourbon cocktail (to put it kindly). Happily, that has changed dramatically in just the past couple of years, with several excellent new bars (and quality restaurants) opening - and more are already on the way.
Plan a trip around the milder months: temperatures range from just below freezing in the winter to average highs of 32 degrees Celsius in July, and you do not want to be inside a distillery rickhouse around then. Bardstown and Lexington will be part of your agenda if you plan a distillery tour, but Lexington offers much more in terms of restaurants and bars for when the distillery tours are over. (Additionally, several new distilleries and visitors' centers are planned for Louisville.) A new event to consider planning around is the Bourbon Classic, which had its first year this March.
Address: 702 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Tel.: +1 502-217-6360
Type: Cocktail Bar
Attached to Louisville's hippest hotel, the modern art-driven 21C Museum Hotel, Proof on Main is open from breakfast through to late night. From its modern design and artistic décor it would be busy as a stand-alone cocktail bar, and with the addition of hotel guests it is always full. The narrow aisles between the bar, the centre-standing tables, and the seating in the back makes for a lot of jostling around, so finding a seat raises the comfort level by a great amount.
Nearly all cocktails on the short list manage to include an ingredient or two that seems so out of place in the drink that it tempts one to try it: one cocktail includes Old Tom gin, Lillet Rose, Cynar and rosewater; another combines bourbon, rum, mole bitters and mint. The quality of drinks is quite good, the diversity of flavours is great, and the prices reasonable at $10 each. The wait for them is also fair given the amount of people in the bar, served by both efficient bartenders and professional wait staff. 4/5
Address: 113 South 7th Street, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Tel.: +1 502-618-1917
Type: Restaurant bar
Directly across the street from ultra-modern Proof on Main is St. Charles Exchange, which opened in 2012 but is designed to invoke the old world grandeur of the turn-of-the-century building in which it is located. The room has high ceilings, huge windows, and a bartender-dwarfing dramatic wood-and-mirror back bar anchoring one side of the space. The other side of the room is populated with restaurant seating, much of it in plush leather chairs and booths.
The cocktail menu is surprisingly short for a bar this long, with just eight cocktails and two punches listed, and all but one of the cocktails stirred and served up. Despite the narrow selection and flavour range, everything sampled on multiple visits was expertly made, and bartenders are able to go off-menu with ease. Beyond the quality of the beverage, the calibre of the bar is reinforced by the number of other top bartenders from around the city spotted socializing here. 3.5/5
Address: 900 East Market Street, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Tel.: +1 502-749-6200
Type: Restaurant Bar
The bar at the restaurant Rye is a skinny room with brick walls and wood floors and one row of tall tables against the wall, with just a narrow aisle in which to stand. The entrance to the dining room is near the back of this room, opening to a modern restaurant with an open kitchen. The place is staffed with hipsters wearing jeans and flannel or t-shirts, but the food is priced for fine dining at $20 for the least expensive entrée.
You'll be expecting fancy rye cocktails, of course, but you won't find all that many on the menu. Instead, a line of rye bottles are on display atop the surprisingly limited back-bar selection, and the menu focusses on shots, canned beers, and mostly-not-rye mixed drinks. It is an odd selection for a bar given its name, but it matches the faux-downscale theme of the restaurant overall. 3/5
Address: 732 E Market Street, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Tel.: +1 502-410-2888
Visitors to La Coop may recognize it as the former 732 Social, which was one of the leading cocktail spots in Louisville for years. Reborn as a French restaurant, the venue is small but funky with stone walls on one side, an open kitchen in the corner next to the L-shaped bar, and bright green chairs at the bar enlivening the dark wood ceilings and dark floors. There are only a handful of tall bar seats with some pinched into the corner, so it doesn't afford the comfort of a neighborhood pub, yet it is certainly worth going out of your way for a visit to La Coop.
More successfully implemented than at most French-themed bars (a trend in the US these days with venues like Demi Monde and Parisian-based Experimental Cocktail Club in New York and Pour Vous in LA), the drinks menu here narrowly focusses on French ingredients and French-derived cocktails. There are house-made fortified wines flavoured with seasonal-infused ingredients like walnuts and strawberries, a small menu section dedicated to Kirs, and just half a dozen cocktails with ingredients like Citadel Gin, Grey Goose, rhum agricole, St. Germain and Domaine De Canton. The bright and colourful cocktails are made with a feminine touch, and for the most part with great success. 3.5/5
Address: 1076 E Washington Street, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Type: Cocktail bar
This bar above a restaurant called Blind Pig in Louisville's Butchertown combines elements of a speakeasy bar, a roadhouse and a cabaret. DJs and live acts perform from a low stage in one corner of the big, square room, the bar juts out from the opposite side, and a variety of seating at tables, couches, and high and low chairs make for a several different areas in which people can hang at the bar, talk amongst themselves, or take in the entertainment. It's an exciting and sometimes-overwhelming room.
The oversized cocktail menu is filled with boldly-flavoured, boozy and inventive cocktails more like you'd expect to see in New York or Portland rather than in the cocktail-conservative Louisville. A variation of a French 75 combines aquavit, Cynar, jam, and sparkling wine, while another drink contains peanut-infused rum, chutney, shrub, and celery soda. Speed of service varied on repeat visits but drinks were well-made every time. Temporarily closed at the time of publication: check the website for a reopening date. 4/5
Address:1761 Frankfort Ave, Louisville, KY
Tel.: +1 502-259-9540
Type: Neighborhood Bar
The casual and welcoming Silver Dollar is located in Louisville's Clifton neighborhood, a ways out from Downtown but one that should be on everyone's must-visit list. The space has a glass garage door facing the street that opens in the summertime and another small patio in the back, creating a big open space you can walk right through. Decorations include strings of Christmas lights on the brick walls but there's not much else above the simple wooden booths and tables and chairs. The sparse décor (and soundtrack you'll hear) are in tribute to the 1950s "Bakersfield Sound," a music movement and a honky tonk aesthetic. Rather than themed, it feels rather natural and incredibly comfortable.
Cocktails, too, are casual rather than showy, with a couple of classics and half-dozen originals on the menu. Nearly all the drinks contain bourbon (this bar has a fantastic selection of the native spirit) or, surprisingly, mezcal. Food is booze-friendly bar food and California-Southern dishes like chicken fried steak and breaded catfish, making it the kind of place that invites both heavy consumption with your new best friends at the bar at night, and afternoon revisits the next day for a hangover brunch. 4/5