Bourbon & Birdies: Making the Rounds in Kentucky

Bourbon is the primary reason for visiting the Bluegrass State, but cutting it with a dash of good public golf makes for a tasty cocktail

Northern Kentucky will be thrust into the spotlight this May when the PGA Championship returns to Louisville for the fourth time. Golf may take center stage that week—with special attention paid to the recently renovated Valhalla Golf Club—however, it’s the almost 13 million barrels of bourbon resting in rickhouses across the state that drive the region’s tourism every week of the year. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, last year 2.5 million visitors ventured deep into the Bluegrass State specifically for bourbon.

Heritage Hill
Heritage Hill

Kentucky is home to 100 licensed distilleries, half of which make up the state’s formal Bourbon Trail. But because some of those distilleries are more than 275 miles apart, not only is it impractical to traverse the trail from end to end, it’s impossible to experience each distillery during a single whiskey-focused getaway. Instead, we recommend taking a
page out of the PGA’s playbook and making Louisville your home base.

From there, you’ll have easy access to several celebrated urban distilleries, as well as a smattering of inventive, upscale cocktail bars. Numerous revered bourbon brands are headquartered only an hour’s drive from downtown, too, not to mention a handful of well-regarded public golf courses. So while you may be visiting with a hankering for the region’s quintessential American whiskey, bring your sticks, as nothing pairs with a round of bourbon like a few rounds of golf.

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Angel’s Envy

URBAN STILLS

Louisville’s downtown Whiskey Row—a collection of Revivalist and Chicago School-style buildings, circa 1852 to 1905—was the epicenter of bourbon production from the mid-19th century on. In fact, the neighborhood is still home to more than a half dozen distilleries. Of those, Angel’s Envy recently completed a more-than-$8-million expansion, which doubled the distillery’s guest capacity by adding five tasting rooms. The brand, co-founded in 2011 by longtime whiskey master Lincoln Henderson, emphasized barrel finishing long before the practice was in vogue for American whiskey. Today, guests can participate in the distillery’s Taste the Finish experience, which provides an in-depth look at (and taste of) the brand’s port- and rum-finished whiskies.

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Old Forester

A 10-minute walk down Main Street brings you to Old Forester, the only major bourbon distillery to own and operate an on-site cooperage. That makes tours a can’t-miss opportunity, especially since barrel-making has such a profound influence on a bourbon’s creation. “Every guest [on a tour] gets to see the live firing and charring of a barrel,” says Emily Sledge, Old Forester’s distillery tourism experience manager.

At the opposite end of downtown, Louisville’s most modern urban whiskey producer is, not surprisingly, also the city’s newest. Although established in 2012, the Rabbit Hole Distillery didn’t open until 2018; it’s since flourished, due in part to a commitment to transparency. Even the building reflects that ideology—from the parking lot, the contemporary glass-and-steel structure offers glimpses of the 46-foot-tall copper column still at the center of the facility’s main distillation and fermentation area.

rabbit
Rabbit Hole Distillery

“We wanted it to have the feeling of a place of reverence,” says founder Kaveh Zamanian. “You come in and the still is the centerpiece, your eyes immediately go up to the sky, and you’re taken by just the beauty of the space.”

Rabbit Hole’s top-floor bar, The Overlook, is set to reopen this spring following a renovation that will effectively redesign the space. In so doing, it will introduce intimate areas dedicated to guided tastings, something the distillery hadn’t previously offered.

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Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.

Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., less than two miles away, showcases the historic bourbon brand’s renovated digs. Guided tours through the more-than-100-year-old brick building take guests through every step of the whiskey-making process, from grain to bottle. Guests also get a chance to purchase single-barrel bourbons that are sold only on site, as well as the brand’s rum-finished bourbon, which returns to shelves this summer.

MIXED EMOTIONS

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Hell or High Water

If you like your bourbon shaken or stirred, a couple of nearby cocktail bars are well equipped to satisfy. A short walk from Kentucky Peerless, for example, brings you to the door of Proof on Main, an eatery with a formidable beverage program. Boozy concoctions like the Turini Pass marry local bourbon with French bittersweet liqueurs, house-blended vermouths, alpine liqueurs, and a touch of smoke; the bar’s signature old fashioned twists the classic with smoked cinnamon, coconut, and a restrained measure of absinthe.

Farther down the road, more old fashioned experiments routinely occur at Hell or High Water, a speakeasy-style cocktail den where house-select, single-barrel bourbons are mixed with dark rums. Brighter, refreshing concoctions also spotlight local bourbons, which the bartenders shake with smoked peach and blackberry liqueurs, lemon juice, and simple syrup.

