The first thing you need to know about Louisville bars is that they’re all bourbon bars. Located just a hop, skip and white-oak-barrel roll away from Kentucky bourbon-making country, the state’s largest city is positively dripping with the copper-colored good stuff. Here are our nine favorite bars for tasting rare bourbons or mixing them into the local cocktail specialty, the mint julep.
THE SILVER DOLLAR
The Silver Dollar is an open-walled bar with a hip, juke joint feel. Listen to Bakersfield sound—the 1950s country genre developed in California—on vinyl while sipping on some of the bar’s 100 Kentucky bourbon and rye whiskeys. The expansive spirits and beer collection includes the $100-per-shot Evan Williams 23 Year, a bourbon-barrel aged cider and 7-ounce ponies of Miller High Life. Pair your drinks with Silver Dollar’s baskets of fried dill pickles and oysters. Worried about ordering shellfish in a land-locked city? Don’t be: UPS’s worldwide air hub is located here, meaning Louisville is the first stop for much of the country’s fresh fish and oysters.
HAYMARKET WHISKEY BAR
Haymarket is what is referred to as a “shotgun” bar; like the barrel of a Remington, Haymarket is long and skinny and covered with gunpowder residue. Just kidding about that last part (maybe). The dive-bar-meets-bottle-shop has one of the largest bourbon selections within city limits and offers diverse flights like the Discontinued Bourbon (Old Charter 8 Year, Early Times 354 and Old Fitzgerald 1849), plus you can buy packs of cigarettes right from your barstool.
PROOF ON MAIN
Proof bar, located within the 21c Museum Hotel, is a grown-up bourbon bar with a soft spot for small batch whiskeys. Order the herbed mint julep, made with single-barrel Woodford Reserve, Amaro dell'Erborista, ginger syrup, mint and lemon. It’s served in a frosty metal cup piled high with crushed ice like a snowcone and garnished with a mint sprig. And while it’s nice to drink at the bar, it’s even nicer to carry the cocktail out into the contemporary 21c museum and art-gaze while you drink. Current exhibits include one on taxidermy and another more palatable one on Cuban baseball.
ST. CHARLES EXCHANGE
Designed to resemble a lobby bar from the early 1900s, St. Charles Exchange is all about old-school glam. The restaurant swallows up 4,000 square feet of space with its exposed brick walls, tufted leather seating and vintage lamps. But its most captivating element is its hefty bar that’s framed with dark wood, draped with curtains and topped with marble. This is the kind of place you’ll want to be seen drinking a classic Manhattan or Old Fashioned.
Bourbons Bistro is like a wine bar for bourbon. The bistro’s 125-bottle collection is extensive, but approachable; you won’t find a pour over $21. And like at a good wine bar, Bourbons Bistro’s food menu is designed to pair with its spirit. There’s pork chops made with bourbon-smoked paprika and even salmon topped with bourbon vinaigrette. Every month the bar hosts a special bourbon dinner that features spirit from a single distillery and up to five paired food courses.
OLD SEELBACH BAR
In 1917 the bartender at the opulent Seelbach Hotel’s bar accidentally spilled Champagne into a patron’s Old Fashioned. The drink—composed of bourbon, Cointreau, bitters and bubbly—was surprisingly refreshing and became known as the Seelbach cocktail. Visit the Old Seelbach Bar to taste the cocktail made from its original recipe, and while you’re there, pour one out for the Seelbach Hotel: The historic property, which was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is now owned by the Hilton chain.
Garage Bar is located inside an actual garage. Well a former auto body shop to be exact. And while a lot of the city’s downtown bars can be ghost towns during the week, this place is always hopping. People come for the bourbon and stay for the ping pong tables and wood-fired pizza. Garage Bar even makes its own tonic, but you probably wouldn’t want to mix that with the pricey Pappy’s.
Kentucky loves thoroughbreds just about as much as it loves bourbon. Down One honors that tradition with its house specialty cocktail, 7 Across the Board. This drink is named for a type of horse-racing bet and includes hay from Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. To prep the cocktail, the bartender chars a bourbon-barrel stave and a tiny bundle of hay with a blowtorch. When they catch fire, he plops a clear rocks glass over top of them to collect the billowing smoke. You assemble the smoldering drink tableside by flipping the rocks glass over and filling it with an ice ball, bourbon, blackberry puree and raspberry-sage simple syrup.
Jockey Silks partitions itself from the rest of the Galt House Hotel with a glass wall stacked to the ceiling with bottles of bourbon. The lounge has more than 150 types—the largest selection in the state—and is the ideal stop for sampling. Here, you can order 1-ounce tastes of any bourbon and pay ½ the price of the typical 2-ounce shot. As tempting as it may be, maybe don’t try to sample every one of its bourbons in one night.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep