This year we took a birthday trip to Louisville, Ky. to celebrate another trip around the sun for me! Check out where we stayed, ate, drank, shopped and explored during our weekend on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in this Louisville travel guide!
Parts of this post are sponsored. Aloft Louisville Downtown provided our hotel stay in Louisville, and Angel’s Envy hosted us for a tour and tasting. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Feast + West!
For my birthday this year, Chris suggested we take a trip. We haven’t done this for our birthdays in a few years, since we took a trip to Asheville for me a few years ago, and another trip to Myrtle Beach for him.
This time he threw out a ton of ideas, from a weekend in New York City to revisiting Richmond, Va. but we ultimately settled on Louisville, Ky.
While we usually try to pick spots neither of us has been to, we made an exception. I had been just once before, for a yearbook conference in college. (Remember, I’m a nerd). I didn’t get to see a ton of the city then, and I’ve been dying to visit again ever since my friend Melissa shared her Louisville hidden gems back when I ran that fun series!
A lot of our friends and family reacted in the same way when we told them where we were going.
“Um, why Kentucky?!” they asked.
But we knew something they didn’t: Kentucky is home to 73 distilleries, and we love bourbon. Bourbon is making a comeback, and Louisville is at the heart of it.
Louisville was the perfect match for us, and we had the absolute best time.
We have had countless friends tell us since we got back that our trip looked really awesome, and that they couldn’t wait to visit Louisville for themselves!
I’m really excited to relive this trip for you here on the blog, complete with links and pictures to get you just as excited about visiting Louisville and planning your own trip.
Whether you’re there for a week or a weekend, there is plenty to do in this hybrid Midwest-Southern city and I’ve compiled everything we did into this Louisville travel guide. It’s a long one, so saddle up!
Our Louisville Travel Guide
Where to stay in Louisville
Before I dive in, I want to give a huge shoutout to the Aloft Louisville Downtown, who hosted us!
We had a wonderful stay here, and even though I stayed here for free, I can’t say enough good things.
This boutique hotel couldn’t have been in a better location. It was right in the middle of Whiskey Row, and a short walk or ride away from almost everywhere we wanted to go.
The room was colorful, whimsical and modern. Chris commented that it felt a little like an IKEA showroom space — everything fit together so compactly and yet we had plenty of room.
We loved the view of downtown Louisville from our window the most. I’d stay here again, just for that.
We also enjoyed eating at the hotel restaurant, Corner.
The drinks and appetizers we ate were fantastic, and I’ll tell you more about their delicious grub in a bit!
Our stopover in Knoxville
Though we could have flown to Louisville, we decided to road trip.
From Charlotte, Louisville is about 7.5 hours of driving, so we split the trip into two parts on the way up and spent the night in Knoxville, Tenn.
Before we hit the road to Louisville the next morning, we grabbed breakfast at Oli Bea. There was a little wait for a table, so they sent us to grab coffee at Old City Java.
OCJ had an impressive array of pastries and creative coffee drinks, and is worth the stop. My friend Asharae texted us that this is her favorite road trip stop when passing through Knoxville, so there you have it from two people!
At Oli Bea, we had carnitas tostadas and a pork belly breakfast plate, both of which were excellent. If we lived in Knoxville, I could see this being our go-to brunch spot.
We also took a little walk around Old City, which was so very adorable. I can see Knoxville being our next road trip destination, especially given that it’s only 3 hours from Charlotte.
Day 1 in Louisville
Makers Mark Distillery Tour
On our way from Knoxville, we stopped in Loretto, Ky. for a tour of the Maker’s Mark distillery.
We almost didn’t get to take our tour, because it was pouring down rain and thunderstorming — and it could have been too risky to take folks on a mostly outdoor tour. Thankfully, the storm let up so we could visit this super cool distillery!
People keep asking me about my favorite distillery we visited, and the truth is I don’t have one — they were all really great for different reasons.
A lot of the tour information is the same (because all bourbon is distilled in a similar chemical process) and all of them concluded with a tasting of that brand’s whiskeys.
But each distillery has its own story, and each bourbon its own flavor — all rooted in so much history.
I loved that none of the distillery ever seemed to put down other brands. Everyone we talked to seemed so proud to be in the spirits business and they all lift each other up. I was really impressed at how friendly the competition all was.
What I liked about Maker’s Mark was the architecture, right down to the shutters with cutouts of Makers Mark bottles. The grounds were really beautiful, and I can’t believe that the owners bought such a huge property for just $30,000 (even if it was the 1950s!).
I also really liked getting to dip my own bottle in wax! It was kind-of gimmicky, sure, but where else can you do that?! I had no idea that the bottles are all still hand-dipped, even in 2019.
After our tour, we headed into the city and checked into our hotel, the Aloft Louisville Downtown.
We also got a taste of city traffic, as Metallica happened to be in town for a concert down the street at the KFC Yum! Center. They have lots of events here so definitely check those out if you like sports and music!
Chris had set up a birthday dinner at Rye for me, and it was a real treat.
