Kentucky is Bourbon country, home to 10 working distilleries. Three of them—Brown-Forman, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam—produce Bourbon in the Louisville metro area, yet there are no public distillery tours available within the city limits. Visitors must drive miles into the countryside if they want to see how Bourbon is made. So how did Louisville operators create a great Bourbon experience for locals and visitors alike? Answer: The Urban Bourbon Trail, which launched in May 2008 and is patterned after the American Whiskey Trail.
“In Kentucky most restaurants have at least twenty Bourbons on the menu. So we created a visitor program based on a passport,” explains Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing at the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau. Visitors pick up a passport at a bar or visitor center, or download the Urban Bourbon Trail iPhone app, then collect a stamp at each bar. When the passport is completed they can return it to the Visitors Bureau to collect a prize. In turn, the bureau collects information. While 20,000 passports are in circulation, close to 800 have been turned in so far. While it’s impossible to know exactly how many people have experienced the Urban Bourbon Trail, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, all participating operators have reported an increase in sales since joining the program.
Initially the program included four bars and restaurants that served at least 50 Bourbons: Bourbons Bistro, Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar, the Brown Hotel Bar and the Seelbach Bar, where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to drink his whisky. Today the Urban Bourbon Trail includes nine bars, some attached to restaurants and hotels. A mix of locations encourages visitors to venture into local neighborhoods and locals to visit classic or contemporary bars in hotels they might not normally frequent. Operators report bachelor and bachelorette parties and even retired couples making the Urban Bourbon Trail an evening or weekend activity, and drawing in new customers from around the state and beyond. The program started two years ago, and though still in its infancy, there’s a waiting list of fifteen bars that want to be added to the trail.
Pulling in a Crowd
John Morrison, owner and manager at Bourbons Bistro—a Southern restaurant that was founded with a love for Bourbon—says the program has been successful in attracting new customers and increasing sales. Often visitors will start the trail at his bar, which is just a short distance from the center of town. “People come in and look for what they can’t find in their market and see and try things they have never tried before and probably never will again,” he says. “We were always focused on Bourbon first. We love to talk about it, we train our staff really well and we have a great selection.” His current list has over 200 Bourbons, priced from $5 to $30 for a pour.
Like others in the program, Bourbons Bistro holds Bourbon-related events and offers a variety of single barrel and small batch Bourbons. Morrison explains, “There are a lot of special batches with very low allocation that are extremely hard to find, such as the Antique Collection from Buffalo Trace and the Master Collection from Woodford Reserve that are only available for six weeks to two months.” All of this makes Bourbons Bistro a prime destination for Bourbon aficionados.
At Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar and Lounge at the 1290-room Galt House Hotel, Saber Asad, food and beverage director, says the Urban Bourbon Trail has definitely created talk around town. “Hotel bars are not necessarily as popular with the locals and the program created traffic, attracting locals who didn’t know about us.” While a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned might be the cocktail of choice at Bourbons Bistro, at Jockey Silks it’s a Mint Julep, Bourbon Martini or even a frozen Bourbon-based slushy. Since Bourbon is thought of as a “man’s drink,” Asad says they soften it down with mixes and flavorings to make it appealing and introduce Bourbon to different audiences.
At the sophisticated and sexy Proof on Main, in the boutique 90-room 21C Museum Hotel, beverage director Benjamin Smith has also looked to broaden the appeal of Bourbon, especially with women. The popular “Bourbon and the Girls” parties encourage women to come in with their friends. In a relaxed atmosphere, customers can explore the variety of Bourbons both in flights and in cocktails that utilize seasonal ingredients like lovage or peaches.
For operators looking to widen their Bourbon program, Smith says the best way to start is to make sure you have a different Bourbon for each individual palate. A heavily wheated Bourbon can be more approachable and Cognac drinkers can find it to be a gateway Bourbon. A single-malt Scotch customer might want a more Rye-style Bourbon. If you only have spicier styles of Bourbon such as Rye, you might turn people off; offer different options. Asad also suggests that in addition to supporting bartenders’ participation in cocktail competitions, allowing bartenders to create and name their own drinks keeps them motivated and instills pride. Smith, Asad and Morrison each emphasized the importance of training staff, and developing good relationships with distillers and brand ambassadors to enhance guest experiences.