Louisville, Kentucky could be the place to go this fall

Even if bourbon is not your first choice when filling a glass with spirits, Louisville, Kentucky is a signature all-American destination perfect for a long fall weekend. The possibilities for an adventure-filled getaway are endless, from baseball and bourbon to bustling shopping districts and eateries.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Shops, restaurants and more in NuLu

Downtown Louisville is very walkable and gives you access to several restaurants, tourist sights, a beautiful stroll on the Ohio River, and great small businesses to support. East Market District, in the Phoenix Hill neighborhood, is lined with a great mix of local shops — including goods, food, and sweet treats. This shopping area is also known as NuLu, “New Louisville.”

The streets in NuLu are lined with eye-catching, vibrant murals and a lively Cuban restaurant called La Bodeguita de Mima, where my friends and I enjoyed a lovely lunch on the veranda. Our table shared the Cubanchos, similar to nachos but made with plantain chips instead of tortilla chips. It was a delicious mound of black beans, queso, and cilantro. You name it, and it was there.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

When traveling, I appreciate the lack of domestic duties that fill my time at home. Shopping isn’t a typical activity I choose to spend my free time on, but while traveling, I feel I have more freedom to relax and explore. I love seeking out local artisans and supporting small businesses. Revelry Boutique Gallery is full of inspiring and diverse one-of-a-kind pieces. With more than 150 local artists selling their wares, you can find jewelry, prints, home decor and more.

I can’t wait to hang my new Louisville ornament on our Christmas tree this year; that was purchased at Revelry, and made by a local artist. Special items like this help me remember my travels and reminisce about all the beautiful spots I have traveled to over the years.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

I also bought a few items at WOW, Woman Owned Wallet, my favorite being a pair of pink socks with the word “feminist” on the side. These have brought me such joy lately, and they’re the perfect cozy reminder of Louisville. Next door to WOW is Peace of the Earth, a shop that carries “mindful gifts for the home, body, and spirit.”

I could not resist purchasing a bracelet and two more as gifts. I always get compliments whenever I have it on. I relish sharing that it is handcrafted from a palm tree in the tropical rainforest of Ecuador! It is made from a nut of a Tagua Tree, which has the same look and feel as animal ivory — without harming animals or the rainforest where it is gathered. The best part? It’s sold via a fair trade organization that employs local Ecuadorian artists and provides reliable employment and a decent living wage to support their families.

There’s something for everyone, and every interest, in Louisville. If you are enthusiastic about sports, you can choose between taking a tour at Churchill Downs or visiting the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, where bats are still produced. This was of little interest to the gaggle of gals I was traveling with, but when I return with family, it will be first on our itinerary.

Bourbon, ‘America’s Native Spirit’

I thoroughly enjoyed exploring and learning about bourbon making, even as someone who rarely indulges in the barrel-aged spirit. We chose to do a private tour through Kentucky Bourbon Insider Tours, with just the six of us and our driver, Jody, who was incredibly fun and knowledgeable and added crucial insight to our experience. Out of about four options, the excellent communication from owner Mark Emberson before I even committed to booking a tour swayed me toward this company.

For a more budget-friendly experience or to meet fellow tourists, many companies cater to larger groups with buses or vans for groups to share. There is no wrong way to experience Louisville’s several distilleries!

Emberson offered us two sample itineraries, one in Bardstown and the other in Frankfort, less than an hour’s drive from our Airbnb in downtown Louisville. We chose Frankfort because one friend in our group was specifically interested in visiting Four Roses distillery. He recommended that we don’t pick more than four stops, and they listed any additional fees it would cost us to visit more.

Several advantages certainly justified the cost of a guided tour — including the freedom to sample drinks at various destinations, including well-established distilleries and blossoming new businesses. All of the lessons were fascinating, but a few highlights stood out.

Like champagne, bourbon can only be called bourbon if it meets specific criteria. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. For it to be called bourbon, the drink has to meet two requirements: first, the mash has to be made with at least 51% corn. Second, the barrel used to age the bourbon must be new, made of oak, and produced in the United States.

Contrary to popular belief, bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, but 95% of the world’s supply is, according to a report prepared for the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. Whiskey can be made anywhere, but in 1964 Congress declared bourbon “America’s Native Spirit.” Kentucky bourbon is only produced within the Bluegrass state, but bourbon can be made in any American state.

While driving to each distillery, Jody shared the area’s history and pointed out different areas of interest, like tobacco fields, which I had never seen before. As the day went on, we got a bit sillier but drank in the knowledge and sophistication of the bourbon trade. Thankfully, there was a built-in lunchtime so we could catch our breaths and allow our livers to catch theirs, and Jody could have a much-needed break from our shenanigans.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Four Roses, a renowned distillery dating back to the 1860s, offered a detailed and historical glimpse into the world of bourbon. Viewing the machines and equipment felt like exploring a museum in motion. Four Roses is one of the only significant distilleries around that does not stack their bourbon barrels using rickhouses, sometimes known as rackhouses.

Rickhouses are made from wood and the design allows air to flow around the barrels so that they don’t need to be moved or rotated. The barrels are stacked horizontally because of the extreme temperature in Kentucky. As the bourbon ages for five years in the barrels, it’s estimated that 2-5% of the liquid evaporates. The distillers call this the “angels share.”

Buffalo Trace is also a larger, more well-established distillery. I loved strolling around the bourbon barrels and learning about the process, the ricks, and all of the hard work that goes into each bottle. I was surprised to learn that the barrels can never be reused, So once a batch has reached the maturation and taste that the distillery wants, it won’t ever hold bourbon again. Many used barrels are sold to whiskey makers in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and beyond.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

My personal favorite was a newer distillery called Castle & Key. Castle & Key began restoring the historic Old Taylor Distillery in 2014, and after years of work, they began welcoming visitors in September 2018. The grounds and buildings are indeed a work of art, with over 113 acres of distinct architecture, gardens, and nature. Their retail shop is a restored space that used to be the power plant of the distillery.

Wrap it up with gin

We didn’t do a tour here, but the grounds were beautiful, and I could give bourbon a rest for a minute and drink a flight of their distilled vodka and gin. Like the grounds that Castle & Key are on, the bottles I bought were equally as artistic.

The castle has been standing on this site since 1887 and first served as a distillery as early as 1819. The key part in the name is the Springhouse. Col. E. H. Taylor specifically selected this site to distill because of the quality of springs in the locations. These springs would later be called the “key” to his success and a necessary ingredient in his quality bourbon.

Selling spirits aside from bourbon is a good call on their part. Gin and vodka can be more easily and cost-effectively produced, whereas bourbon is more time-consuming and requires more rules and guidelines. After this trip, I have a greater appreciation for this American spirit.

If you want to tour the distilleries without the crowds, the end of November through March would be an excellent alternative to fall. Spirit, Delta, and Southwest Airlines fly from Atlanta to Louisville, and, if driving is more your speed, you can reach Louisville in fewer than 7 hours.

After this trip, I may not be a permanent bourbon convert, but Louisville certainly showed us endless possibilities while touring this beloved American city.

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