Whenever I’m looking for a short getaway, I need look no further than the River City. Whether I’m wanting to revisit an old favorite or try a new experience, Louisville never disappoints.
On my most recent jaunt down I-64, I spent a few days with three friends that included a leisurely guided stroll through an historic Victorian neighborhood; an art exhibition every Southerner should see; a “progressive spirited food tour” where the “spirited” came in liquid form; a couple of new restaurants and a new-to-me bourbon attraction that is sure to please.
The Evan Williams Experience made its debut on the city’s Whiskey Row (Main Street) in 2013 and has become one of its must-see attractions. While sampling bourbon is reason enough to visit, the sophisticated multimedia presentation on the life of Williams, Kentucky’s first commercial distiller, puts the product he produced in vivid perspective.
In a Disneyesque tableau, you can stand with him on the loading dock as he prepares to send a shipment downriver to New Orleans and then wander along an early 1900s re-creation of Main Street.
Bourbon history is good, but bourbon tasting is even better, and here at the Evan Williams Experience, the first distillery to open on Main Street since Prohibition, you can do your tasting in several different venues: a re-created 18th century tavern, a speakeasy or a 1960s bourbon bar inspired by the TV series “Mad Men.” My friends and I opted for the speakeasy, where we indulged in the “Sweet and Neat,” pairing three different bourbons with gourmet chocolates.
If you want to pair your libations with something other than chocolates, I suggest one of the curated Mint Julep Tours. Our group hopped aboard a small bus for what was billed as “a progressive, spirited food tour.”
First up was Harvest, where the tortellini and country ham soup was accompanied by a craft cocktail with the alliterative name Peter Piper’s Peaches (try saying that after drinking one). Made with Michters Rye, pickled peach, allspice, cinnamon, clove, a splash of angostura bitters and served in a glass rimmed with serrano pepper and sugar, it definitely got our tour off to a spirited start.
Next, it was on to Le Moo, where it was a tossup as to which we liked better – our entree of 4-ounce filet with country ham demi-glace, popcorn and cheese grits and crispy brussels sprouts with caramelized onions and garlic, or our Blue Grass Breeze libation, made with Basil Hayden bourbon, apricot liqueur, lemon juice and Demerara syrup). The votes were split, with one even going to Le Moo’s extravagant decor (for a hefty price you can dine in an alcove decorated with Louis Vuitton luggage).
By the time we arrived at our last stop, Silver Dollar, for dessert and a Mint Julep using Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon, I didn’t think I could eat another bite. One look at the house-made buttermilk biscuit with strawberries and whipped cream made me change my mind.
Mint Julep Tours offers several standard tours or they can personalize one especially for you and your group.
RESTAURANTS FOR EVERY TASTE
It seems a new restaurant, bistro, cafe or diner appears somewhere in Louisville on an almost weekly basis. Fortuitous – yes; making it easy to decide where to eat – no.
I never tire of going back to old favorites such as Buck’s (perfect for a leisurely lunch following a walking tour of Old Louisville … more on that later) or the English Grill at the Brown Hotel (where new chef Jim Adams has given the venerable dining room its most interesting menu in years).
Still, I love finding new spots. One of the most unusual is Red Herring, an establishment that unlike most newcomers, isn’t the least bit interested in being hip or trendy.
Located in a vintage turn-of-the-last-century theater, it features a house band dishing out traditional Bluegrass music, while the kitchen dishes out traditional Kentucky favorites such as fried chicken and smoked barbecue.
It also has a cocktail list with some 100 offerings – everything from a Pink Lady (when was the last time you had one of those?) to a Clifton Donut Shake (bet you’ve never had one of those – it’s the rum that makes it different from your typical donut or shake).
I ordered the signature Red Herring – bourbon, orange and black walnut bitters – finding it the perfect beverage for listening to Steve Cooley and Friends banging out the bluegrass.
Other “finds” were Decca, housed in a restored landmark building in NULU where chef Annie Pettry is all about local farms and small producers (evident in the watermelon and heirloom tomato salad with blue cheese, green olives, basil and tomato vinaigrette), and Finn’s Southern Kitchen, a Germantown favorite specializing in regional Southern cuisine.
If you’re looking for a good brunch option, try Gralehouse. This eclectic cafe in the Highlands area will have you thinking you’ve been magically transported to Germany’s Black Forest region.
TOURS DU JOUR
In addition to the Evan Williams Experience and the Mint Julep offerings, Louisville has tours for every day of the week. One of the best is a sashay through Old Louisville with local author, chef and raconteur David Domine.
He greets us on a toasty August morning, assuring us that the weather is just a “Kentucky Hug,” meant to provide guests with a “nice warm feeling.”
Nice warm feeling enveloping us, we start off on our hour-and-a-half walk through the nation’s third largest historic preservation district, and its largest purely Victorian neighborhood.
Consisting of 45 city blocks and 1,400 structures, the area is a treasure trove of elegant homes built in a variety of styles – Queen Anne, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Chateauesque – mostly built between 1885 and 1905, a period referred to as Louisville’s Gilded Age.
When asked where the wealth to build the mansions came from, Domine glibly replies, “Mostly from bourbon, horses and tobacco, so that means drinking, gambling and smoking – vices that Kentucky was built on.”
The tours, offered daily and priced at $20, also take in Central Park, laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed that other Central Park in New York City, and St. James’s Court, an area of leafy mews and gas lamps, which every October plays host to one of the country’s largest art fairs.
Speaking of art, while I’ve made several visits to the Speed Art Museum, following its four-year-long renovation, it was a particular exhibition that lured me back this time.
Novelist William Faulkner once described the South as “not so much a geographical place as an emotional idea.” The Speed’s current special exhibition “Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art” (through Oct. 14) illustrates that he was at least partially correct. Works by artists such as Howard Finster, Minnie Jones Evans, Andy Warhol and Ebony Patterson use a variety of forms (film, painting, photography and sculpture) in an attempt to capture the Southern psyche.
While Louisville alone has more than enough to offer the visitor, another of its advantages is being a natural base for a jaunt across the Ohio River to several artistically blossoming communities in Southern Indiana.
IF YOU GO TO LOUISVILLE
Where to stay: Brown Hotel, 335 W. Broadway; 502-583-1234; brownhotel.com. With its elegant lobby bar, sophisticated English Grill restaurant and Georgian Revival architecture, it has been a Louisville landmark since 1923. If you feel like splurging, book the Muhammed Ali Suite.