Don’t let anyone boss you around about bourbon.
“Drink it however you like it,” says master distiller Marianne Barnes.
“Bourbon purists would shame you for putting bourbon in Coke, but if that’s how you’re going to start to develop an appreciation for the flavors, maybe you start there and then move into some craft cocktails, maybe try a nice old fashioned, and move into a neat pour from there,” she says.
Barnes, 30, knows a thing or two about learning to like bourbon.
When she landed a co-op at distilling powerhouse Brown-Forman in 2009, she didn’t have a taste for it. She had expected to end up working in bio diesel or fuel additives once she earned her chemical engineering degree from the University of Louisville.
But she fell in love with bourbon and the industry and stayed on after she graduated, rising to become a master taster at Brown-Forman, the company behind Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, Jack Daniel’s and many other spirits and wines.
In 2015, she made a big splash in bourbon circles when she left Brown-Forman to take on the role of master distiller at Castle & Key, a new distillery that’s slated to open to the public this summer in the historic Old Taylor Distillery facility near Frankfort, Kentucky.
The move made Barnes the first female master distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition.
“I’m not the only one anymore, but I hope that I was able to open some doors and get people thinking that it was old-fashioned and about time,” Barnes says.
Barnes is also a partner and part-owner of Castle & Key. The new distillery has been putting away bourbon for several months now, but the aging process takes time, and they’re not going to rush it. It’ll be ready in about four years.
So while it’s aging, Castle & Key has plans to debut with gin late this summer.
But it’s bourbon that dominates Kentucky Derby season drinks, so CNN asked Barnes to recommend some of her favorite bourbon bars in Louisville, where the most exciting two minutes in sports takes place the first Saturday in May.
The Silver Dollar
Modeled on the Bakersfield, California honky tonks of the 1950s, this Frankfort Avenue spot serves traditional working class dishes with a modern spin and is serious about whiskey.
There are more than 400 varieties of the drink available, about 200 of which are Kentucky straight bourbons. Craft cocktails are also on the menu, including a mint julep made with Four Roses Single Barrel.
While bourbon must be made in the United States, it’s not made exclusively in Kentucky. Still, the state produces 95% of the world’s supply.
It must be made from a grain mixture that’s at least 51% corn and be aged in new, charred oak barrels. There are also some proof requirements for distilling, aging and bottling bourbon.
The Silver Dollar is on the city’s Urban Bourbon Trail, a collection of bars and restaurants that stock at least 50 bourbons. Guests with paper or electronic Urban Bourbon Trail passports get stamps at participating venues toward Bourbon Trail swag.
The Silver Dollar, 1761 Frankfort Ave., Louisville
Haymarket Whiskey Bar & Bottle Shop
With more than 400 whiskeys, at least 250 of which are bourbons, the odds of finding something new at Haymarket are good, even for Barnes.
“If I’m looking for just a place to sip neat whiskey and find new things that maybe I haven’t heard of before, I go to Haymarket,” Barnes says.
There’s a lot going on — pinball machines, skeeball lanes, a music venue — but whiskey comes first at this Urban Bourbon Trail stop. There’s even a bottle shop on site, so you can taste at the bar and then buy a bottle to take home.
Haymarket, 331 East Market St., Louisville
Proof on Main
For bourbon with a side of high design and arresting art, downtown Louisville’s Proof on Main goes down easy.
“It’s got all this cool modern art because it’s connected to the 21c, and they’ve got great food and great drinks,” says Barnes.
The 21c is the flagship 21c Museum Hotel, a hotel/contemporary art museum concept launched in 2006 by Laura Lee Brown (of the Brown-Forman empire) and her husband Steve Wilson.
The stylish hotel bar and Urban Bourbon Trail spot serves more than 120 Kentucky bourbons in flights, single pours and artisan cocktails.
Proof on Main at 21c Louisville, 702 West Main St., Louisville
House-smoked Southern barbecue dishes, raw oysters and a bar stocked with more than 160 bourbons satisfy guests at Doc Crow’s, located on the stretch of downtown Main Street once known as Whiskey Row.
This Bourbon Trail stop offers 2-ounce pours or ¾-ounce tastes of all spirits on the menu. Barnes is a fan of the tasting option.
“Just a nip so that you can taste it out before you decide whether you want to order a full drink, or maybe you’re just curious about trying something that’s really expensive,” she says.
Tastes for bourbons are typically $3 to $5 but can go up to $14 for the rarer options like Pappy Van Winkle 23 year.
Bourbon-based cocktails include mint julep lemonade, a peachy Bourbini and a pear-and-ginger-tinged Lady Geisha.
Doc Crow’s, 127 West Main St., Louisville
Meta is a cocktail bar first and foremost, and it gives a lot of weight to spirits beyond bourbon. Still, this is bourbon country, and the bar stocks 50 or 60 of them. Meta hasn’t joined the Bourbon Trail yet, but owner Jeremy Johnson says they may join “sooner rather than later.”
The cocktail menu rotates, and craft is key.
“The fact that they’re so thoughtful and creating all of their own ingredients, it’s more of a culinary way to look at it. They’re more like bar chefs, I think, than mixologists,” Barnes says.
Meta is serious about cocktails, but tries not to take itself too seriously. The bar holds an annual party celebrating Prince’s birthday and has served the rare and coveted Pappy Van Winkle in Jell-O shots.
“We are either the fanciest dive bar or the diviest fancy bar you’ve ever been to,” says Johnson.
Meta, 425 West Chestnut St., Louisville