With new hotels, restaurants, museums and the urban return of a handful of bourbon makers, downtown Louisville’s Main Street and its famous stretch called Whiskey Row have been barreling back strong of late.
Last month, in a big further leap forward toward bringing ever more activity back to the once forlorn strip of Whiskey Row’s brick and cast iron Renaissance Revival treasures, the Hotel Distil officially opened with a huge bash that brought out the city’s swells. As the name clearly indicates, the 205-room Marriott Autograph Collection property celebrates Louisville’s bourbon past. A new build for the most part, the Distil retains the facades of two mid-19th-century buildings, all that remain of original barrel houses and offices of J.T.S. Brown & Sons (the roots of today’s Brown-Forman spirits company), which were saved after a 2015 fire devastated a few buildings on the block.
In a modern space behind those old facades, Repeal is the property’s ground-floor steakhouse whose kitchen uses old barrel staves for its oak-fired Wagyu grilling. Along with its central wrap-around bar that serves more than a hundred bourbons, the restaurant is already a popular meeting point for locals as well as guests. The hotel bar Bitters End occupies a rooftop that sits above one of the historic buildings and features a fireplace and retractable roof.
As part of the bourbon history theme, the Distil practices a Repeal Day celebration daily at 7:33 p.m., a time which, when written as 19:33, represents the year of the death of Prohibition. At check-in guests receive a “prescription card” for their drink to toast that important day in world history, with medicinal prescriptions having been the only legal way to procure alcohol in those dry days. In public spaces and throughout the hallways, guests can spend ages taking in vintage memorabilia and photos of the bourbon and city past, from early horse carts on Main Street to later periods when downtown was bustling with commerce and streetcars up until the post-war era. Glass globe light fixtures with an old-timey vibe are used throughout as well. Fashioned largely in slate grey and copper tones by the Flick Mars hospitality design studio, the Distil rooms with their floor-to-ceiling windows include Connoisseur Suites that come with a bourbon cart and upon request a visit from your own bourbon master to hook you up.
A few doors down from the Distil, you come to more J.T.S. Brown & Sons buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Place. As Whiskey Row comes back to life, a tour of the Old Forester Distillery is surprising fun for the whole family, from seeing the cool 44-foot-tall shiny copper still that runs up the center of the building to the bubbling fermenting taking place in open vats.
Then, at the in-house cooperage, guests can bring the barrel toasting process to life with a push of a button, the operative fun being in seeing flames raging for a few seconds out of a barrel a few feet in front of them. Along the tour, a vitrine displays a collection of gorgeous vintage Old Forester decanters made through the decades, including the 1950s “Sputnik,” created by the legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Displays include details on the water that comes filtered through Kentucky’s fossiliferous limestone to the agricultural life behind the industry. Of course, a bourbon tasting is on the tour menu of course.
From the Distil, you are within easy walking distance of Main Street’s Museum Row to the west. The logical and fun place to start is the extensive Frazier History Museum and its Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center. On the museum’s third floor, a superb Lewis & Clark exhibit details one of the most salient episodes in American history—about which most of us probably know far to little anymore—while demonstrating a modern respect toward Indian cultures as well as the environment. Throughout the museum, various window displays are filled with antique miniature soldiers that are engrossing, while one exhibit hall pays tribute to Kentucky’s numerous contributions to the music world.
Resurrecting yet another of Main Street’s fine old 19th-century buildings next door to the Frazier, Louisville-born Lamont Collins is presently preparing a project of passion. When it opens, his private Roots 101 museum will be devoted to African American history and culture, displaying everything from African masks and sculptures to sports and entertainment material, as well as examples of blatant racist marketing imagery of the past. His collection comes both from his own decades of collecting and outside contributions. As the work progresses, Collins intends to use the basement to depict the conditions of the Middle Passage.
A block down on Main Street, the KMAC Museum for contemporary art enjoyed a major renovation a few years ago. Opened mid-December, its show Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville presents a large collection of the artist’s ceramics and works on paper that belong to the Picasso Museum in the French Mediterranean city of Antibes (through March 22, 2020).
Across Main Street, a tour of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is, even for a non-baseball fan, a fascinating glimpse into how a huge tree in Pennsylvania gets turned into an instrument with which massive guys can smack a ball 450 feet. While a tour guide narrates, workers bustle all about in their dedicated tasks, from shaping the bats to coating them. The museum space includes some original bats that were once used by famous old sluggers, Mr. Ruth included.
When it’s time for a break, the nearby Mussel & Burger Bar is a casual venue with super high ceilings as it was once a distillery space. If its long and massive antique wooden bar is impressive, so too is its lengthy menu. After dining at the nearby 21C Museum Hotel’s restaurant Proof on Main, guests can explore the hotel’s extensive and well-regarded contemporary art gallery that is open to the public.
With this stretch of Main Street humming again, it could take several days to explore the museums alone. To wit, the Muhammad Ali Center right on the Waterfront is as monumental as the champ’s legend. Devoted equally to the boxing hero’s ring exploits and to his role as champion of civil and human rights, the main exhibit space traces his roots all over the Louisville of his youth and adulthood, from his boyhood home to resting place.
Speaking of civil rights history, among the city’s excellent streetside historic plaques, one in front of the old Stewart’s department store (today, an Embassy Suites hotel) on Fourth Street honors African American youth who organized 1961 city sit-ins. A stroll up and down that Fourth Street stretch reveals numerous examples of stately old hotels that thankfully still stand, along with Beaux Art and Art Deco theaters and more. With a glimpse at the Brown Hotel’s spectacular second-floor lobby, visitors are rewarded with an ornate 1923 treasure that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Once you get back to the Distil, take a swing around the property’s backside on Washington Street, and there you’ll find the sister Moxy Louisville Downtown hotel (they actually share the same building). The Moxy lobby is a laid back hangout scene with a bar right at check-in, DJs, and a Zombie Taco kitchen as a bonus.
And to wind up the night, next to the Moxy lies a building that holds Hell or High Water, a new speakeasy bar with a tiny sign and tiny foyer that lead you downstairs to an intimate library lounge scene and a deep drinks menu. You’ll leave with no doubt that Louisville bourbon culture has come back big time to its roots.