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Long-Weekend Getaway: Louisville and Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail

Tour distilleries and enjoy great food, drink and more in this fun Southern city

spinner image Louisville, Kentucky skyline
Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo

Kentucky is famously known for friendly people, amazing comfort food and, of course, bourbon. In this state branded Bourbon Country, you’ll find more than 20 distilleries, creating 200 popular brands. You can have a blast exploring this region, basing yourself in Louisville, the epicenter of Kentucky’s bourbon industry. Explore distilleries right in town and several others just 50 to 75 miles east and southeast of the city. Plus, indulge in nature, get your fill of good food and take in a few surprising attractions — a fun long-weekend getaway.

Where to stay

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There are loads of options, from chain hotels to Airbnb or Vrbo rentals. Consider the 293-room Brown Hotel (from $200), a local downtown landmark known for creating a staple in the Louisville food scene with its Hot Brown, an open-face turkey-bacon sandwich smothered in a cheesy sauce.

spinner image Angels Envy bottles at distillery
Courtesy Angels Envy

Why Kentucky Bourbon?

The state’s natural elements all contribute to making the finest distilled bourbon. Its blue limestone naturally filters out bitter minerals such as iron from the water, eliminating a pricey step in the bourbon-making process. The water is rich in calcium and magnesium — two key elements for distilling because they feed the yeast and help with the fermentation. In addition, the fertile soil is perfect for growing delicious corn used in the process, and the state’s hot days and cold evenings lead distillers’ wooden barrels to contract and expand as their bourbon ages, adding flavor.

The Baymont by Wyndham Louisville, about 12 miles southeast of downtown near Churchill Downs, is a good choice for the budget-conscious (from $100).

How to dive into bourbon

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center in the Frazier History Museum downtown is a great place to start. Orient yourself to the state’s bourbon scene by browsing its many exhibits, including printed maps, preview videos, diagrams and artifacts. Concierges can assist you with your itinerary (tours and tastings must be booked in advance).

The city also has downtown distilleries within a mile of the welcome center, such as Angel’s Envy Distillery, a small-scale operation, and the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., which has been making whiskey since the late 1880s. Both offer interesting tours and, of course, tastings.

To visit distilleries outside Louisville, drive (or take a taxi or Uber or Lyft), or book one of the full-day distillery tours offered by Mint Julep Tours, starting at $179 per person. Its various tours — which include both preset and custom options — accommodate from one to 100-plus people (using everything from private cars to buses).

The preset ones generally depart at 7:45 a.m. and hit three distilleries, although none stops at Buffalo Trace or Woodford Reserve, two of the most popular distilleries.

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It’s easy to hit them both without a tour, however (they’re an hour’s drive east of Louisville off Interstate 64, and just 20 minutes apart). At Buffalo Trace, in Frankfort, visitors get an in-depth lesson on the aging process, and why some brands, such as the company’s Pappy Van Winkle, cost what they do — think supply and demand and how long they’re aged. At Woodford Reserve, in Versailles, the experience is more serious and informative. The distillery tour is followed by an intimate tasting with a bourbon expert who guides visitors through tasting notes, such as banana or chocolate strawberry.

More good stops on the trail include Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Distillery, America’s largest independent, family-owned-and-operated bourbon distillery. It has been producing the spirit for more than 80 years. And if you don’t mind a bit of a drive, there’s Maker’s Mark, one of the biggest names in bourbon, located 58 miles southeast of Louisville, near Loretto, Kentucky.

Other attractions

Old Louisville. Explore this historic area, with its many Queen Anne-, Romanesque- and European-style vintage homes. For a self-guided tour of these residential beauties, download the GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities app from iTunes or Google Play on your phone or tablet (the app also works offline). The tour takes an hour to complete and includes eight properties spread out over 1½ miles south of downtown. You can’t explore the building interiors, but their stunning exteriors still make them worth seeing.  

The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. Watch workers make the baseball bats synonymous with this well-known company.

Cave Hill Cemetery. Follow the solid green line to Muhammad Ali’s burial site, and a tribute mural to him with butterflies and bees, based on his famous line, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

The Bernheim ArboretumWalk or relax in a lush forest spanning more than 16,000 acres in Clermont, 26 miles south of Louisville, just off I-65.

Where to eat

A local favorite for breakfast is the family-owned Highland Morning restaurant in the city’s Highlands neighborhood. Try the lemon blueberry pancakes or shrimp and grits. Con Huevos, about 10 minutes east of downtown, serves up delicious Huevos Rancheros, made with corn tortillas, salsa ranchera, refried black beans, avocado, queso fresco, avocado mousse and two runny fried eggs.

For lunch or dinner, check out NuLu, an eclectic, artsy area in the East Market District about 1½ miles east of the welcome center. Pair piping hot, crispy Kentucky fried chicken sandwiches with pink lemonade bourbon slushies at Royals Hot Chicken. Or at Feast, wash down smoky barbecue sandwiches with ginger ale bourbon slushies. It’s a fun area to wander around, too, with its colorful murals and affordable boutiques.    

Another good spot for satisfying a range of tastes: Logan Street Market in Phoenix Hill, home to an array of food vendors (two good ones are Billy’s Chili and La Maison aux Crêpes).

And Pizza Lupo in Butchertown serves tasty wood-fired pizzas, such as the Fiori — a traditional margherita pie topped with creamy burrata, cracked pepper and peppery arugula. Chefs stuff the crust with ricotta, then fold and pinch it to resemble flower petals. 

Jessica Kelly is a travel journalist based in New York whose work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Elite Traveler, Global Traveler, AAA World, Lonely Planet and more.

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