Sweet success: how Louisville's bourbon scene is bouncing back in 2023
Bourbon is booming in Louisville. With increasingly diverse producers, booze-themed hotel openings and a growing roster of bars, the Kentucky city is raising a glass to a new chapter in its whiskey-soaked history.
“Sure, bourbon is still a male-dominated world,” says Ashley Cuyjet at the handsome mahogany bar of the Evan Williams distillery. Sober portraits of the distillery’s paternal founders adorn the walls, while jazz music tinkles on the vintage record player. “But change is happening quickly,” she adds.
Ashley rose through the ranks to become general manager at Evan Williams, Louisville’s oldest distillery, and is reflecting on life as a woman within the contemporary world of bourbon. “It’s becoming less of an old boys’ club, thanks to female bourbon enthusiast groups such as Bourbon Women and Whisky Chicks,” she says. “We now have a few female master distillers and I’ve noticed a greater diversity in the people visiting the distillery for tours, too.”
Steps from the distillery is Whiskey Row, the legendary strip once known as the ‘Wall Street of Whiskey’. It’s been the epicentre of the bourbon scene since the first barrel rolled out of Louisville in the 1780s. But as vodka became the drink of choice from the 1960s onwards, bourbon quietly fell out of fashion, relegated to the dusty top shelf. Whiskey Row became a boarded-up ghost town.
But in 2008, Louisville launched the Urban Bourbon Trail, offering visitors a deep dive into bourbon’s history through curated distillery tours and tastings, navigated by using a mobile passport with discounts and rewards. Since then, the city has re-embraced its old bourbon scene with a fevered enthusiasm: chefs have incorporated the drink into their menus; shops sell furniture made from recycled oak barrels; and makers have even dripped bourbon into luxury toiletries.
And in 2019, Hotel Distil opened in a former barrel house, transformed into a 205-room boutique hotel where the interiors are subtly splashed with bourbon references.
Once again, it seems, bourbon is king in Kentucky, with 95% of the world’s production taking place within the state. And as its bourbon industry swells to an annual value of almost $9bn (£7.5bn), there’s now a greater diversity among the bourbon makers and shakers taking a seat at the table.
I make my way across town to the West End district, where Brough Brothers opened its game-changing bourbon business in 2020, becoming the first Black-owned distillery in Louisville. Swapping sinks for stills, brothers Victor, Bryson and Chris Yarbrough transformed a former beauty salon into a compact whiskey powerhouse, just a few streets from where they grew up. “This is one of the most economically depressed areas of the city,” says Victor, looking out at the residential street in front. “Hopefully, by opening our distillery here we’ll be a beacon of hope and change in our community.”
Production at Brough Brothers is kept hyper-local, with the grain sourced from within a couple of blocks. And in a conscious effort to make its bourbon accessible, Brough Brothers has kept its prices low.
“I believe we’re part of the changing face of bourbon,” says Victor, the malty smell of fermenting mash lingering in the air. “It’s shifted from older white guys drinking bourbon to younger white guys, and now Black and Asian drinkers are taking an interest, too. We’re creating a buzz and introducing bourbon to a new audience.”
But hurdles still remain in making bourbon a more accessible, inclusive drink to manufacture: the painstakingly long maturation process means that small distilleries are left twiddling their thumbs for up to four years before they can sell a single drop of the nectar.
“Start-up costs continue to be an economic barrier for many wanting to enter the arena,” Ashley had told me. Evan Williams has diversified beyond just tastings, offering a visitor experience highlighting the contributions of Black mixologist Tom Bullock, thought to have created the old fashioned cocktail. In a similar vein, the nearby Frazier History Museum runs an education tour on Black Americans in the bourbon scene.
The final stop on my journey around Louisville’s progressive bourbon scene leads me through the door of Trouble Bar, situated in the heart of the mural-clad Shelby Park neighbourhood. Activists and co-owners Nicole Stipp and Kaitlyn Owens opened this hip cocktail hangout in 2019, conscious of bourbon’s image as “pale, male and stale”, as Nicole puts it.
The duo poured plenty of thought into making Trouble a welcoming space for all, from the rainbow flags and gender-neutral toilets to wheelchair-accessible ramps and the imagery on the walls. “Half of our staff are women of colour, so we chose visuals to represent that and show that everyone belongs here,” says Kaitlyn.
Alongside a lavish bourbon menu that includes rare private barrel selections, Trouble has even addressed the final frontier in cocktail culture — catering for non-drinkers. “I spend just as long concocting the mocktails as I do the cocktails,” says Trouble’s head bartender Felicia Corbett, sipping on a ginger tonic delicately infused with hibiscus and guava syrup, garnished with a slice of dehydrated lemon. “Because at the end of the day, good drinks should be for everyone.”
How to do it
America As You Like It offers a 14-night Sips, Sights and Sounds of Kentucky tour, travelling from Lexington to Louisville, from £1,665 per person, including flights, accommodation and car hire.
Published in the US Cities guide, distributed with the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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