Thursday, March 11, 2010

Urban Bourbon Trail Review

When I first realized that I had to take a trip to Louisville for business, my first thought was "time to turn in my notice." Of course, my own desire to never tell stories about my days of living in Golden Gate Park intervened, so I buried my horror and made the arrangements. Fortunately, I was able to get a downtown hotel this time rather than an airport hotel. My next thought was how I could turn this into gaining a greater appreciation for Bourbon (aka debauchery). While visiting a distillery was out of the question due to work needs and my other desire to avoid stories about how I got arrested in Kentucky for DUI, I found this nifty little thing called the Urban Bourbon Trail. The UBT has all the hallmarks of a tacky tourist bureua invention with the notable difference of ample booze and a "free gift" if you get your UBT passport stamped by all nine locations. So, my colleague and I made the decision to make the most of our trip to a city that I only remembered from a few other short trips for business that never got much past an airport hotel bar and an Outback Steakhouse.

Stop 1 Old Seelbach Bar: Horrible. Disinterested bartender who walked away in midconversation spoiled any charm this place may have had. I give it one star out of five simply because it was a cold Monday night and my colleague said he had a decent experience once before.

Stop 2 Baxter Station: Awesome. Great pub with better than expected food, friendly and knowledgable bartender who steered us to some great Bourbons and beer. Owner chatted with us for a good half hour. Busy on a Tuesday night and good interesting neighborhood. Four out of five stars.

Stop 3 Blu (in the Marriott): Not my scene, but okay. Like any downtown Marriott, Blu was populated by smartly dressed sales people, which is fine with me. Busy and vibrant with enough cougars to be interesting. Cocktail waitress was an airhead which I enjoy anyway. Three out of five stars.

Stop 4 Jockey Silks: Started Wed. in the least crowded bar. Great selection and maybe a decent bar later or on the weekends, but couldn't get past the King of Queens reruns airing while I was there. Bartender seemed more interested in when his shift ended, but was surprisingly knowledgeable, directing us to some of our favorite Bourbons of the week. Two out of five stars.

Stop 5 Proof on Main: Trendy with the accompanying trendoids, but if you like the borderline pretentious spots (and I do), it's a lot of fun. Busy with a great menu (Roasted Bison Marrow Bones was a standout), it has an art gallery in the same hotel that is actually interesting. Would be five stars, but our bartender claimed that Colorado made a Bourbon. When I mentioned that is was probably a whisky in the Bourbon style, I was rebuffed. Points for making their own tonic water as well. Four out of five stars (would be five if their staff had a clue).

Stop 6 Z's Fusion: Maybe this is something new and different for Louisville, but it would be tired and played out in San Francisco. Nice enough staff with plenty of people, but I worked in a Fusion place 15 years ago. Not interesting. Two ouf of five stars.

Stop 7 Maker's Mark: I thought for sure this place would suck. In the middle of the Louisville theme park named Fourth Street Live, it seemed destined to be the equivalent of a crappy SF waterfront restaurant. Surprisingly, the food was better than expected and the bartender was a riot as we exchanged stories of inebriation. Only misstep was the worst bread pudding I've ever had in my life. Four out of five stars.

Stop 8 Brown Hotel Bar: I was pretty hammered by this point, so no real review. Just make sure you sit at the bar. Cool place that seemed at the same time the most touristy and the most authentic. Marble floors, piano, and spilling into the lobby, I could see this bar more than any other as a relic from another era. But the service stank, so I would recommend sitting at the bar if possible. And I ate something, but have no idea what it was. I think it was a dessert. Very busy for a late hour on a cold Wed. night. No rating due to advanced inebriation.

Stop 9 Bourbons Bistro: Our only stop on Thursday, we almost didn't go due to crushing hangovers from Wednesday night. I'm glad we mustered the energy as this place was amazing. From the bar which features a ton of Bourbons and great atmosphere to the food which I would stack against anything in the country, we had a great time. The chef even came to speak to us a bit after my colleague asked for some of his sauce to go, giving us the sauce AND the recipe. One of my all time favorite dining experiences. Five out of five stars.

Since we all like handy lists, here's mine for what it's worth.
Best Bar: Baxter Station with honorable mentions to Proof on Main, Maker's Mark, and Brown Hotel.
Best Bartender: Tie between Baxter Station and Maker's Mark.
Best Food: Bourbon's Bistro with honorable mentions to Proof on Main and Baxter Station.
Best People Watching: Proof on Main
Best Meal: The Duck Confit Strudel at Bourbon's Bistro.
Best Bourbon, hard to find category: George Stagg and Poppy Van Winkle 20 year
Best Bourbon, easy to find: Basil Hayden

Worst Bar: Z's Fusion.
Worst Bartender: Old Seelbach Inn.
Worst Food: Maker's Mark (actually, their food was pretty good, but I'm still having nightmares about chalk masquerading as bread pudding).
Worst Bourbon: Had a few I didn't like, but fortunately can't remember them.

Best place to find a cougar: Blu
Best place to feel like you're a tourist: Brown Hotel Bar
Best place to feel like your a meaningless business traveller that no one ever cared about: Old Seelbach.
Best place to feel like you actually have a life in comparison to the pitiful bartender: Jockey Silks
Best place to visit to feel really good that you live in San Francisco: Z's Fusion

Ultimately, I like Louisville far more than I thought I would. Interesting neighborhoods, much better food than I expected, and the combination of Midwest friendliness and Southern hospitality made this a great experience.

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