A drink lover’s guide to Kentucky

The Bluegrass State is renowned as the home of bourbon and horse racing but bucolic landscapes and a rich heritage mean Kentucky has an appeal beyond its whiskey bars

Words by Joel Harrison

A view of rural Kentucky

Kentucky is a landlocked state and a region of frontiers. A gateway to the southern US, it owes its history to a cultural cocktail created by settlers from Europe and beyond who brought agricultural skills that founded Kentucky’s two great industries: horse breeding and bourbon whiskey.

The Bluegrass State, known as such for the emerald colour of the mineral-rich grass on which thoroughbreds are raised, is split by the central and east-coast time zones. The state’s northern border is forged by the winding Ohio River, historically oh-so important for bourbon exports, while the southern border butts up against whiskey-rival, Tennessee.

Kentucky is a place with much to offer beyond Old Fashioned cocktails and horse racing festivals. The populace is spread across the three main cities of Lexington, Louisville and the capital, Frankfort. The result is a state scattered with food and drink gems – and not just fried chicken restaurants. There’s accommodation fit for a Colonel too.

A thoroughbred at Kentucky Horse Park
A thoroughbred reflects on retirement at Kentucky Horse Park, one of many destinations celebrating the state's relationship with horses

Things to see and do in Kentucky

There’s no denying the prominent role horse racing plays in Kentucky life, so visiting stables is a must. Godolphin, a global thoroughbred-breeding and horseracing operation, has first-class facilities throughout the state. Their Gainsborough Farm property, located between Lexington and Frankfort, is home to the breeder’s mares and foals. The latter will steal your heart and you might even be able to spot a future Derby winner.

Back in Louisville, you can see where the foals might one day display their racing prowess at Churchill Downs, home to the Kentucky Derby. The museum and multimedia experience will transport you to the middle of the park on race day, which attracts more than 160,000 people annually and is the longest continually held sporting event in the US.

If ball sports are more your thing, Louisville is home of the ‘Slugger’, the official bat of Major League Baseball. At the brand’s museum, marked out by a giant wooden bat that leans against the building, you can explore the history of the game, as well as get yourself a customised version of every big hitter’s favourite tool.

Exterior of the Louisville Slugger Museum in Kentucky
The Louisville Slugger Museum, complete with giant baseball bat

Where to eat and drink in Kentucky

Kentucky is further proof that good food isn’t the preserve of cities on North America’s east and west coasts. One standout location is Harrison-Smith House in beautiful Bardstown (officially ‘Bourbon Capital of the World’), where specialities such as cornmeal crusted quail and banana pudding are matched by the quality of the service. Naturally, well-made Old Fashioneds are also served.

For the best lunch, head to Wallace Station en route from Lexington to Frankfort. You’ll find your plate groaning with fat Cuban sandwiches and deep-fried pickles. The owners have even partnered with a local farm, Stone Cross, to create a burger that food guru Guy Fieri put on his top-five list.

Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of watering holes to slake the thirst in a state revered for its bourbon. Louisville is home to the ‘urban bourbon trail’, which offers behind-the-scenes tours of some of Kentucky’s biggest whiskey labels. My pick of the bunch is the Old Forester Distilling Co. on West Main Street, which incorporates a micro distillery and barrel house. It’s a great place to start before diverging from the trail for a bar crawl on Whiskey Row. Reservations are required at Hell or High Water, a nearby cocktail bar, but are worth making for the inventive, seasonal list. After that, try Expo, a hipster dive bar offering a cocktail called the Acid Cat Spirit Guide – the explosion of flavour means you’re sure to want the secret recipe.

An absolute must-visit is Trouble Bar, a five-minute taxi ride from downtown Louisville. Trouble is a proudly women-owned business started by Nicole Stipp and Kaitlyn Owens. Open since 2019, their aim is to broaden the demographic of the bourbon drinker beyond the stereotypes. Their whiskey tasting flights are carefully considered and stunning seasonal cocktails are not to be missed.

A tasting area at the Old Forester Distilling Co. in Louisville
Bourbon tasting flights are available at the Old Forester Distilling Co. in Louisville, Kentucky (Credit: Visit the USA)

Where to stay in Kentucky

Louisville is often the first stop on trips to Kentucky, as it’s home to Muhammad Ali International Airport, named after arguably the most famous Kentuckian of all. In Louisville, stay at The Grady, a former hat factory that has been tastefully transformed into a stunning boutique hotel with a slick basement bar to match.

While Louisville is also home to the first 21C Museum Hotel, save yourself for a stay in the owners’ newer property in Lexington, located around 80 miles to the east. The hotel occupies an old bank and incorporates the excellent Lockbox restaurant in a former vault. The owners’ love of art means there is also 7,000 square feet of exhibition space on site.

On the tip of Kentucky’s northern border, you’d be mad not to visit Covington, literally just over a bridge from bustling Cincinnati in Ohio. The number of craft breweries and distillers in this relatively small city make it a great destination for the discerning drinker. The wonderful Hotel Covington offers spacious rooms and a fantastic bar complete with bourbon tasting experiences and amazing cocktails. The city is also well located for Cincinnati/North Kentucky International Airport.

A view across the Ohio River to the city of Covington
A view across the Ohio River to Covington, Kentucky, from Cincinnati

The ultimate drinking destination

If your visit coincides with the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, held in Bardstown every September, it’s the natural choice. The gathering of distillers big and small from across the state is an unmissable chance to explore and experience their wonderfully made and matured whiskeys. You might even come home with a rare, single barrel bourbon bottled especially for the event.

Brad 'Dusty' Bonds at Revival Vintage Spirits in Covington, Kentucky
Brad 'Dusty' Bonds at Revival Vintage Spirits in Covington, Kentucky

However, if you can’t make the festival or are looking for one particularly special venue in the state, it has to be Revival Vintage Spirits in Covington. A small bottle shop and bar that could be a filming location for Wes Anderson’s next film, Revival is run by local legend Brad ‘Dusty’ Bonds. Dusty is the Indiana Jones of spirits, dedicating his life to seeking out the old and rare to sell by the measure in his bar-cum-shop. His dream to make rare vintage bottles available for tasting is now a welcome reality; his astonishing finds often include pre-prohibition bourbon and mid-century Scotch, made available at inflation-busting prices.