A BOURBON MAKER'S GUIDE TO THE BEST BARS IN LOUISVILLE
"They’ve got soul to them—which is what keeps you coming back."
There are many reasons to visit Louisville, Kentucky. It is not only home to some of America's most iconic bourbon distilleries, but what Hunter S. Thompson famously described as the “decadent and depraved” Kentucky Derby is hosted at Churchill Downs every May.
Boxing fans will want to visit the historic Cave Hill Cemetery, where Muhammad Ali is buried. There’s also that giant baseball bat if you’re an MLB fan. And if your thing is to drink and eat in excess, the city has definitely you covered, too.
To determine the best bars in Louisville, we consulted one of the city’s most prominent drinkers: Trey Zoeller, the founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon.
Trey Zoeller, the founder Jefferson's Bourbon.
Started with his father Chet Zoeller, a bourbon historian, in 1997, Jefferson’s has been responsible for creating some of the most unique bourbons today, including expressions aged in wine casks and in barrels that travel on an ocean voyage.
To say that drinking is in Trey’s blood is an understatement. His eighth great-grandmother was arrested for moonshining in 1799. Born and raised in Louisville, Zoeller has a unique array of favorite haunts, including places where he drinks with other bourbon distillers, places where he drinks on his own, and places he’s been raising hell since his younger days.
"I like bars that have been around for a long time—a bar that has history," says Zoeller. "These places are typically not highbrow. These bars are places where you can only pay cash. There’s a total lack of pretension. They’ve got soul to them—which is what keeps you coming back."
Here, seven of Zoeller’s favorite bars that everyone should visit if they find themselves in Louisville.
If live music is your jam, this Crescent Hill bar is the perfect place to catch a show and grab a stiff drink. With a focus on live blues, rock ‘n’ roll and a roster of over-the-top local cover bands, Gerstle’s is guaranteed to be good time—any night of the week (make sure to check their listings online for who’s playing when).
One thing is for sure, once you have a bit of a buzz on, the deep fried cheese balls are a must. Laden with gooey, greasy jalapeño jack cheese, this is the ideal snack to wash down with another drink (especially sweeter bourbons or peppery blanco tequila). Just make sure to ask for the house Tiger Sauce to dip them in.
Out of all the suggestions from Zoeller, this historic bar is probably the most well known on this list. Lauded as one of the greatest whiskey bars in the world—according to Whisky Magazine—Bourbons Bistro has more than 130 bourbons on their back bar.
"People that work here know their shit,” says Zoeller. “It was the first [legit] bourbon bar in town."
Whether you’re looking for a rare whiskey, a decadent Old Fashioned cocktail or an opportunity to chat with the town’s cohort of bourbon distillers, chances are likely that you’ll find it here.
"Around Derby this is the place where everyone that’s anyone shows up."
While you should definitely go to 610 Magnolia for Chef Edward Lee’s off-the-wall delicious takes on Southern staples, the restaurant is also home to one of the best bars in Louisville. There’s inventive cocktails, an extensive bourbon collection (with food pairings) and and an incredible wine list that’s on par with anything in a major Metropolitan area. Best of all–according to Zoeller—is Chef Lee’s secret wine bar across the street.
"[Drinking there] feels like you’re drinking on your friend’s patio."
Simply called the Wine Studio, the space was originally designed to be home for the restaurant’s vast wine collection. Over time however, it became a test kitchen and outdoor party space for locals and friends. While you might have to know someone locally to get in to the “secret” spot, it doesn’t hurt to try by having a drink and a chat at 610 first.
"I started going to Pat’s way before I was legal to drink," says Zoeller.
With the look and feel of your weird uncle’s basement bar, this is the pinnacle of a local no-frills dive.
"You need a place where you can go and just drink shitty beer," Zoeller laughs.
When we were there it was raucous and full to the brim with locals. A beer and a shot was a measly 5 bucks. It was karaoke night and Zoeller challenged us to a duel of who could sing the Stones’ "Sympathy for the Devil" better—Jagger’s chicken dance included.
There was the perfect dichotomy of Louisvillian characters: older, ghost-haired regulars—who "may or may not had a full set of teeth"—a table of drunken housewives belting out tunes in harmony with the jukebox or the singer at the mic; and a bunch a rowdy young kids trying to get their kicks in their small town. A must-visit, this bar deserves its own country ballad.
3RD TURN BREWING’S OLDHAM GARDENS TAPROOM
Located down the street from the Jefferson’s Distillery, this beer garden just recently opened. Already a favorite of Zoeller’s, the Oldham Gardens Taproom is the newest outpost of 3rd Turn Brewery’s, which also has a taproom in a restored church on Gaslight Square in Jeffersontown.
This location features an indoor taproom and an expansive outdoor patio built under the husk of an old greenhouse. Covered with a canopy of trees, the patio features a 68-foot-long handmade table (from hundred year old reclaimed wood), a stage for live music and a ring toss court.
“It’s totally unique and feels like nothing else in town,” says Zoeller.
With a laid back Southern atmosphere, this is the kind of bar that you can relax with a beer in hand for hours. When they finally acquire a smoker and the kitchen officially opens, this taproom may be even harder to leave.
FRANKFORT AVENUE BEER DEPOT
According to Zoeller, this is hands down the best barbeque in Louisville.
“It’s outta this world. You wouldn’t think it but they smoke one a hell of a salmon too.”
Not only is it well stocked in the booze department, if you feel so inclined you can take your barbecue to-go and eat it at another bar nearby (Patrick’s is right down the street).
Just one look at their website will give you an idea of what you are getting into by going there; '90s AOL-esque in design, there’s a banner in the dead center of the page that reads: "If it ain’t barbecue it ain’t food." I didn’t claw my way up the food chain to eat vegetables (in aggressive all capital letters).
“They have shitty beer, bourbon-a-plenty, a putt-putt course, ping-pong tables and a wrap around porch,” says Zoeller. “What else do you need?”
In the pantheon of great, old timey steakhouses—think St. Elmo Steak House in Indianapolis or Musso and Frank Grill in Los Angeles—Pat’s is Louisville’s equivalent.
“It’s like the Keens Steakhouse of Louisville—except they wear green vests instead of red ones,” says Zoeller.
Inside it is dark with a thick air of nostalgia. Rich hued wood panels cover the walls and the vibe is more akin to an Irish mob bar you’d find in South Boston (complete with green carpet and neon shamrocks on the sign outside). While the building has been some form of a restaurant or bar for the past 105 years, it has been serving slabs of steak and slinging bourbons under the Pat’s moniker since 1958.
“On any given day you’ll run into half a dozen of [Louisville’s] distillers drinking with the bartenders at this bar,” says Zoeller. “It’s not the best steak—but it’s a good steak.”
There’s also so many different types of bourbons behind the bar that it’s sagging.