Making the pilgrimage to Kentucky is something of a rite of passage for those interested in bourbon, with many of the country’s major distilleries located across the state. And while distillery visits may be top priority on such journeys, there’s also more to explore in the cities and towns that make up the Bluegrass State’s famed bourbon trail.
Wildsam Field Guides’ newest release, “Kentucky Bourbon Country,” compiles not only the iconic bars, museums, and restaurants that should be on your itinerary, but also a fundamental guide to Kentucky bourbon, a list of the best bottles to buy if you spot them, interviews, essays, and essential tips to help guide you along the way.
The following is an excerpt from “Kentucky Bourbon Country,” exploring four of the most “legacy-rich metros, midsize cities on the come-up and bucolic small towns” that draw lots of avid bourbon drinkers (and others!) to the state every year.
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All eyes are on Louisville for “the most exciting two minutes in sports” every year. But for the past decade, entrepreneurs and creatives have been betting on the city, and the wager has paid off. The 30-foot-tall gold statue of Michaelangelo’s David stands outside one of the early gambles, the first 21C Museum Hotel (now one of 11 nationwide properties). The NuLu neighborhood isn’t so new anymore, but hip Italian spot Bar Vetti is a welcome addition, while pizza at Garage Bar remains a favorite. Brandy and liqueur distiller Copper & Kings anchors Butchertown, and the Speed Art Museum has brought artists from Warhol to Ai Weiwei since a silvery 2016 renovation. The city’s next transformation: a much-anticipated expansion of Waterfront Park will connect downtown and the city’s west side.
SHOW STOP: Zanzabar – Breakout acts, glitter totchos, and pinball wizards
COFFEE: Sunergos Coffee
BEST DAY OF THE YEAR: Kentucky Derby, First Saturday in May
From the city’s eastside “Mexington” neighborhood to its now well-established Japanese restaurants and a new generation of internationally influenced chefs, the Horse Capital of the World grew one of the country’s most fascinating food scenes while everyone was busy watching the ponies. Tortillería y Taquería Ramírez makes all their tortillas, now local classics, by hand. SAV’S serves West African standards and ice cream. And Tachibana, a byproduct of the decades-old Toyota plant nearby, has noodles, katsu and sushi (as does School downtown). At Honeywood, Lawrence Weeks hosts pop-ups, like Sam Fore’s Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites, and at Atomic Ramen, Dan Wu crafts comforting bowls in between Lexington boosterism on his WUKY 91.3 FM podcast “Advanced D&D.”
SCOOP STOP: Crank & Boom – Scoops like blackberry and buttermilk or bourbon and honey
COFFEE: Broomwagon Bikes + Cafe
BEST DAY OF THE YEAR: Railbird Festival, August
Originally settled in 1780, Bardstown’s downtown district holds nearly 200 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Stay in the brick-paved heart at the Talbott Inn, an old stagecoach stop turned plush B&B with a heck of a guestbook: exiled King Louis Philippe of France, Abraham Lincoln, John James Audubon and outlaw Jesse James. Come September, the otherwise sleepy Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum sees an uptick in tipsy tourists and spirits professionals for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which includes a vintage bottle auction. Drive southward through the knobs toward Abbey of Gethsemani, where unorthodox religious scholar Thomas Merton lived and wrote, and an order of Trappist monks still sells honey, fruitcake and strawberry preserves reaped from its rustic property.
TRAIL STOP: Elm Lick Trail – 5-mile hike through grasslands, valleys and beech forests
COFFEE: Fresh Coffee, Pastries & More
BEST DAY OF THE YEAR: Kentucky Bourbon Festival, September
The capital city sits astride a twisty S in the Kentucky River. Early risers can watch the heavy blanket of fog lift from its double curve with a cup of coffee and warm, buttered corn bread at Cliffside Diner. Head down to the water and book a boat tour with Kentucky River Cruises to connect with the port town’s history (and sneak a look at Buffalo Trace Distillery). Serious trail runners, hit waterfall-pocketed Cove Spring Park; those seeking a less bumpy afternoon, meander through the downtown district, unexpectedly abundant with sculpture and murals (more than 10,0000 plants compose the courthouse’s floral clock) or stroll into Rebecca Ruth Candy, which has been sending Kentucky cream pull candy and bourbon balls down the conveyor belt since 1919. At sunset, grab a sidewalk table at Serafini, a bustling bistro overlooking the capitol grounds. The order: bison meatloaf.
BOOK STOP: Poor Richard’s Books – Specializes in Kentucky and regional authors
COFFEE: Kentucky Coffeetree Cafe
BEST DAY OF THE YEAR: Kentucky River Jam & Music Fest, monthly through the summer