Little Black Book: The Master Blender’s Derby Circuit
by Trey Zoeller
The Kentucky Derby, otherwise known as The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports, comes down to horse racing and bourbon drinking. So we turned to Trey Zoeller, founder and master blender of Jefferson's Bourbon, to share his quick list of proper Louisville watering holes. To say that the man understands the finer points of Kentucky's barrel-aged distilled spirit is an understatement. His family has been making bourbon since 1799. His eighth-generation grandmother got arrested for bootlegging. And his dad literally wrote the book on bourbon.
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky – The Kentucky Derby is a mix of locals, tourists, young'uns, gamblers, partygoers, and celebrities. Some people roll up in black-tie, first class all the way. Others have just come from the back side of the track, where they set up lawn chairs, listen to the announcers over loudspeakers, and have a ball. You can watch the horses train before the races. Or you can never leave the bar.
Lots of events orbit the Derby, which is often an out-of-towner's first introduction to bourbon, or at least the better bourbons in existence. Mint juleps are served at the track itself, Churchill Downs, with varying degrees of sophistication. Well, let's just say they are not usually very good.
You'll find bourbon mixed drinks, bourbon infusions, and bourbon slushies. People from Louisville drink it on the rocks or with a splash of water. There are plenty of opportunities to taste bourbon beyond the race track.
Where to Find Lousiville's Best Bourbon
The Pendennis Club
218 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd.; 502-584-4311
A remarkable old gentlemen's club, and the bar where the old-fashioned was created. It's always been a hangout for distillers. One Louisville mayor had an understanding with the club's bartender: The mayor would ask for his "usual," and the bartender understood it as code for "pour me the bourbon associated with whatever magnate I'm speaking to now." The bar has a great selection, and I'd say 80 percent of the people at the club are drinking bourbon.
2255 Frankfort Ave.; 502-894-8838
A Louisville mainstay and an original member of the Urban Bourbon Trail. One hundred thirty bourbons, 200 years of tradition.
Proof on Main
702 W. Main St.; 502-217-6360
Local, seasonal food and, considering it's in the middle of Bourbon Country, a very good selection of small-batch spirits. The restaurant and bar are part of the 21C Museum Hotel, a combination contemporary art museum and 90-room boutique hotel that was rated number one in the Condé Nast Traveler's US Readers' Choice Awards.
325 W. Main St.; 502.584.0102
A classic steak joint with big booths, aged rib-eye, and bourbon cocktails.
Old Seelbach Bar
500 S. 4th St.; 800-301-0889
One hundred kinds of bourbon in a homey bar in downtown's grand old hotel. It's legendary around Derby time. F. Scott Fitzgerald found his way here and referenced it in The Great Gatsby (it's where Tom and Daisy get married).
The Galt House
140 N. 4th St.; 502-589-5200
An old hotel where all the sportswriters hang out. Needless to say, it's rambunctious.
316 W. Main St.; 502-584-6455
A new restaurant by Chef Edward Lee, he was my collaborator on the Jefferson's Chef Collaboration whiskey blend.