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Buffalo Trace

For Kentucky whiskey history and contemporary craft cocktails, head five miles south of downtown, where inventive bourbon libations are served up at the Garden & Gun Club, a bespoke cocktail bar located on the grounds of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Standouts there include the Lock & Key, which features strawberry-infused bourbon, ginger, and chocolate bitters, as well as the Cool Hand Luke, a bright and spicy tipple with basil, cayenne, and white peach puree.

ROAD TRIPPING

A trio of travel-worthy distilleries welcome guests about an hour east of Louisville. There’s no shortage of history on display at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, and the 75-minute Old Taylor Tour is the best way to experience it all. The excursion includes stops at the OFC Building, the original distillery built by Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. in 1873, which Matt Higgins, Buffalo Trace’s GM of visitor services, calls “bourbon Pompeii,” given that the remnants of the original facility were found buried under a concrete floor. The tour also includes a stop inside the site’s famous Warehouse C, a rickhouse that houses almost 24,000 barrels and has served as a maturation site for more than 130 years.

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Stitzel-Weller Distillery

Arguably the most visually unique distillery in Kentucky, Castle & Key, also in Frankfort, operates within the Old Taylor Distillery, which first opened in 1887. Architecturally, the property is unusual in that it features a Scottish-style castle, a Roman-style springhouse, and an English-style sunken garden. While public tours are offered, the distillery’s premium experience, Walk the Ruins, is a private affair that must be booked in advance. It’s worth the effort, as the tour offers visitors a chance to step inside Castle & Key’s Warehouse B, where they’ll enjoy a small-batch whiskey sample drawn straight from the barrel.

No less interesting from a design standpoint, Four Roses in Lawrenceburg features Spanish Mission-style architecture, which even Master Distiller Brent Elliot admits “seems out of place in Kentucky.” That said, the distillery is as famous for its architecture as it is a production method that uses 10 unique recipes—two mash bills that are combined with five proprietary yeast strains during the fermentation process. According to Elliot, Four Roses also frequently releases cask-strength bottles of single-barrel bourbons that will feature any of those 10 recipes and are sold exclusively at the distillery.

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Castle & Key

FROM POURS TO PUTTS

Should your whiskey windings take you east of Louisville, throw your clubs in the trunk: You won’t want to miss teeing it up at Kearney Hill Golf Links, one of the few “munis” Pete Dye designed across his six-decade-long career. This 7,062-yard, vastly open layout delivers all of the maddening thrills that Dye-conceived golf architecture is known for but in a wallet-friendly package.

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Cherry Blossom Golf Club

There’s no shortage of dastardly bunkers, and according to head golf professional, Chris Boysel, because the site is so exposed, the course becomes a gauntlet when the wind blows. Still, the significantly contoured putting surfaces might be Kearney Hill’s greatest defense. “You could hit all 18 greens,” Boysel told the Kentucky Golf Association in 2019 ahead of that year’s Kentucky Open (contested at Kearney Hill), “and three-putt every single one if you hit it on the wrong side.”

Cherry Blossom Golf Club, situated some 15 minutes to the north, offers a vastly different experience. Case in point, there are only 15 bunkers on the front nine; the 6th hole at Kearney Hill by itself sports a dozen. Partially for that reason, Clyde Johnston’s 6,866-yard layout delivers a pleasurable round, meandering over gently rolling hills where golfers who find the short grass off the tee will be rewarded with “green-light” approaches to relatively flat putting surfaces. That said, Steven Conley, the club’s director of golf, believes Cherry Blossom’s concluding three holes are the hardest three finishing holes in the state. “A great round can go astray very quickly,” he says, “if [the final holes are] not played properly.”

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Kearney Hill Golf Links

There are memorable rounds to be played in the greater Louisville area, none stronger than the 7,142 yards of Heritage Hill Golf Club in Shepherdsville, a 30-minute drive south of downtown. Built upon former farmland with corridors routed across open and wooded terrain, this standout public track was conceptualized by Doug Beach, a former design associate for Jack Nicklaus. Surrounded by dense woodlands on the east and west and the Salt River to the north, Heritage Hill is a sanctuary for wildlife, including a trio of bald eagles. With five par fives on the scorecard, the course witnesses occasional eagles of another variety, too.

Thank you for supporting our journalism. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the Spring 2024 issue of LINKS Magazine. Click here for more information.

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