P.S. I love all the booze references in the business names in Louisville — you’ll see a few more in our restaurant picks!
We enjoyed a feast that included the fluffiest dinner rolls, a cheese board, steak and a couple cocktails. (Tip: When you’re in whiskey country, it is not the time to share a bottle of wine.)
When our server found out we were out-of-towners, he wrote down his favorite spots for cocktails and eats around town.
This is one of my favorite ways to tour a city. A server did this for us when we were in Nashville, and it was such a nice and thoughtful touch that definitely came in handy!
After dinner, we headed back toward our hotel with one last stop at Doc Crow’s. (History nerd alert: I learned later that Dr. James Crow was the alleged inventor of the sour mash process used in creating bourbon.)
We sidled up to the bar and ordered a sweet Kentucky mule for me and an old-fashioned for Chris — his fave.
Chris had two must-eats on this trip: Kentucky “derby pie” and a real mint julep. We knew we could find a julep easily, but the pie was harder, partially because of its name.
Did you know that pie has a trademarked name? I have a cookie recipe inspired by it, but I have to call them Brown Butter Bourbon Walnut Chocolate Chip Cookies. What we ate at Doc Crow’s was supposedly the real deal though!
We knew we wouldn’t have time to stop by Kern’s Kitchen for the original, and Doc’s seemed to be the only spot near Aloft that had it on its menu, per Yelp. It totally hit the spot!
Day 2 in Louisville
We started Day 2 in Louisville with a little drive out to Churchill Downs. I wish we’d had time to stay here longer and check out the Derby Museum because wow! Churchill Downs is seriously huge.
As we know I am a big Derby fan — we even named our kitty Julep after our favorite Derby drink. Plus there are lots of other horse-racing cocktails here on F+W, like the Belmont Jewel and the Black-Eyed Susan Cocktail.
And I love watching the horses! (Sometimes with a fancy hat.) So Churchill downs was a real treat.
We then had lunch at Butchertown Grocery which was possibly my favorite meal from this trip.
We shared the best chicken & waffles of my life, topped with chiles, fried rosemary & leeks, mint and syrup. Every bite was to-die-for.
The service was also really wonderful — and they even gave me a birthday card and birthday beignets because Chris put down it was my day on our reservation.
Bulleit Distillery Tour
Next we headed out to our tour of Bulleit at Stitzel-Weller Distillery.
Bulleit has long been one of my favorite bourbons, and I almost always have a bottle on my bar cart.
Like Maker’s Mark, the history seemed to come out of the ground. For starters, this distillery was once owned by Pappy Van Winkle — yes, that one!
They even hang his keys on the front door, because Pappy used to leave them there for friends to come and hang out on the weekends to ride horses and go hunting on the property.
Something I loved about the Bulleit tour was getting to see the research lab where they test new flavors.
What’s crazy is that the stuff they are testing today won’t be on the shelves for 5-10 years, because bourbon takes at least that long to age!
After seeing the lab and the rickhouses where the bourbon is aged, we ended the tour with another tasting. Owned by liquor distributor Diageo, Stitzel-Weller Distillery is home to several other brands, including I.W. Harper and Blade & Bow.
I wasn’t very familiar with either of these brands, and I really enjoyed trying both!
Afterward, we enjoyed drinks at the bar on site.
Chris had an old-fashioned, and I tried an apple cider bourbon cocktail that reminded me of a bourbon version of my Spiced Apple Cider Rum Punch.
The Bulleit tour will be moving to a new facility in Shelbyville later this year, but I’m so glad we got to see this gem! I’ll definitely visit this one again.
Angel’s Envy Distillery Tour
Next, we headed to our tour at Angel’s Envy Distillery. Our friends at Aloft organized it for us, and Angel’s Envy was so kind to host us for this tour!
As I said before, I really loved all the distilleries we visited, but the tour at Angel’s Envy was particularly wonderful. Our tour guide was super knowledgeable and the funniest of all them all. The tour was a lot smaller and more intimate, which made it more special.
A lot of distilleries are family businesses, but this one takes the cake. Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson worked in the bourbon industry for nearly half a century, for some big name brands. He went into business with his son Wes, and created the bourbon of his dreams — Angel’s Envy.
Some of Wes’s six sons are already working at the distillery, too, making this bourbon multi-generational for such a young brand (it opened its doors in 2010).
Something special about Angel’s Envy bourbon is that it is aged for a second time in port wine barrels. This adds a rich complexity to the flavor, unlike any others I’ve tried.
Trying it in Louisville definitely made me want to mix with it more often!
The rickhouses for aging are off-site, so we only got to see the distilling process. But at the other distilleries, we didn’t get to see the bottling and corking areas, and that was something I really loved about this tour.
Our Angel’s Envy Tour ended with a stop at their beautiful bar. They offered a Game of Thrones “Fire & Ice” themed menu that was super fun.
Several of the “Fire” drinks were served warm, but some were served with flames! Everyone oohed and ahhed over the presentation. Just look at this:
I decided to try their signature drink, the Henderson cocktail. It’s made with a port wine syrup that I have to try making at home!
