LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In Kentucky's bourbon country, the classic American whiskey isn't just for sipping anymore.
Restaurants stretching along the Urban Bourbon Trail in Louisville are creating bourbon-inspired sauces and glazes to jazz up main courses, side dishes and desserts. The 6-year-old bourbon cocktail and culinary experience has grown to 34 establishments, adding more zest to the city's nightlife.
The trail's growth is part of a bourbon revival both nationally and in Kentucky's largest city, where whiskey-making dates back to the late 1700s and where a portion of Main Street known as "Whiskey Row" was once home to as many as 50 distilleries before Prohibition.
Louisville touts itself as the gateway to bourbon country, and for many visitors the restaurants and bars are part of a day-night bourbon experience.
During the day, they tour distilleries about an hour or less away in rural Kentucky, where iconic bourbons such as Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve and Four Roses are crafted. At night, they flock to Louisville's bars and restaurants where bourbon is a main course.
"It's a perfect complement to our Kentucky Bourbon Trail tour, since you get to savour the authentic distillery experience by day and then enjoy the cosmopolitan allure of the Urban Bourbon Trail at dusk," said Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association. "Many of our guests use Louisville as their home base to enjoy their unique hotels, nightlife and culinary scene."
The bars are well-stocked — many establishments are typically stocked with anywhere from 50 to 150 varieties of Kentucky's signature spirit — and the bourbon-inspired dishes are as varied as the whiskeys crafted by Kentucky's master distillers.
At St. Charles Exchange, there's an appetizer dubbed Elvis on Horseback — bacon-wrapped, peanut butter-stuffed dates with bourbon-banana vinaigrette. The Brussels sprouts at Marketplace restaurant feature bourbon-sorghum hoisin and almond. Lilly's serves up pork rib-eye with pork shoulder, summer succotash and grilled peach bourbon coulis. At Sidebar at Whiskey Row, the "Hung Jury" burger is layered with bourbon mushrooms and onions.
For dessert, options include Derby Cafe's Kentucky bread pudding with bourbon sauce and whipped cream. The "Wilbur sundae" at Doc Crow's includes brown butter praline ice cream with a bourbon caramel ribbon atop cinnamon pork rinds, sprinkled with candied bacon and topped with a bourbon cherry.
The vast array of bourbons offered at the bars includes hard-to-get whiskeys. Bourbons Bistro, a founder of the Urban Bourbon Trail, features an average of 125 regular bourbons, 20 to 25 reserve bourbons, and 35 rye whiskeys.
The Vernon Club, a bourbon bar housed in a bowling alley, keeps 300 bourbons on the menu. Its offerings of rare bourbons include Michter's 20 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey, the cultishly popular Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, and Woodford Reserve Master's Collection Four Wood.
At the Old Seelbach Bar, customers can sip a smooth single-barrel bourbon or a classic cocktail at a restored bar from the early 1900s. The bar is a big draw at The Seelbach Hilton Hotel, a stately fixture in downtown Louisville. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald used The Seelbach as a backdrop for Tom and Daisy Buchanan's wedding in "The Great Gatsby," and the hotel was a favourite hangout for Al Capone.
Many of the restaurants and bars on the Urban Bourbon Trail are a short walk from some of the city's main attractions, including the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Muhammad Ali Center. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, is a short drive away.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said the trail has spiked the city's status as a year-round tourist attraction. A half-dozen new downtown hotels are either planned or being built, and several micro-distilleries will start production in the next couple of years, he said.
"It's been great for the economy, and good for the spirit of the city," the mayor said.
If You Go...
URBAN BOURBON TRAIL: Louisville, Kentucky; http://www.bourboncountry.com/things-to-do/urban-bourbon-trail/index.aspx
ST. CHARLES EXCHANGE: 13 S. Seventh St., Louisville, 502-618-1917, http://stcharlesexchange.com/
MARKETPLACE: 651 S. Fourth St., Louisville, 502-625-3001, http://www.theatresquaremarketplace.com/
LILLY'S: 1147 Bardstown Road, Louisville, 502-451-0447, http://www.lillyslapeche.com/
SIDEBAR AT WHISKEY ROW: 129 S. Second St., Louisville, 502-384-1600, http://www.sidebarwhiskeyrow.com/
DERBY CAFE: 704 Central Ave., Louisville, 502-637-1111, http://www.derbymuseum.org/derby-cafe.html
DOC CROW: 127 W. Main Street, Louisville, 502-587-1626, http://doccrows.com/
BOURBONS BISTRO: 2255 Frankfort Ave., Louisville, 502-894-8838, http://www.bourbonsbistro.com/Bourbons/home.html
VERNON CLUB: 1575 Story Ave., Louisville, 502-584-8460, http://www.vernonclub.com/
OLD SEELBACH BAR: At the Seelbach Hilton, 500 S. Fourth St., Louisville, 800-333-3399, http://www.seelbachhilton.com/03_b_dining.php