On the Trail in Louisville
It is night in Louisville. We are drinking Bourbon: first Blanton's, then Johnny Drum, then Rowan's Creek, and then on to Maker's Mark. We hit up the local CVS for my traditional 1.75 liter of Very Old Barton. We stop to inhale the essence of the evening. It is a happening Monday night at the Garage Bar, my all-time favorite Louisville locale. The old pump station that now houses a full-scale whiskey bar with a custom-built wood-fired pizza oven is just the place for me. The beer is cold. The room is full. The vibe is electric. There are families here. There are lovers. There are first dates, too. There are skaters, hipsters, nerds, and Louisville University jocks. There is a complete cornucopia of cultures. It's the full gambit. This is not a scene, my friends. This is an institution. It's a place to let your hair down and relax, not merely somewhere to be seen. This is real life. This is where I want to be right now.
We are staying at the old Seelbach Hotel downtown. Founded in 1905 by the brothers Louis and Otto Seelbach, the aim was to bring the best of swanky European living to America—to Kentucky, no less. Sitting in the lobby, sipping a glass of fine Kentucky Bourbon, that splendor lives on today more than a century later. To think: F. Scott Fitzgerald was inspired to write The Great Gatsby while staying here! Elvis slept on these beds while playing in town! The Stones threw parties in these rooms while touring the states! Al Capone played illicit poker games in these halls and was even chased out by the police on one occasion! That's where I am right now. I'm sitting in the middle of an American pop culture landmark. I'm drinking whiskey in a den of vice and venom. It's not just the hotel that's of legend, it's also the in-house watering hole. With a list of Bourbons that spans multiple menu pages, you can have it your way just a few footsteps away from the main lobby. This is where Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton drank while manning the White House! This is where they plotted and planned! This is where Fast Eddie Felson stayed while downing a few glasses of JTS Brown. This is the pride of Louisville, in a nutshell. It's the epitome of everything great and grand from Bourbon's lascivious lore.
We were back in town with my buddy Scott from Maker's Mark, along with my Beam-Suntory rep Glen to make a new batch of Maker's 46 at the distillery. We did the standard facility tour, dipped our fingers in the mash, tasted the new make, and dug deep into everything wheated. I don't care how jaded you are about big business—Maker's Mark is an outstanding Bourbon. The Maker's 46 custom barrel program is also pretty damn cool. Here's how it works: there are four additional seasoned staves alongside the standard Maker's 46 French Oak plank, for a total of five different oak choices. Each barrel of Maker's 46 gets ten planks, which means you can choose your own combination of wooden staves; a total of 1,001 different combinations. You preview the variant choices by blending whiskies aged with only one type of stave to a test run of 100ml, each stave getting 10ml in the blend.
In the middle of our blending exercise, who should walk in but Bill Samuels Jr. himself—the man who invented Maker's 46 and took over the distillery from his founding father before the Beam takeover. As if that wasn't enough, he was joined by a pair of Kentucky (Republican) state senators—Jimmy Higdon and Damon Thayer. We took a real shine to "Big" Jimmy Higdon from the 14th District. This guy was pure gold; as smooth as they come and a real character. He was larger than life—a storyteller with a big personality and true grit. It was an experience, to say the least! But we didn't come to Maker's Mark to shake hands or kiss babies. We came to make some dynamite Kentucky Bourbon.
I've really come to love Louisville over the years, but as anyone in Kentucky will tell you: it's like another country compared to the rest of the state. Less conservative than say Lexington or Bardstown, it's become a beacon for urban-oriented Kentuckians who value the perks of big city living while maintaining a bit of that small town Americana feel. It's for that reason—just like we're seeing in San Francisco—that businesses (and distilleries) are moving back into the Louisville center. Tourism is up. Whiskey Row is coming back to life. People want the amenities of the city, and travellers from all over the country are being attracted and pulled by Louisville's charm, history, and eclectic offerings—much of which, of course, is centered around Bourbon. We kicked off our final evening in town by meeting up with my old pal Joe Heron for a few gin and tonics in the Copper & Kings distillery courtyard. The weather was warm and somewhat balmy, and by that point Julio and I were craving anything cold and refreshing without whiskey in it.
Having your mindset challenged and changed is a big part of traveling. Hell, I might say it's the best part. Not only does leaving your own backyard allow for introspection, meeting people with different points of view is vital to discovering more about what's possible in our world. Joe was making gin and tonics with his own Copper & Kings gin, a product made more for his own consumption needs than to be sold. "We're focusing on brandy; there are already too many people making gin," he told me, waving off the idea of expanding production. "But Joe," I said contradicting him, "I think this is the best thing you've ever distilled! I could drink this every day! Sometimes you have to go with what works." Distilled from apples, the clean and savory herbs meshed beautifully with the slight fruitiness of the spirit, lifted by the small bubbles in the tonic. While I love the C&K brandies and respect some of the unique offerings Joe's coming out with, the gin to me stood out as a sure-fire hit. I felt like Carl Weathers in Happy Gilmore telling Adam Sandler to give up hockey and focus on golf. After a great hour of conversation, Joe dropped us off down the road on Frankfort Ave where Julio and I hit the night life. The Bourbon was flowing fast and freely into the late hours of the evening. After a too many shots and too many beers, we stumbled back to the Seelbach, but not before snagging a bag of chips and a few bottles of water to protect our stomachs against what was surely coming.
Louisville is a great time. Especially if you love Bourbon. But even if you don't.