After two back-to-back distillery tours, we went back to our room at the Aloft Louisville Downtown for a little rest.
Hey, it was vacation after all!
We freshened up and headed downstairs for drinks and appetizers at the hotel’s restaurant, Corner.
We were starving because it had been a while since lunch, so we enjoyed an appetizer trio and an order of their bacon hushpuppies with jalapeños.
For drinks, I decided to switch away from bourbon for a bit and I ordered the paloma. It was so refreshing! Chris had — you guessed it — an old-fashioned.
Those apps really filled us up (whoops!) so next we hopped in a Lyft and stopped by Proof on Main for another round of drinks.
I loved the quirky decor and the adjacent art gallery.
I ordered a twist on a Dark & Stormy (my all-time favorite cocktail).
Chris surprised me by ordering a banana tiki drink. His was super delicious and didn’t taste much like bananas at all!
We decided we couldn’t leave Kentucky without trying their barbecue, so we decided to grab dinner at Feast BBQ.
We enjoyed pulled pork plates and a menagerie of sides, and banana pudding of course. Theirs was very whipped, almost like a mousse — so different from the chunky wafers I am used to!
Several people told us to try their bourbon and ginger ale slushies, so we of course had to do that!
They reminded me of our Cheerwine Bourbon Slushies, so I might have to make Feast’s version again soon.
Our last stop for drinks was The Silver Dollar. I feel like if we lived in Louisville, we would wind up here a lot. It had a jukebox joint vibe, and there were lots of locals here. It just seemed like our kind of place.
We sat in a booth and carefully picked out our final drinks of our trip. We had picked this place because of its mint julep (to cross it off Chris’s list) and it was truly authentic. The snow cone-like scoop of ice on top was so perfect.
I picked out the Tom & Jerry — which is whiskey and cake batter — and it was good but so sweet! I almost never send drinks back, but our server took pity on me and let me pick out something else. I went for the hot apple cider instead and it was the ideal nightcap.
We called our final Lyft to take us back to the Aloft.
After a second long day of sightseeing, it was so nice to crash in that big, comfortable bed!
Day 3 in Louisville
Day 3 was a short day, because we had an 7.5+ hour drive ahead of us.
We started it with breakfast and coffees at Please & Thank You, another spot I could see myself frequenting.
Painted all black inside and covered in plants? Yes please.
My newly green thumb was green with envy of all their natural light.
Also? They boast the best chocolate chip cookies, and we totally bought a half-dozen for our ride home. No regrets.
Next we perused Scout, a gift boutique my co-worker Carmen recommended to me. They had tons of books and a mix of local and ethically-sourced wares that I loved perusing. One of everything, please!
On our way out of town, we stopped in a liquor store. That’s something I love doing on my travels, to see what kinds of weird things I can bring home with me. The bourbon aisle certainly put ours to shame at home!
I thought we were done sightseeing, but as I drove away from Louisville I started seeing signs for more distilleries. Chris had nodded off next to me, and I needed to find a restroom.
So… I detoured to Woodford Reserve.
The countryside was breathtaking, with horses dotting lush green fields, separated only by a white fence here and there.
We didn’t take a tour here, but I wish we’d had time to. Some of the distillery buildings pre-date the Civil War! Instead we checked out the gift shop quickly before hopping back on the road.
We are already talking about ‘next time,’ because two days was not nearly enough time to take in everything Louisville has to offer.
Besides the Kentucky Derby of course, here are a few things on my list that we didn’t make it to!
Louisville Restaurants & Bars:
- Hell or High Water Bar
- Pine Room
- Garage Bar
- Wiltshire Pantry
- Heine’s Brother’s Coffee
- Brown Hotel — to eat a Hot Brown
- Seelbach Hotel — to drink a Seelbach Cocktail
I’m so glad we were able to road trip up to Louisville for the weekend. Even though it’s a long drive from Charlotte, it was so worth it. Everything we ate and drank was absolutely incredible.
I learned a ton about bourbon, too, Last fun fact, I promise: One of our tour guides explained that for a while in the 1990s, vodka took over bourbon as the #1 spirit in the USA. While that totally makes sense to me (I remember seeing all those Absolut ads as a kid), it made me understand a lot more about bourbon’s resurgence.
When vodka was in first place, a lot of Kentucky distilleries closed. With that plus the recession in the 2000s, Louisville really suffered. Our tour guide related it to the Great Depression because so many were out of work.
But in 2014, bourbon took its spot back, thanks to a shift to craft cocktails and small distilleries. Someone else told us there are now more bourbon barrels sitting in rickhouses in Kentucky than there are people and horses. Ha!
F+W started in 2014 too, with a big focus on the same things. I don’t know — learning this just gave me chills and I’m glad to know bourbon is back on top.
Thanks for coming along on my birthday trip! If you read all the way to the end of this Louisville Travel Guide, you deserve a bourbon cocktail. I’ve got some more travel recaps coming your way soon.
Also thank you again to Aloft Louisville Downtown and Angel’s Envy for sponsoring parts of this post! // susannah
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