With more than 160,000 people flocking to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, always the first Saturday in May, Louisville goes from a sleepy Southern city to a bustling bourbon-fueled burg nearly overnight. The party ramps up a few days before the fastest two minutes in sports, and continues long after.
Hotel concierges, Uber drivers, AirB&B hosts and others often hear the same questions year after year from out-of-town guests: Where’s the best place to go for a decent drink? A reasonably priced bourbon? A bar where Louisvillians hide from tourists? Louisville has many solid bourbon bars located throughout the city, and while there are certainly trendy new spots dotted around downtown where seating will be scarce and prices inflated, there are dozens of neighborhood watering holes that fly under the Derby radar.
Here are four of those hidden gems that’ll offer you a true Louisville bourbon-first experience without pretension, high prices or crazy crowds.
But first, a fun fact: As stated by Kentucky law, Louisville bars don’t legally have to close from Derby Eve to Derby Day. Some still choose to shut down at the regular 4 a.m. closing time, but others will keep their doors open on through sunrise.
This Louisville staple is hidden on the side of the Mid City Mall in the Highlands, hence its name. This year the venerable bar celebrates 31 years, and most of the staff has been there since the beginning.
The pub grub is solid and will help soak up all the Derby debauchery — the wings and burgers often top the city’s best-of lists. With a wide array of bourbon and a bar stocked with everything else, you won’t go thirsty as you duck into a dark booth or partake in a game of pool. And since the Kentucky Derby happens to fall on Cinco de Mayo this year, I suggest you try one of their excellent Margaritas, but make sure you’re not driving.
ADI, as the regulars call it, has been serving up cold beer since 1933. Located across from a small airport, the dive offers live music, pool and even a game of bumper pool most nights. The prices are more than reasonable, and the clientele might be quiet at first, but they’ll warm up to you after a few rounds.
It’s the typical shot-and-a-beer establishment, so if you want a no-nonsense good time near the Highlands with a decent whiskey selection, ADI is the place to go.
The Pearl is nestled in the heart of Germantown, and its competent staff whips up amazing cocktails at low prices. We’re talking solid $6 Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, plus an array of bourbon slushies, barrel-selected bourbons, whiskeys and tequilas and much more. They also offer an impressive collection of bourbon, including a rotating list of exclusive private barrel selections from top distilleries.
There’s a drink wheel affixed to one wall where you can try your luck to win $1 beers or $4 pours of Buffalo Trace, but there’s also a chance you’ll land on a small bottle of white zinfandel they proudly serve with an overly large straw. The jukebox is free and dogs are welcome — just more proof of this bar’s laid-back vibe and chill atmosphere.
While most Louisvillians know this spot for its award-winning Bloody Mary, it has quietly been building up its bourbon collection through the last few years. It now boasts an impressive selection — from Pappy to Old Grand-Dad and everything in between — at great prices.
The Outlook first opened in 1974, but the Highlands building dates back to 1860 and has served spirits in one form or another (it supposedly operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition) ever since. The staff is friendly and the regulars will treat you like long-lost family.
For more bourbon tourism ideas, please check out the Bourbon Bucket List for 2018 here.
Sara Havens is a Louisville, Ky-based freelance writer and editor who pens the popular nightlife column “The Bar Belle.” She runs the barbelleblog.com in which she posts humorous daily reasons to drink. She's won numerous awards for her column and critiques, but her favorite kind of praise comes in the form of occasional free drinks from readers at her favorite local bar, The Back Door. Keep up with the Bar Belle on Twitter @TheBarBelle.