Explore the ties that bind and the bourbon that flows in Louisville

On the 25th anniversary of Kentucky's bourbon trail—and the 150th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby—a writer and his expat cousin rediscover the city


Photo by Daniel Norris

My cousin Laura and I are standing in the “family” room at Kentucky Peerless Distillery Co., lined with black-and-white photos, vintage bottles, and colorful advertisements when Chairman and CEO Corky Taylor peeks his head in. “What part of the story are y’all on?” he asks.

So far, our tour group has learned how the original distillery flourished under the ownership of Taylor’s great-grandfather, Henry Kraver, from 1889 to 1917, when it shuttered prior to Prohibition. We’ve heard how Taylor’s father, Roy “Ace” Taylor Jr., was General George Patton’s right-hand man. We’ve been told how Taylor and his son, Carson, relaunched the Peerless brand in 2015 in downtown Louisville and successfully reclaimed its original Kentucky distilled-spirits plant number of 50 (new distilleries are today assigned numbers in the 20,000s).

And right on cue, Taylor has dropped in when it’s time to talk about how his dad shipped him off to military school in Tennessee. He tells us he roomed with Gregg and Duane Allman and was later unceremoniously dismissed. “They were a lot of fun,” Taylor says of the Allman brothers. “Gregg, of course, was later married to Cher and partied like a rock star . . . he lived a different life.”

Writer Tom Wilmes with his cousin, Laura

Laura nods her head, and I smile at her. In her own way, she has also lived a bit of a different life. She grew up in Louisville, and after high school (Sacred Heart, as Louisvillians will ask), attended Appalachian State University, where she met a long-haired percussionist named Ty. They married in 2000, got proper jobs (he works in higher education and she’s a teacher), and embarked on a series of moves: first to San Diego, then Thailand, then Singapore, where they lived for nearly 20 years.

Laura, Ty, and their son relocated to Louisville a little over a year ago. Although I live with my family an hour down the road in Lexington, Laura and I have barely seen each other since she’s been back. I thought it was about time, so I planned a weekend for us in Louisville: some distilleries (after all, it’s the 25th anniversary of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and I write about whiskey for a living), some meals, some wandering. I wanted her to have a chance to explore the ways in which Louisville has changed—and remained the same—since she’s been away.

A bartender prepares a Manhattan cocktail at the Bardstown Bourbon Company Tasting Room

Courtesy Bardstown Bourbon Company

After the tour, Taylor signs bottles for Laura and me (the first bourbon she’s ever bought for herself) and offers to show us the first barrel of whiskey filled at the new distillery. “We’ll never open it. It will all go to the angel’s share in honor of my great-grandfather so that he can enjoy it,” he says, referring to the liquid lost over time due to evaporation.

Inspired by a story about General Patton gifting his prized Colt sidearm to Taylor’s father, Laura mentions a story I’ve never heard about our grandfather taking a pistol off an enemy soldier in a skirmish during the final days of World War II. “Will it be handed down?” Taylor asks, mentioning that he once turned down a substantial offer for Patton’s gun. “Those are priceless heirlooms.” With 18 first cousins in our family, most of whom now have families of their own, Laura assures him that it will.

After the war, our grandparents raised 10 children, including our fathers. Laura and I were close growing up and today even have teenage sons born weeks apart, but time, distance, and everyday obligations conspired to allow only for sporadic get-togethers. Needless to say, we have plenty of family news to catch up on over a lunch of barbecued brisket and pulled-pork sandwiches at Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse and Raw Bar. We also have a lot of reminiscing to do about summer visits, when we’d play in the woods behind the cul-de-sac where Laura lived. I recall being nervous around Laura’s dog, Noel (actually the sweetest pup on earth), and watching ’80s-era MTV in her basement. We also talk about the time in high school when Laura camped out overnight for floor seats to see Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row in Lexington and we snuck a pint into the show. And we speak with fondness about the sun-filled apartment we shared while she worked on her master’s degree in early childhood education at the University of Kentucky.

Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse and Raw Bar

Courtesy of Doc Crow's

After polishing off the last of the brisket and watching the tail end of a UK basketball game on the bar TV, we walk a few doors down Main Street for a tour of Old Forester Distilling Co. We sip samples from the distillery’s Whiskey Row series and learn that George Garvin Brown introduced Old Forester as the first bourbon exclusively sold in a sealed glass bottle in 1870. From 1882 to 1919, the four-story brick-clad building served as the company’s headquarters. Back then, it was one of 89 whiskey-related businesses operating along a historic stretch of Main Street known as Whiskey Row.

Old Forester Distilling Co.

Photo by Andrew Hyslop

Today, Whiskey Row—and downtown Louisville in general—is experiencing a renaissance. In addition to Peerless and Old Forester, there’s Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery, Angel’s Envy Distillery, Rabbit Hole Distillery, Copper & Kings, and the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. Legislation passed in 2022 also allows licensed distilleries to open “satellite” tasting rooms. Since then, Bardstown Bourbon Co., Castle & Key, and Buzzard’s Roost have all planted flags in downtown Louisville, joining a host of new hotels, bars, and restaurants. Brough Brothers, one of Kentucky’s first Black-owned distilleries, is nearing completion on its distillery in nearby Waterfront Park, and upstart brand Bourbon Pursuit plans to open its tasting room on Whiskey Row later this year. Also on Whiskey Row, Log Still Distillery will open a tasting room and upscale restaurant later this spring, with a menu curated by the former executive chef at Churchill Downs.

Ashley Cuyjet, general manager of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, recently told me that the changes around town have been dizzying. “We were the only bourbon distillery in downtown Louisville when we opened in 2013,” she says. “There were a few other attractions, like the Kentucky Science Center, the Frazier History Museum, and Louisville Slugger, but other than that, it was just offices.”

Frazier History Museum Bourbon Visitors Center

Courtesy of the Frazier History Museum

Eleven years ago, tours at Evan Williams emphasized the basics of bourbon and how it’s made. As visitors became more knowledgeable and the landscape more competitive, the distillery has expanded its offerings to include cocktail classes, themed tastings, and a Bourbon Bootcamp (where participants help distill and barrel a batch of bourbon). There’s also a Prohibition-era speakeasy experience where guests learn about mixology from an actor portraying Louisville native Tom Bullock, the first Black American to write and publish a cocktail book. “It all builds on the brand of bourbon—not individual brands, but the brand of bourbon,” Cuyjet says of the diversity of experiences available downtown. “That’s a huge draw for Louisville.”

And the city is feeling the impact. A comprehensive visitor study from 2019 and 2020 found that the majority of respondents, nearly 31 percent, cited bourbon-related attractions as a primary factor in their decision to visit the city. Just 9.5 percent of visitors responded the same during a similar study conducted in 2015.

Laura and I see the growth firsthand as we walk east down Main Street toward the rapidly developing neighborhood of NuLu (New Louisville). We pass Angel’s Envy, where we have a tour booked for tomorrow. The distillery, owned by Bacardi, completed an $8.2 million expansion in the summer of 2022 that added five tasting rooms and doubled its annual guest capacity. Angel’s Envy also recently purchased a lot across the street and plans to further increase its production capacity by building a new 60,000-square-foot facility with a connecting pedway.

Turning onto Market Street, we pass a circa-1879 church and adjacent buildings that will soon become the brand home for Heaven’s Door, Bob Dylan’s whiskey brand. Called Last Refuge, the project is set to open this spring. It will include an ornate event space and stage in the former sanctuary, a bar and restaurant featuring two-story shelving with space for more than 1,800 bottles, and eventually, an art gallery.

We soon reach Hotel Genevieve, a luxury boutique property that opened just before last year’s running of the Kentucky Derby. It’s named after the patron saint of Paris, Saint Genevieve, as well as a regional variety of limestone that filters the water used to make bourbon. I check in, drop my bags in the room, and return to meet Laura in the lobby, which is decorated with midcentury modern furnishings, leafy plants, and funky art. As we take a breather, she tells me her “little three-person family” has transitioned smoothly from having no extended family in Singapore to a very large one in Louisville.  They recently attended their first annual family fish fry in many years, and Laura and her husband joined a cousins’ excursion to the James B. Beam Distilling Co. in nearby Clermont. Now, she’s traipsing all over Louisville with me. “I feel like a tourist in my own town,” she says.

Hotel Genevieve

Photo by Nick Simonite

Refreshed after our rest, we stop into Revelry Boutique Gallery and browse an eclectic collection of paintings and prints from local artists, as well as handmade jewelry and Louisville-themed knickknacks. Around the corner at Clayton & Crume, we check out the handcrafted leather goods (duffle bags, monogrammed coasters); a few blocks down, Laura window-shops at Mamili, a trendy women’s clothing boutique that she makes a note to revisit when they’re open.

Revelry Boutique and Gallery

Courtesy of Louisville Toursim

After living and traveling all over the world, Laura tells me she appreciates Louisville’s numerous locally owned boutiques. “I can go to Lululemon anytime or shop online,” she says as she leans in for a closer look at a colorful top printed with frolicking monkeys. “Here, there are many more unique places to shop, and every time I go back, there’s something new.” She also confides that, despite my best attempts and after trying several times, she’s not a fan of tasting bourbon neat.

We find a solution at Tartan House, a chic-yet-homey cocktail lounge that opened last summer in a circa-1883 residence in Butchertown. Laura orders a Penicillin, made with Scotch, fresh lemon juice, honey, and ginger syrup. I choose a Caledonian, made with Scotch, sherry, Drambuie, Luxardo, and a touch of cocoa bitters. The well-balanced cocktails have just enough layered flavors and sweetness to tame the whiskey without overwhelming.

George Harris portraying Tom Bullock at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

Courtesy of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

We head for NuLu Marketplace next, a two-story collection of shops, bars, and restaurants oriented around a central courtyard. We observe a mixology class through a window at Liquor Lab, which Laura says would be a fun place to bring Ty for his birthday. He’s a whiskey guy; she’s more interested in the group crafting session in progress at the Craftery next door. “Those are my people,” she says.

We step into Seven, a newly opened cocktail lounge and bourbon bar, where I order a Beets and Bourbon shrub cocktail. Laura tries a drink made with gin, lychee, ginger, and cucumber. “It reminds me of Singapore,” she says. The tasty and inventive tipples exemplify how far mixology has evolved from Old Fashioneds—Louisville’s signature cocktail—although bartenders are still happy to make one.

Sufficiently fortified, we cross the street to Nami, chef Edward Lee’s new Korean restaurant. Lee moved from his native Brooklyn to Louisville in 2002, where he transformed 610 Magnolia into a fine-dining destination. He’s since opened several well-regarded restaurants in Louisville and Washington, D.C., and Nami is the first to meld his inherited Southern roots and his family’s Korean heritage. Laura and I savor mushroom-pumpkin dumplings, a duo of kimbap hand rolls (our favorite was the wagyu beef tataki), and marinated beef short ribs served with homemade kimchi and a variety of sauces.

Beef short ribs at Nami

Courtesy of Nami

Laura picks me up at Hotel Genevieve the following morning and we head for brunch at the Brown Hotel. Opened in 1923 and recently renovated, the Brown is a temple of Gilded Age opulence. Walking through its cavernous second-floor lobby, where massive marble columns support an ornate ceiling accented with gold inlay, it’s easy to imagine fashionable guests like Elizabeth Taylor checking in during Kentucky Derby week. (It’s especially easy this year, while the city is abuzz over the Derby’s 150th anniversary—see sidebars.) Today, the hotel is known for its eponymous Hot Brown, an open-faced sandwich made with roasted turkey, smothered in a rich Mornay sauce, and topped with tomatoes and bacon. Opting for lighter fare, Laura and I choose the brunch buffet instead. Looking over the drink menu, we laugh about our recent dependence on reading glasses, then switch to brainstorming birthday gift ideas that don’t involve electronics for each of our 14-year-old boys. It isn’t an easy task.

The Brown Hotel

Courtesy of the Brown Hotel

Our next stop, Angel’s Envy, feels like a bourbon sanctuary, with its vaulted wooden ceiling and soaring copper still. “It smells like a boozy bakery,” Laura says as the scent of fermenting grains perfumes the air. We learn how the late hall-of-fame distiller Lincoln Henderson came out of retirement to start Angel’s Envy with his son, Wes, in 2006. “You know what I like about bourbon?” Laura says after the tour. “It’s such a family business. Where else do you find so many generations working in the same industry?”

Hot Brown sandwich at Brown Hotel

Photo by Chris Witzke

The next morning, I think about her comment as I page through an interactive digital display of bourbon luminaries in the “Spirit of Kentucky” exhibit at the Frazier History Museum (also the home of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center). Beams, Samuels, Shapiras, Browns, Hendersons, Taylors, Dants . . . the lineage outlines the contours of the modern bourbon industry.

On our last night together, Laura and I have dinner at Barn8, a farm-to-table restaurant set in a former horse barn on the grounds of Hermitage Farm. Perhaps it was the cocktails (bourbon with beet juice, ginger, thyme, and lemon for me; vodka with limoncello, hibiscus, and a splash of sparkling wine for her) or the shared experiences over the past few days, but the conversation flows freely and easily as we talk about some of our favorite memories and the importance of making new ones. We decide our families will get together soon.

Pretty Little Thing cocktail at Barn8

Courtesy Barn8

As we say goodbye, Laura whispers conspiratorially, “I still don’t care for straight bourbon.” And that’s okay: Even outside of the alcohol and flavor aspects, we both know that bourbon encompasses much of the social and physical makeup of Kentucky. It isn’t new; instead, it’s like Laura and me, and like Louisville itself: something authentic and enduring that’s being rediscovered and reinterpreted in new ways.

Top Off Your Outfit
While an ensemble-topping chapeau has been de rigueur for Kentucky Derby-goers since the first Run for the Roses in 1875, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the Derby hat emerged as an iconic race-day accessory. “Before then, headwear would have been understood as part of a fashionable ensemble for both men and women,” says Jessica Whitehead, curator of collections for the Kentucky Derby Museum. Visitors can explore the evolution of Derby fashions with a special exhibit titled “See and Be Seen,” opening in July.

Making a Derby hat or fascinator is a three- to four-day process, says Jenny Pfanenstiel, founder of Louisville-based Formé Millinery Co. She uses a centuries-old technique to shape, stitch, and embellish her custom creations, always striving to complement the wearer’s personality. But which comes first, the dress or the matching hat? “It’s much more difficult to find a hat that looks best on you and fits properly. Plus, your hat is your statement piece,” Pfanenstiel says. “It’s transformative—it makes you stand taller and smile bigger and ties the whole outfit together.”

After the Track
A thoroughbred’s racing career typically only lasts about four years. Horses with a successful track record might retire to become stud horses or broodmares. Most former racehorses, however, will transition into other roles, including as trail horses, hunters and jumpers, therapy horses, and search-and-rescue horses. “Thoroughbreds are super athletic,” says Cathy Shircliff, director of equine industry relations at Churchill Downs. “If they retire sound, they can adapt to those careers pretty easily.” Shircliff is also a board member at Second Stride, which is affiliated with the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and among several Kentucky-based organizations that provide professional rehabilitation, retraining, and adoption of retired thoroughbred racehorses. Guests can tour retraining and adoption facilities, veterinary clinics, and working horse farms—and enjoy an up-close encounter with a former Derby contender—through VisitHorseCountry.com.

Derby Season Celebrations
Even if you don’t plan to attend the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, a nearly month-long lead-up of events celebrates the “most exciting two minutes in sports.” Highlights of the official Kentucky Derby Festival include the Pegasus Parade, first held in 1956, which has swelled to a seventeen-block celebration with equestrian units, marching bands, and floats. Thunder Over Louisville is the largest annual fireworks show in America, and the Great Steamboat Race is a Louisville tradition on the Ohio River. Other interesting events include bed races (during which costumed runners push wheeled beds down the road) and a hot-air balloon race. “We like to say we race everything,” says festival communications manager Christa Ritchie.

Derby party season—from the Kentucky Derby Museum Ball to the celebrity-filled Barnstable Brown Gala—also kicks into high gear in the week leading up to the race. Prepare to pay a pretty penny for tickets to high-profile parties, but with so many events, it’s easy to find the right option.

This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Southbound.