[Image by Josh Danzig]

Bourbon & Basketball in Kentucky

07:00 March 16, 2023
By: Josh Danzig

Adventure Awaits in Louisville, Kentucky

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament's site for the South Regional this year is Louisville, Kentucky. Kentucky has always been famous for its basketball, and this year's Regional at the KFC Yum! Center March 24 - 26 is a great excuse to visit. Besides basketball, another good reason to visit Kentucky is bourbon.

New Orleans may have a street named for bourbon, but Kentucky has an actual Bourbon County. Bourbon enthusiasts know that the towns near Louisville and Lexington are the heart of American-made whiskey, and in between basketball games, a trip to the Bourbon Trail is a must.

For a spirit to be considered bourbon, it must meet five requirements. The first is that it is made in the United States. Aging of the spirit must take place in a new charred oak barrel, and cannot enter that barrel at higher than 125 proof. The mash must be at least 51% corn, and nothing can be added but water…and only to lessen the proof when needed.

The Bourbon Trail covers roughly 250 miles, and includes 42 distilleries. Some of the distilleries are close to each other, while others are as far as 70 miles apart. Thus, planning your route along the Trail is important, as it could take weeks to visit each distillery. There are many shuttle companies that will bring you to the Bourbon Trail, though renting a car is the easiest way to get around.

One of the largest cities within the Bourbon Trail is Louisville, which is now easy to reach from New Orleans on the new non-stop flight offered by Breeze Airways. While flights are not offered daily, it's possible to visit the Bourbon Trail over a long weekend whether you are going for the basketball tournament or not.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

Louisville is the perfect home base for a trip to the Bourbon Trail. The city sits along the Ohio River and is the largest city in Kentucky. Louisville is famous for many things, primarily the Kentucky Derby. The city is filled with many great hotels, restaurants, and attractions.

Many Great Sights in Louisville

If possible, schedule some time for a visit to the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville. Whether you are a fight fan or not, the Center celebrates not only Muhammad Ali the boxer but also the human rights activist and cultural icon.

The Center offers a plethora of interactive films and exhibitions that allow visitors more info on the man known as "The Greatest." The onsite theater offers film screenings, while the exhibit "Ali in All His Glory" displays gloves, robes, championship belts, and more memorabilia from Ali's career.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

A great spot to stay in Louisville is the 21c Museum Hotel, located in the heart of downtown. The boutique hotel features 91 rooms, each with unique artwork. The museum also serves as a contemporary art museum, which is free and open to the public. The museum highlights contemporary artwork from around the world, including sculptures, photography, paintings, and more.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

21c also features Proof on Main, one of the best restaurants in downtown Louisville. Serving from breakfast to late-dinner, the Proof on Main is also one of Kentucky's best bourbon bars with a world class wine selection. The restaurant's menu features modern takes of local favorites, using only the freshest seasonal and regional ingredients.

Kentucky Bourbon is Essential

There are a number of distilleries within Louisville, including the famous Old Forester Distillery at 119 West Main Street. Old Forester is one of the oldest continuously operating bourbon brands, dating back to 1870, and produces many sought-after batches of bourbon.

The distillery tour at Old Forester Distillery offers a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at how bourbon is produced, from grain to the bottle. One of the highlights of the tour is visit to the cooperage, where barrels are made by hand. One lucky tour guest is even allowed to push the button that sets the flames to charring the wood of the barrel.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

Of course, a visit to Old Forester wouldn't be complete without a stop in the tasting room. There guests can sample bourbons and learn about the different flavors and nuances of fine whiskey.

A distillery worth the drive is the Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. The distillery sits on beautiful grounds surrounded by nature, and the tour includes a stop to the still house. The still house is where the mash is cooked, fermented, and distilled.

Bourbon is a business, and each brand has its own interesting story of origination. The Maker's Mark tour tells tale of its founder Bill Samuels Sr., and his vision on how to grow and develop the brand. The tour also includes a visit to the barrel-aging warehouses, where the bourbon ages and gets its unique flavor.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

Maker's Mark is known for red wax seal, and visitors on the tour have the opportunity to see how each bottle is dipped by hand. Guests can also don an apron and safety goggles to dip their own personal bottle in the gift shop.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

When visiting Maker's Mark, be sure to plan your trip around lunch. The restaurant Star Hill Provisions sits on its campus and features a fantastic menu of Southern-inspired cuisine, along with a wide selection of Maker's Mark bourbons. Menu highlights include fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and BBQ ribs…all to be enjoyed while overlooking the scenery of the rolling hills.

