Louisville is best known for hosting the Kentucky Derby, famously dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” When you’re done with that, we’ve got a lot more to show you.
Author Amanda Petrusich Photography Sam Polcer
DAY THREE | Your, ahem, healthy day behind you, you’ll be spending much of this one sampling Kentucky’s finest tipples. You pause in the 21c lobby to stare at Duke Riley’s “Pigeon Loft,” a work that consists of a wooden cage containing a bunch of homing pigeons, then head out to find the Gralehaus, a “beer and breakfast” spot in the Highlands where you’ll prepare your stomach for the boozy day ahead.
Once there, you hop onto an industrial-looking stool (nearly everything seems to be repurposed) and order a biscuit with picnic ham, mustard, cheese and scrambled eggs. While you wait, you admire the large coolers lining the wall, packed with a Smithsonian-quality collection of microbrews. The Gralehaus has been open for less than a year, but it’s already wildly popular with messy-haired locals, many of whom are in attendance this morning.
Stomach suitably lined, you take a cab to Copper & Kings in Butchertown. Louisville is a bourbon-centric city, of course, but the people at this distillery—which specializes in small-batch brandy, using traditional copper-pot distillation methods—are hoping there might be room for another spirit. Co-owner Joe Heron recommends you take yours on the rocks with a rub of citrus on the rim, which you do in the upstairs tasting room, watched over by framed portraits of rock stars, including Jim James of Louisville’s own My Morning Jacket.
There’s more tippling in store for you on Whiskey Row, a recently restored stretch of Main Street that was once the hub of Louisville’s bourbon industry. You stop for a tasting at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, which requires that you take a crash course in such matters as corn ratios and optimum proofs. As far as you can tell, there are no wrong answers in bourbon analysis, although your guide does respond with a poor-you look when you holler “Wood!”
Lunch is at Vietnam Kitchen, a local favorite in the Iroquois neighborhood. It doesn’t look like much inside—wall-mounted televisions, linoleum tiles, a few wilted plants in the window—but you have been assured (by a woman at the next table) that there isn’t a single disappointing dish in the house. You order pho tai (rice noodles in a delicious broth, topped with thinly sliced beef) and an avocado milkshake. The woman at the next table proves wise.
From here you’ll be heading to Woodford Reserve, about an hour east of the city, near the sleepy little town of Versailles (pronounced “ver-sales”). Once you leave the interstate, the drive is sublime. This is horse country, all rolling green hills and expansive blue skies. Woodford is the oldest working bourbon distillery in the U.S., dating back to 1797. The grounds, with their mossy stone buildings and rows of oak barrels, have a medieval feel to them. The bourbon is sweet and smooth, tasting vaguely of young oak, vanilla and honeycomb (you’re learning!). “Home, James!” you say to your driver as you leave, although, looking back, you’re pretty sure his name was Paul.
Dinner tonight is at Proof on Main, 21c’s artsy (of course) and ambitious eatery. On Sunday nights, it serves a market-dictated prix-fixe meal; you start yours with a platter of tapas-style appetizers, including biscuits with jalapeño-peach butter and deviled eggs with chive and ash. For a main course you have filet of hot Kentucky catfish with candied onions, ratatouille and fried potatoes with pickled peppers. By the time dessert arrives—Lime Dream Pie with coconut, chantilly and saltines—you are somewhere between satisfied and liable to explode.
Leaving the restaurant, you enter into a brief internal debate about how best to conclude your stay in Louisville. A stroll across the Big Four Bridge? A cruise on the Belle of Louisville steamboat? Or, um, maybe a bit more bourbon? That settled, you walk to the Seelbach Hotel and the Old Seelbach Bar, a favored haunt of F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was stationed at nearby Camp Taylor. You plunk your elbows on the intricate mahogany bar and order an Eagle Rare, neat, feeling at home among the other solo drinkers nursing whiskeys.
As you sip your drink you think of Fitzgerald’s lovelorn millionaire in The Great Gatsby, for whom Louisville “was pervaded with a melancholy beauty” and for whom the city exerted an irresistible attraction, in much the way it did for Hunter S. Thompson, in much the way it does for anyone who has been lucky enough to call this place home.
Freelance writer Amanda Petrusich forgot to mark an X where she buried her bourbon at Churchill Downs.