Down in the barrel room at Copper & Kings, a craft distillery that specializes in brandy, a rapper is saying his piece at top volume, and the deep thump-thump-thump of the relentless bass knocks me in the chest like a football. The millennials on this guided tour look ready to bust a move, but the party isn’t for them; it’s for the brandy.
A playlist of rock, pop and rap blasts around the clock as part of the sonic aging process in which pulsing sound waves are sent through the alcohol as it sits in flavor-enhancing charred oak barrels that once contained bourbon. Pop the bung, and you can see the ripples. The idea is that when the alcohol is agitated in the barrel, the maturation process is enhanced.
Louisville is smack in the heart of Kentucky’s Bourbon Country and home to the Urban Bourbon Trail, but I’m discovering American whiskey isn’t the only beverage the city does well.
I’ve sipped and swirled so many delightful spirits that buck the bourbon trend, I’ve become an unwitting pioneer, blazing the Everything-but-Bourbon Trail. The “trail” exists only in my mind, but I’ve wet my whistle at many bona fide establishments that challenge visitors to widen their choice of libations.
Upstairs, I’m introduced to Sara, Magdalena and Isis. They’re tall, loud and thick around the middle — pot-bellied, you could say. Master distiller Brandon O’Daniel named these copper distilling pots after women on Bob Dylan’s 1976 “Desire” album.
“I’m a big Bob Dylan fan, and so is the boss (owner Joe Heron),” O’Daniel said. “It just kind of felt right.”
He has a special bond with Sara, the daintiest of the Dylan darlings. They’ve been through a lot together, celebrating the sweet taste of victory and suffering the agony of distilling defeat.
“Sara is our experimental still,” O’Daniel explained. “It’s a whole lot easier for me to do something weird and crazy on it, and if it fails, I only have 15 gallons. Sara is a good way for us to play and figure out what’s going to work and what’s not going to work.”
In the cavernous, bright orange tasting room, I sample an assortment of brandies beneath a school of larger-than-life, illuminated goldfish puppets suspended from the ceiling. The whimsical, playful mood of the place is a sign that brandy is shedding its reputation as a drink to be swirled around in a snifter by fussy, elderly gentlemen smoking an after-dinner cigar. These bold brandies have a distinctly American flavor profile and are in no way attempting to emulate their more subtle European cousins, cognac and Armagnac.
Most brandy is made from grapes, but there are some delicious surprises. The Floodwall apple brandy has a sweet honeyed taste that comes from nothing but fruit. No post-distillation flavors are added.
Later, I check out Alex&nder, the distillery’s contemporary, third-floor bar that offers a sweeping view of the city skyline. Overlooking the $65 million LouCity FC soccer stadium scheduled to open next year, it’s poised to become a popular hangout for soccer fans. Only time will tell if they will embrace a celebratory brandy cocktail instead of the more traditional beer.
Louisville’s first bar for bubbles, opened last summer in the Clifton neighborhood. The ultra-chic, family-owned establishment is unlike anything the city has ever seen.
Sink into a gold sofa, the perfect vantage point for admiring the array of intriguing artwork, or perch on an ebony stool at the illuminated granite bar. Either way, you’re sure to pick up on the hip, L.A. vibe, as though an A-list celebrity could stroll through the door at any moment.
But there’s no need to wait for a special occasion to imbibe champagne and other sparkling wines. Why not raise a glass to surviving another day at the office?
Novices who want to learn more about the effervescent elixir in their glass can order a flight and let a knowledgeable server uncork the facts about vineyards, vintages and secondary fermentation.
If you prefer your bubbles in a beer mug, head to Gravely Brewing Co., touted as “the world’s first music brewery.”
Owners Nathaniel Gravely and Cory Buenning each have their passions. Gravely is a music maven and brewmaster Buenning is a beer connoisseur. The brothers-in-law united their interests, creating a state-of-the-art live music venue (most performances are free) that serves fresh beer — or a craft brewery with live music, depending on which of the two you ask.
At the “wall of sound,” an intricate patchwork of vintage stereo equipment behind the bar, beer aficionados savor a range of offerings, including Debaser, an IPA bursting with notes of tropical fruit, and Sprockets, a hoppy north German pilsner that won a silver medal at the 2018 World Beer Cup.
Buenning says once beer lovers have tasted fresh beer, there’s no going back to the packaged stuff.
“The flavors, when the beer is fresh, are more defined and crisper,” Buenning said.
Those sipping their suds in the beer garden’s lower level inevitably ask about the old lager tunnels built into the hillside, remnants of the Phoenix Brewery that operated on the site in the late 1800s.
They are a reminder that Louisville was once more than a bourbon distilling center; it was a major beer hub with dozens of breweries, thanks to a thriving community of German immigrants.
Buenning’s devotion to fresh beer means Gravely is one of the few Kentucky breweries that does not offer a bourbon barrel-aged beer.
While he loves beer and bourbon, he believes they should each stay in their own lane.
A river of bourbon flows through Louisville, but some are bravely swimming against the current.
IF YOU GO
Where to Stay
The Brown Hotel.An elegant, historic hotel established in 1923 and located in the heart of downtown. $142-$433. 335 W. Broadway, Louisville, Kentucky 502-209-7346, www.brownhotel.com
Where to Eat
Butchertown Grocery. An upscale eatery known for steaks and seafood. Entrees $16-$75. 1076 E. Washington St., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-742-8315, www.butchertowngrocery.com
Where to imbibe
Copper & Kings. The complimentary one-hour distillery tour includes three tastings and a souvenir glass. 1121 E. Washington St., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-561-0267, www.copperandkings.com
The Champagnery. 1764 Frankfort Ave., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-896-8050, www.the-champagnery.com
Gravely Brewing. 514 Baxter Ave., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-822-3202, gravelybrewing.com
Louisville Visitor Center. 301 S. 4th St., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-379-6109, www.gotolouisville.com
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.