No vacation to Kentucky is complete without a visit to the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort. Established in 1775, it has been producing bourbon continuously for almost 250 years. Located on the banks of the Kentucky River, Buffalo Trace is known for producing some of the best bourbons in existence…including Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton's, Eagle Rare, and more.

An amazing aspect of visiting Buffalo Trace Distillery is that there is no charge for tours. A highlight includes the Buffalo Trace Wall of Fame, which shares the history of the great men who produced some of these most famous brands. Visitors are also able to visit the historic brick warehouses where the bourbon is aged, as well as the distillation area, bottling hall, and more. Perhaps you'll be lucky enough to get legendary Chief Tour Guide Freddie Johnson as your guide.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

In the Buffalo Trace Distillery gift shop, visitors can choose from a plethora of clothing, accessories, and more. Guests are also allowed the opportunity to buy one of Buffalo Trace's rare and highly sought-after bourbons. Many visitors go to Buffalo Trace just to be able to purchase one of these scarce finds, though purchases are limited to one per person.

One of the most beautiful distilleries in Kentucky is the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles. The distillery lies on a 500-acre site that has been producing bourbon since 1812. Just before arriving to the distillery, guests pass through pristinely manicured farms that are home to some of the top race horses in the world…offering another reason to visit Woodford Reserve.

Woodford Reserve is a premium small-batch bourbon. They also produce a variety of flavored bourbons including the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, Rye, and high-proof Batch Proof. The tour walks guests through the bourbon-making process as well as seeing historical spots where early locals bought their spirits.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

Be sure to schedule in a visit to the Woodford Reserve Cocktail Bar before or after your tour. The bar menu features an array of original Woodford Reserve Cocktails such as the Spiced Cherry Mule and Double Oaked Old Fashioned. Guests also have an opportunity to order hard-to-find variations of Woodford Reserve.

With all of the bourbon sampling available in Kentucky, it's important to eat well to lessen any hangovers. Luckily, the area is filled with fantastic options. Before heading off to bourbon tastings, start your morning off at J Graham's Café at The Brown Hotel with their world-famous Hot Brown.

The Brown Hotel opened in 1923 and is known as Louisville's landmark hotel. When the hotel opened in the roaring '20's, Chef Fred Schmidt created a dish to fill the stomachs of the hungry party-goers. The Hot Brown is an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon, tomatoes, and thick Mornay sauce; the dish is large and filling, so is perfect for sharing.

More Great Restaurants to Visit

For a memorable dinner spot after the bourbon tours, make a reservation at Bar 8 at Hermitage Farm in nearby Goshen. Barn 8 is a farm-to-table restaurant inside a former barn that serves locally sourced ingredients from Hermitage Farm as well as other local farms.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

The menu at Barn 8 changes seasonally, but typical offerings include items like grilled lamb chops, smoked trout dip, and pork belly sliders. The restaurant has an impressive list of spirits including many hard-to-find bourbons from around the region. Check the Barn 8 calendar for special events that they host throughout the year, including live music concerts.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

Be sure to pre-book a tour of Hermitage Farm before your dinner at Barn 8. Hermitage Farm is a historic thoroughbred horse farm that was established in 1830. A tour offers the opportunity to learn about the history of the farm as well as the thoroughbred industry while viewing beautiful gardens and classic architecture. Check the Hermitage Farm website for special events including horse races, polo matches, and more.

Another great can't-miss restaurant is North of Bourbon. This New Orleans-style restaurant founded by a New Orleanian features the best cocktails in town with a menu highlighting over 26 unique creations. And if you like it straight, North of Bourbon's bar features over 300 bourbon selections at varying price ranges.

Chef Lawrence Week was raised in a Creole household, and the menu displays his Louisiana creations. Start off with the daily oyster presentation, whether raw or baked. Then move onto savory dishes like the crab fondue, peppered catfish nuggets, and seafood Clemenceau with Gulf shrimp. Save room for dessert, as the Creole cream cheese cheesecake rivals any of that found in the Big Easy.

[Image by Josh Danzig]

North of Bourbon also does a fantastic Sunday brunch, complete with traditional Louisiana dishes such as beignets, pain perdu, and grits and grillades. Their Bloody Mary oyster shooter, made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, is a perfect hair of the dog remedy before moving on to such brunch cocktails as their French Quarter Fruit Salad.

Sign Up!