In the bourbon world, Dave Pickerell is a household name. A jovial, lighthearted character, Pickerell spent 14 years as the master distiller for Maker’s Mark, followed by nearly a decade consulting for craft distilleries across the country. He is celebrated both for his deep knowledge of bourbon history and traditions and his expertise with modern distilling practices. He has contributed to the development of products at Vermont’s Whistlepig, Hillrock Estates in New York, and Woodinville Distillery in Washington.
Many credit Pickerell’s creative thinking regarding production as one of his strong suits, but he says an ever-curious palate keeps him experimenting, as well as sampling inexhaustibly for old and rare finds at places like Louisville’s Silver Dollar. Despite his extensive work outside Kentucky, he regularly spends time in his old stomping ground of Louisville. And if you’ve never experienced the hallowed Bourbon Trail for yourself, there’s no better guide than Pickerell.
You’re best served to plan your [distillery] stops ahead of time and get appointments for tours long before you even set foot in Kentucky. For instance, if you plan to visit Buffalo Trace, and I highly recommend you do, its Hard Hat Tour (the best one to do) books up more than a month and a half in advance. Also, a word to the wise: If you’re in the industry and want some ‘insider treatment,’ it really helps if you know someone who knows someone. You’re best served to do your networking beforehand, as this is a place that is definitely geared toward tourists. But it doesn’t mean you can’t get a full and worthwhile experience.
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Where to Stay
If it’s your first time to the area, you have to stay at one of Louisville’s two historic hotels, The Seelbach or The Brown Hotel. They’re right downtown and are glorious not only for their history but for their beautiful lobby bars and their easy access to downtown destinations.
While it’s entirely possible to rent a car and drive yourself around, keep in mind that you’ll probably stop at four or more places in a day with the specific intent to consume whiskey. While Uber and Lyft are perfectly fine options to use within Louisville, a tour company such as Mint Julep Tours or a hired car from R & R Limousine service can ensure that you explore the Bourbon Trail safely. Both companies will work with you to draw up a custom itinerary based on based on your particular interests.
Dave Pickerell’s Two-Day Bourbon Country Itinerary
Start early with the eastern half of the Bourbon Trail. Your first appointment should be the aforementioned Hard Hat Tour at Buffalo Trace. From there, stop at Wild Turkey and Four Roses, which have really great proprietary barrel programs that are worth investigating. In the past few years, the market for restaurants and bars to purchase barrels of bourbon from producers to blend and finish specifically for their own use has exploded. When it comes to bourbon, it always comes down to the fact that people want to tell a story. Restaurants and bars want to have a special connection to tell about a special bourbon they’re offering that’s exclusive to them.
A stop at Woodford Reserve will take you right through the heart of horse country, which is an integral part of this area. American spirits have been distilled here since the 1780s, and the original 1838 building is the oldest of the distilleries in the area. Though it’s changed hands a few times in its existence, the distillery is distinguished by the work of Dr. James Crow, who helped shape the quality of bourbon and codified the process by which it’s made today. Though Woodford Reserve as a label didn’t come along until the late 1990s, the tour here delves more deeply into the history of the property, which really sets the stage for the whole region.
These four distilleries are all about an hour and half away from Louisville but are all fairly well clustered together within 15 to 20 minutes of each other, and if you don’t lallygag around, you can probably get to all of them in one day. Together, they offer a great overview of the region, and you’ll be inundated with a lot of great information, not to mention bourbon. If you’re hungry, build enough time in your schedule for a quick lunch stop at Bourbon on Main in Frankfort for a good burger.
Head back to Louisville and get an Uber to take you for nighttime exploring. Louisville has its own Urban Bourbon Trail in town, so you can keep up your bourbon tastings at the different bars and restaurants. Just be sure to keep a list of what you’ve already tasted because things start to be easily forgotten as the night wears on. Angel’s Envy is a good stop. Their program was started by Lincoln Henderson, who was a fixture in the history of modern bourbon making here in Louisville. They just opened this big facility in town that is glorious. Even better is Cooper and Kings, a brandy distillery in the Butchertown area of Louisville that makes a number of different spirits—which gives you a nice break from bourbon. Their brandy is really good, as is their gin, and a tour here gives you a good perspective on how distilleries work outside the massive bourbon world that surrounds it. The best part is the view from their rooftop patio. It’s the best in the city.
In your pre-trip research, you should have gotten an idea of which place you’d like to stop, as it’s impossible to make it to every place on the list. A friend and I once managed to see every place this list in six days, and that was a record. The trick is to go by districts, such as Downtown or the Frankfort Avenue corridor. And be sure to have an idea of which places close earliest and try to visit them first.
But if it’s me, I’ll be honest—the only thing I’ll be doing is setting up shop at the Silver Dollar for dinner and to stare down one of the best backbars of bourbon in the country. First-timers to Louisville should reserve an entire night to taste through the single barrel selections owners Larry Rice and Susie Hoyt have collected over the years. You can find verticals of Pappy Van Winkle and Weller Antique, but Rice has just started offering a sampling of his collection of antique bourbons, which is probably the most extensive in the world. If you ask me, I’m spending my time tasting through those, neat, with a side of small ice to get just the right dilution rate. If I’m in the mood for a nightcap, it’s likely the Haymarket Whiskey Bar that I’ll go to. It’s definitely more of a dive bar, but their bourbon selection is also excellent, probably second to Silver Dollar.
