Walking among the vast selection of dinnerware, dining room sets and vintage candelabras at Joe Ley, an enormous three-storey antiques store occupying a former 19th-century schoolhouse in Louisville, Kentucky, I came across a selection of limited-edition mint julep drinking glasses from 1974. Crafted specifically for the annual Kentucky Derby horse race, the colourfully decorated collector's items are one of the event’s most sought after souvenirs – and like so much else in this riverfront city, they are in some way associated with bourbon.
Louisville and its surrounds are synonymous with the spirit, just as Mexico is with tequila and Norway is with aquavit. In fact, one third of the world’s bourbon comes from Louisville, and it is on offer citywide. But even with its prevalence, the American spirit is simply an aperitif to Louisville's endless array of offerings, resulting in a city that embodies both a hipster vibe andsweet southern hospitality.
The new Louisville
Situated along Kentucky's northern state line across the Ohio River from Indiana, Louisville (pronounced loo-evel) has been gaining buzz since the establishment of the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail about 15 years ago. Historic buildings in neighbourhoods such as trendy NuLu and up-and-coming Butchertown are getting new life as gourmet restaurants and local markets; and just last year a downtown block known as Whiskey Row was saved from demolition. Plans are in place to turn this stretch of West Main Street into an extension of Museum Row – home to the Frazier History Museum (which houses outlaw Jesse James' revolver and US President Teddy Roosevelt's “Big Stick”) and the artsy 21C Museum Hotel.
Independent shops are popping up citywide, from NuLu's Please & Thank You, a husband-and-wife-owned store that is part cafe and part record store, to Bardstown Road's Why Louisville, which sells regional T-shirts, vintage prints and equine jewellery. Despite these changes, however, the city's stalwarts remain. You can still grab the city's signature sandwich – a Hot Brown, a broiled, open-faced sandwich with turkey, bacon and bechamel sauce – at downtown's historic Brown Hotel, or nosh on bourbon-braised beef at the Seelbach Hilton Louisville, which was mentioned in F Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby.
Boozing in brew town
While bourbon seemingly runs through Louisville's waters, the city is also making its name as a thriving beer town. It probably has something to do with the region's slow-going, hospitable vibe (or the fact that bars stay open until 4 am), but you can easily find yourself lingering with a lager or ale well into the night. Places such as downtown's Bluegrass Brewing Company and Bardstown Road's Cumberland Brewery are well established, while others such as the tiny Apocalypse Brew Works in the Clifton neighbourhood are still making their name. One of the city's greatest success stories is Falls City, a Louisville beer that dates back to 1905. After a series of changes in ownership – including leaving the city in 1978 – the name gained a sad reputation as a low-cost lager. But enterprising local David Easterling purchased Falls City when the trademark lapsed in the early 2000s, reviving the fledging brand as an English pale ale similar in style to the beer's 1930s heyday. It is now available for sale at restaurants and shops throughout Louisville (just look for the neon signs), and you can hit up the recently opened Falls City tasting room just east of downtown for a sample.
Food lovers unite
When it comes to great US food cities, San Francisco and New York often seem locked in a dead heat. But over the last few years, a slew of new culinary contenders have come to Louisville. Opened in 2012 in a renovated 19th-century structure, NuLu's Decca transforms locally farmed and small production ingredients into edible masterpieces with a distinct Kentucky edge. Scallops come paired with crispy potato, yogurt and cucumber (a favourite ingredient among Kentuckians), while creamy polenta – a Southern standard – accompanies pork chops.
Housed in a former service station in NuLu, Garage Bar attracts a bevy of business casual and Converse-wearing patrons with its wood-fired pizzas and country ham plates, and NuLu's farmer-owned Harvest dishes out burgoo (a spicy, meat-driven Southern stew) and smoked baby back ribs. Louisville also has brunch covered with Hillbilly Tea, an Appalachian-inspired eatery downtown that serves cream o'wheat pancakes, cheesy corn mush and some of the best buttermilk biscuits in town.