If there was ever an overlooked city for culinary excellence, Louisville, Ky., would be it. Known mostly for horse racing and bourbon, those two key draws for the city have helped the culinary scene emerge into one of the best in the region. As a hub of Southern hospitality, Louisville offers some of the finest high-end culinary experiences in the region, from award-winning restaurants to world-renowned distilleries.
In this blog post, you’ll get a quick tour and overview of the high-end culinary and bourbon scene in Louisville, the many places and events, and the unique and distinct flavors that make the city a food lover’s paradise. Whether you’re a bourbon aficionado or a culinary connoisseur searching for your next tasty adventure, we’ll showcase the best of what Louisville has to offer, highlighting some of the more exclusive food and bourbon flavors and tasting experiences.
So, come along on this journey and let’s discover the extraordinary food and bourbon scene that Louisville has to offer.
Finest Food in Louisville
Where to begin? One of the best aspects of Louisville’s culinary scene — be it high-end dining or casual spots — is the many choices available. In fact, it can be a little daunting and difficult to decide, especially if you’re only in town for a few days. You’re going to be spending time touring distilleries, sure, but you want to make sure you leave plenty of time to explore the many food options in between.
Once upon a time, a food writer from Esquire said that if there’s only time for one meal while in Louisville, that meal should be enjoyed at Seviche. Indeed, it’s like an old friend, with owner and executive chef Anthony Lamas and his staff consistently delivering not just good meals, but good experiences. It features high-end dining with a focus on Latin-inspired seafood dishes, such as the popular Halibut & Crab Cigar. For dessert, be sure to order The Avocado, made with a chocolate shell, avocado ice cream and a bourbon truffle pit. Truly decadent. You can make a reservation online or by calling 502-473-8560.
For bites and sips with a view, River House is a must. River House is open for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch. This is chef John Varanese’s 2nd restaurant in Louisville offering a raw bar, and a wide-range menu that features everything from burgers, seafood platters, po’ boys and steak. Their cocktail bar and bourbon list don’t disappoint either: their smoked old-fashioned is a crowd favorite and is an experience in itself. Attached to River House, Levee Bourbon Lounge is an upscale bourbon bar with over 250 whiskies, open on Friday and Saturday nights.
Barn 8 is a fantastic choice for its uniqueness and setting. It is located on a working horse farm, and yes, as you drive the winding road over the grounds to the restaurant — which is indeed set in a barn — you might just see a few horses along the way. There are tables in the aisleways where farmers used to tend to their animals as well as inside the old horse stalls. And pretty much everything you eat is either grown on-site or sourced from a neighboring farm. It is part fine dining and part a unique Kentucky experience. The menus are seasonal, but the Bison Tartare is a house specialty. Make a reservation online to experience this unique dining venue!
The fine-dining options in Louisville make for an impressive list, and where you choose to dine may depend on your mood. If you’re looking for high-end steak dinner, some of our favorites are Brooklyn & the Butcher, Le Moo, Repeal Oak Fired Steaks, Pat’s Steakhouse, and Jeff Ruby’s.
For Italian and other European fare, look into La Chasse, Volare Ristorante, Bistro Le Relais, Grassa Gramma, ROC or Porcini. American fine dining is easy to find as well, with restaurants like 610 Magnolia, Buck’s Restaurant and Bar, Jack Fry’s, Varanese, Proof on Main and Varanese. And don’t miss out on unique restaurants like Mayan Café, Nami or La Bodegita de Mimi.
Food Events and Festivals
If you can’t make up your mind about a restaurant, you can always come for one of the many food-centric events that happen regularly in Louisville. The annual Taste of Louisville has been around for nearly 50 years and always has more than 50 local restaurants and chefs presenting samples of their wares. The Louisville Wine & Food Festival brings a similar culinary experience to Waterfront Park. Meanwhile, The Bluegrass VegFest focuses on plant-based cuisines, and the Taste of West Louisville event focuses on restaurants and chefs from the city’s west side. And don’t miss WorldFest, which blends culinary delights with international diversity. That is an event not to be missed.
Best Bourbon in Louisville
Louisville bills itself as the gateway to bourbon and does so because it’s where bourbon tourism generally begins. Tourists from literally the world over — I once met a couple from South Africa who came here just to taste bourbon — land in Louisville and then branch out from here.
You won’t want to miss historic Whiskey Row, where, back in the days before Prohibition, the buildings along that one-block stretch were home to more than 100 bourbon storage and distillery offices, among other whiskey-centric businesses. These days, it’s an entertainment district that features distillery experiences, restaurants, hotels, shopping and more.
And while Louisville might be a “gateway” to Bourbon Country as a whole, one wouldn’t have to even leave the city limits to have one heck of a distillery experience. In fact, if you find yourself downtown, you can essentially walk to multiple distilleries without burning a tremendous amount of shoe leather. Within just blocks, bourbon lovers can find Angel’s Envy Distillery, Rabbit Hole Distillery, Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, Old Forester, Kentucky Peerless, and Copper & Kings. Several well-known brands also have a presence downtown in the form of a storefront/visitor center, like Castle & Key, Buzzard’s Roost and the soon-to-open Bardstown Bourbon Company shop and tasting room. Just south of downtown are the former Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which is filled with history and open for tours, Brough Brothers Distillery and Brown-Forman.
And you won’t have to go far outside Louisville to find even more distilleries to visit. To the east in Shelbyville is Bulleit Distilling Co, while just south is James B. Beam Distillery. And just an hour’s drive east on Interstate 64 will land you at history-drenched Castle & Key Distillery — founded by the famed E.H. Taylor in 1887, it is regarded as the first to envision the concept of a distillery as a gathering place for visitors. With its rolling green spaces and distillery built to mimic a castle, it’s a prime destination when visiting the Louisville area.
Heck, you don’t even have to visit a distillery, per se, to get your bourbon on when you’re in Louisville. Within the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, you can blend your own bourbon at Barrels & Billets; the Frazier History Museum has a permanent exhibit and collection that tells the story of bourbon; the Barrel on Main art attraction is designed to welcome tourists to Bourbon Country; and the nearby Bourbon Country Visitor Center will help visitors get where they need to go.
Mint Julep Experiences also offers multiple bourbon tours for groups of all sizes to navigate through the distilleries of Louisville and beyond.
It’s no surprise that the gateway to Bourbon Country would have its share of bourbon bars to quench the thirsts of bourbon lovers both local and visiting. One of the first many visitors want to experience is The Silver Dollar. Set in a former firehouse, its neon sign crows “Whiskey by the Drink” to passersby, and it has a shelf filled with hundreds, from bourbon to Scotch to Japanese whisky.
On Whiskey Row, adjacent to the restaurant Doc Crow’s, you’ll find a hideaway called Doc’s Bourbon Room that features a huge selection of high-end whiskies, along with bourbon education and more. Also downtown, inside the famed Galt House Hotel is what is probably the city’s first bourbon bar, Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar, which opened in 1972.
In addition, Louisville is home to some locations where you can sit and have a flight or a cocktail and then buy bottles at retail to take home. Check out Frankfort Avenue Liquors & Wine, Neat Bourbon Bar and Bottle Shop, and Taste Fine Wines and Bourbon if you plan to double-dip — they literally save you a stop at the liquor store.
Bourbon Events and Festivals
One might say Louisville is one big bourbon festival, but there are several dedicated festivals that take place throughout the year that bring a lot of bourbon into one space. One of the better-known festivals is Bourbon & Beyond, which combines live music with bourbon attractions and education. It’s a full-on bourbon extravaganza that is attended by thousands each year. Another is the Bourbon Classic, which also has a culinary element, with area chefs pairing their dishes with bourbon cocktails. And every spring during the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, there’s Bourbonville, a festival hosted by the Kentucky Derby Festival that features tastings and cocktails in a social atmosphere. Additionally, the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival takes place just down the road in Bardstown, Ky., and brings people from all over the U.S. to Louisville as a home base.
But a word of advice if you plan to attend any of these festivals: Get your tickets in advance, because in bourbon-crazy states like Kentucky, they sell out quickly.
Food and Bourbon Pairings
As previously noted, even though Louisville is known for bourbon, it also has made a name for itself in the culinary arena. Naturally, this leads to local chefs fusing the two together. Often. Let’s face it, bourbon is packed with nuance and a multitude of flavor notes, and it varies from whiskey to whiskey.
It makes sense, then, that finding the right food to go with the right bourbon is a noble and fascinating pursuit. For example, bourbon is aged in charred barrels, meaning that it will pair well with smokey and spicy foods like barbecue. It also pairs well with fatty foods like meats like ham as well as cheeses, like aged cheddar or gouda. For dessert, bourbon pairs well with chocolate cake or some other chocolate-forward dish.
Similarly, local entrepreneurs are wont to infuse other food products with bourbon. One local business, Eat Your Bourbon, aka Bourbon Barrel Foods, ages fermented soy sauce in bourbon barrels. They also have many offerings of barrel-aged products from salts and sugars to salad dressing and much more.
Breweries age big beers like imperial stouts in used bourbon barrels. Spices and coffee get the bourbon treatment, and even some hot sauces do as well. And, well, that Kentucky is famous for its bourbon balls — chocolate-covered with a sugary center dripping with bourbon and a pecan on top — is not an accident.
The concept of food meeting bourbon is a frequent one at Louisville-area restaurants, usually in the form of special dinners, which often feature a distiller teaming up with the chef to lead diners through various pairings. One of the newer concepts is a combination bourbon bar and dinner club in the Norton Commons neighborhood called Watch Hill Proper, which offers monthly dinners featuring bourbon expert Fred Minnick leading the tastings.
Swizzle Dinner + Drinks offers such dinners frequently, while the original bourbon-themed restaurant, Bourbons Bistro, has a menu packed with dishes that go well with bourbon, from steaks and chops to bourbon bread pudding for dessert. North of Bourbon, meanwhile, is part bourbon bar, part restaurant, while Steak & Bourbon speaks for itself. Other bourbon-centric restaurants include Down One Bourbon Bar, Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen, Levee Bourbon Lounge, and plenty more.
VIP Food + Bourbon Tasting Experiences in Louisville
If you’re looking for a focused experience that puts bourbon and food together, an excellent event that takes place on select Thursdays throughout the year is Mint Julep Experiences’ After-Hours Culinary Adventure with Jefferson’s Reserve & Rabbit Hole. The evening includes a tour of Rabbit Hole Distillery and a two-course bourbon-paired dinner at Rabbit Hole, followed by a trip to Kentucky Artisan Distillery for another tour. There’s also the Boozy Brunch & Bourbon Adventure, which includes a family-style brunch at the Omni Louisville Hotel and is followed by visits to two distilleries.
The Progressive Dinner Series is another Louisville favorite. It’s essentially a three-course dinner on the go — with stops at Varanese for an appetizer paired with a cocktail, an entree paired with a cocktail at Copper & Kings, and finally a dessert paired with a cocktail at Exchange Pub.
And there you have it. If you visit Louisville, you aren’t going to leave hungry, and there’s a very good chance you’ll have more than your share of bourbon (and likely, a trunk full of bottles to take home). From some of the finest hotels to the finest restaurants and bourbon experiences, the city has plenty to offer, be it for a couple, a family or a group. It’s the Gateway to Bourbon Country, for sure, but as noted previously, once you find yourself in Louisville, you won’t really have to go much farther. Fine dining, upscale bars, distilleries, museums and exclusive experiences await.
When it’s time to plan your next getaway, Louisville’s the place. Plan to stay more than just a couple of days, because there’s a lot more than bourbon to be found. Need help planning? Mint Julep Experiences is here to help.
About the Author
Kevin Gibson has been a professional writer for more than three decades, having written about restaurants, beer, bourbon, sports, nightlife, music and plenty more. He is author of “This Used to Be Louisville,” “Louisville Beer” and six other published books. In addition, he has won numerous awards from The Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations, but he can’t remember where he put most of them. When he’s not busy writing books or stories about Louisville, he’s likely hanging out at a brewery with his dog, Atticus.