Plan to make another early start for the western part of the Bourbon Trail. Hopefully, you’ve opted for a reservation at the Independent Stave Company. It’s a fascinating tour of the region’s main cooperage, which has been in operation since the early 1900s and has been handed down through four generations. If you see an American-made wine or whiskey barrel anywhere, it was probably made by Independent Stave. It’s a long run out of the way (about an hour and a half), but if you can keep a good pace for your other distillery visits, it’s definitely worth it. They only give three tours a day [and only on weekdays], so book ahead. Note: The cooperage is closed September 2–12.
If you’d rather start your day with bourbon instead, then go to Jim Beam. It’s the closest large-scale distillery to Louisville, and its tour is great for giving you a full-blown perspective on the scale of the whole bourbon industry.
Just down the street from Beam is Willet Family Estates, a distillery that’s been around for decades but is tiny compared with a lot of the big players. It’s a fraction of the size of Beam, but it makes a great contrast to give you a glimpse at craft distilling. Beam uses 90,000-gallon fermenters, while Willet uses 10,000-gallon fermenters. The two distilleries, seen back-to-back, give you great benchmarks for where the key players of bourbon are headed.
For a brief lunch stop, go to the historic Talbott’s Tavern in Bardstown. It was originally established in 1779, and you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time going there. You’ll find Kentucky classics like burgoo (a sort of beef stew), hot browns, and burgers. It’s definitely a must.
From there, go to Maker’s Mark. There’s a reason I spent 14 years there. Aside from the fact that the distillery itself is absolutely beautiful, I have a lot of respect for the way they make bourbon. This is one of the only large distilleries that still do things the way they were done decades ago. They still propagate their own yeast, and while they have grown exponentially in recent years, they are committed to using 45-foot column stills at their original 3-foot diameter. The other big guys, like Wild Turkey, have replaced these smaller stills with ones that are 52 feet tall with a 5-foot diameter. Maker’s just made more of the small ones to keep up with demand. This is a kind of commitment that you can taste in the consistency of the bourbon from each bottle.
The tour at Maker’s is phenomenal, but it will take you a good amount of time—in fact, you really could spend a whole day there. And if you’ve already visited Beam and Willet, you may be ready to throw in the towel. But another worthwhile stop would be the Heaven Hill Visitor’s Center. These guys make a lot of spirits, and though it may not give the best of the tours on the trail, their tasting room is beautiful—it’s shaped like a big bourbon barrel—and it’s interesting to make a stop in their gift shop, where they have special releases only available here. Sometimes you find some pretty great stuff from Old Fitzgerald or Elijah Craig.
Don’t miss the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. It’s a quick walk-through tour in Bardstown. You don’t need to spend a ton of time there, but if you like old bottles and old stories, it’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time.
Where to Eat
If there’s one place I try not to miss when I visit Louisville, it’s the Silver Dollar. Co-owners Larry Rice and Susie Hoyt have created a laid-back environment with really great service and amazing cocktails. Their bourbon selection is unmatched, and when it comes to Southern food, you can’t get more authentic than this place. Their fried chicken and fried okra are amazing. Pretty much everything on the menu is fried, but that’s not a bad thing, if you ask me.
For first-timers to Louisville, a Kentucky Hot Brown at the Brown Hotel is a must. It’s essentially an open-faced turkey sandwich covered in Mornay sauce and strips of bacon. And no, it’s not healthy in any way possible, but it is a Kentucky tradition. Although you can get really great hot browns all over the area, the Brown Hotel is where they were invented, and you haven’t lived until you’ve had one here.
I usually stop here if I’m in the mood for seafood. They have a great bourbon list, which qualifies them as part of the Urban Bourbon Trail, but the food and service are always fantastic.
For breakfast or lunch, when I just want a good beer and some good food, Gralehaus is the perfect answer. It’s actually a B&B that has been converted from an old Victorian home from the early 1900s. Their food is all from local farms, and they serve a hearty breakfast—like biscuits with duck-sausage gravy, or country ham with pimento cheese and house-made pickles.
Proof on Main, at the 21c Museum Hotel
A lot of people really like the food here, but I’ve found I prefer sitting at the bar, where you can still order from the menu but you can also choose from a selection of their private single-barrel selections from Old Forester, Whistlepig, Buffalo Trace, and otheres.
For a nicer meal with a bit of an old-school feel, Vincenzo’s is usually my choice. It’s owned by two brothers, and there’s definitely a family feel to the place. This is usually where I take people when they want something a little less trendy than a lot of the new places around.
Where to Drink
Haymarket Whiskey Bar
Aside from the Silver Dollar, the Haymarket has one of the best selection of bourbons in the city. It’s a straight-up dive bar run by local Matt Landon, and I try to never miss visiting here when I’m in town.
The Pearl in Germantown is a second offering from the folks at the Silver Dollar. It’s got more of a neighborhood feel, with a great jukebox, and while they do offer a nice selection of bourbon and good cocktails, it’s also the sort of place to get a good beer. It’s comfortable and not fussy.
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Jessica Dupuy is a wine, spirits, and food writer based in Austin, Texas, whose credits include work in Texas Monthly, Imbibe magazine, Wine Enthusiast magazine, Sommelier Journal, and The Tasting Panel magazine and with the Guild of Sommeliers. A Certified Sommelier, Certified Specialist of Wine, and Certified Specialist of Spirits, she holds the Diploma in Wines through the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. Dupuy keeps her palate sharp through travel, reading, and endless tasting.