Backyard Travel: Hanging Out in the Bourbon Capital

“Travel isn’t about the distance traversed, but about the memories created.” I tweeted this a couple months ago, and thinking about it today, it couldn’t be a truer statement. One of my longterm goals is to see more of America. As a traveler, sometimes I get caught up in those long-haul, ocean-hopping flights— so much so that I neglect to see what’s in my own backyard. That age-old saying, “The grass is always greener […],” becomes my reality. But there is so much splendor here in America to which I have not bared witness. So instead of booking a trip abroad, I set my sights on somewhere domestic, and ultimately chose the horse-loving, bourbon-distilling, beautifully widespread American state of Kentucky. 

One of my philosophies [in life] is that reality is perspectival. Anyone who knows me will tell you I like to experience culture for myself and draw my own conclusions, rather than listen to someone else’s opinion. For instance, my dad had nothing but negative things to say about Paris and the French, but each time I’d gone, I experienced the exact opposite of his sentiments. Kentucky was no different. Prior to my departure, I heard every reason under the sun as to why I shouldn’t go— spanning from stodginess to racism— which only fueled my desire to get there and check things out for myself. 

A couple hours upon arrival in Louisville—locally pronounced Looavul (see photo to right for right-to-wrong list of pronunciations)— I found myself seated at the bustling-but-amiable Eiderdown. Located in the hip Germantown neighborhood, this rustic, German-inspired restaurant with recycled wood embellishments offers a seasonal menu (composed by local chef Brian Morgan) with locally-sourced ingredients, as well as a reasonably priced, perfectly-balanced beer and wine list. As a starter, the duck fat popcorn— an Eiderdown staple— set the tone for my entire Kentucky experience: fascinating and one-of-a-kind.

After indulging in a number of courses at Eiderdown, the next stop was its hipsteresque dive bar neighbor, Nachbar. A pet-friendly facility (I literally had a dog or two sniff at my feet) with an outdoor smoker’s patio, this effortlessly cool neighborhood bar offers 16 quality taps, and pretty much anything else one could possibly want. It was at Nachbar I got indoctrinated into Kentucky culture: a velvety Siberian Stout (meal in a glass) and shots of good quality bourbon (brought by locals I’d only just met) served as the catalyst for a kick-ass Kentucky night. 

My well-earned hangover was cured by lentil sambussas, misir wot, atakilt, gomen wot and Ethiopian tea at Queen of Sheba, “the first and only authentic Ethiopian restaurant in Louisville.” A gem of a place, the warm, welcoming atmosphere was the perfect contrast to the previous night— a kind of sanctuary where the bourbon-influenced debauchery of yore is forgiven. After an impressive meal, it was onto Bardstown Road (where my Louisville experience would come to an end), a street with an impressive selection of thrift/vintage shops (like the quaint Hey Tiger), music and specialty stores, and friendly pubs. 

With their easygoing local bars, cafés and parks, both Richmond and Lexington (like their Louisville predecessor) were friendly, welcoming and generous, a stark contrast to what I was told I would experience. Landing (conveniently on the night of a pub crawl) at the local Irish Pub in Richmond, Paddy Wagon— and later in the night, a quirky house party— I was barraged by an array of unique, smartly tattoo’d, spirits-amplified personalities I’d never forget (most notably a drunk blonde with the most stereotypical southern accent who informed me how much she loved my ‘fro) and met someone with whom I instantly clicked and began to call friend. And at the local-favorite Marikka’s in Lexington (where I tried my first-but-not-last Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale), I was in awe at the list of over 700 beers the bar-restaurant offered.

Lexington and Richmond offered more than just cool places to get bourbon and beer. Rolling countryside, old wood barns and horse ranches were ubiquitous. Richmond’s Lake Reba (left) was a beautifully relaxing place to fish, engage in sport, picnic or simply have a walk, as was Lexington’s Transylvania University neighborhood, which was was beautifully scenic, filled with whimsical statues and quirky little café’s and shops. Third Street Stuff & Coffee (pictured above) was perhaps the coolest coffee house I’d ever been to: candy colored with dim lighting and a continuously relevant, mood-evoking playlist, the shop boasts an array of locally roasted, fair trade coffees and espressos, and offers yummy, sweet and savory coffee-shop staples. Elsewhere in Lexington, POPS Resale is one of the best indoor thrift shops I’d ever shopped, a clearinghouse with 6000 square feet of vinyl, vintage garments, retro game consoles and other trinkets you may not need but end up taking home anyway (photo below, courtesy of Pops).

My time in the bourbon capital proved my [reality being perspectival] theory to be correct and reaffirmed my reasons for wanting to travel. Because I went with an open mind, ready and willing to engage in and be engulfed by the local culture, I had a fantastic time, one that left me not only pleased with all that transpired, but ready to prolong my trip— I had a feeling I’d only scratched the surface of what this unexpectedly hip and welcoming place could offer. Until next time, Kentucky!

(Special Thanks to Cecilia, Connie, Eric, Lauren, Laura & Dougie)