Despite producing pretty much all of the world’s bourbon (you’re welcome, planet Earth), not every bar in Louisville is a whiskey bar. There are cocktail bars, dives, beer churches (seriously), and Tiki spots -- so we narrowed them all down to some of the key players, new and old, that make the Louisville bar scene what it is today.
These are Louisville’s 12 most important bars
Glowing ping pong tables, AstroTurf-covered places to perch, and the fact that it actually is a renovated garage make this bar one of the go-to spots in The ‘Ville (especially in the sticky, hot summer nights). The drinks are delicious, and include 25 craft beers, cocktails like their jalapeño/absinthe High Heat, and a modest 30+ bourbons/ryes. To cap it all, they have a wood-fired pizza oven, for goodness creatively topped with ingredients like walnuts, shaved Brussels sprouts, and sweet corn.
This classy little joint is awesomely/terribly located right beside a strip club. But a polarizing destination doesn’t stop Meta from being one of the swankiest joints in town. The floor is tiled with shiny-bright copper pennies offset by a white marble bar, and the cocktail list features house originals that each trace their origins back to a classic cocktail listed on the menu; the High Pant (Old Fitzgerald, Fernet, ginger, orange, bitters) for instance, traces its genesis to the Old Fashioned.
The Back Door is the girl-next-door of Louisville bars. It’s a classic local watering hole with a wide array of fans, from newly 21 frat boys to 60-something bikers, and the walls are decorated with the painted-on faces of patrons past and present, young and old. Drinks at the Back Door are famously strong and relatively inexpensive; try their tall White Russian for a real kick in the pants.
Play has everything you could possibly want for a blowout night on the town: a high-energy Technicolor-lit dance floor; a plush, VIP seating area; a covered porch for outdoor socializing; and of course, a cast of drag queens & kings who put on nightly shows on the runway-style stage.
The late weekend nights at Zanzabar are notoriously crazy -- with a host of young ladies in leggings & crop tops getting down to the best dubstep a $5/$10 cover can buy -- but the weekdays are much more neighborhood-friendly. Zanzabar hosts a weekly pinball tournament and is a great local space for concerts, not to mention a deliciously underrated Southern resto. And the booze? Cheap, easy, not too complicated. Just like Zanzabar... on the weekdays.
The proprietor at Haymarket, Matthew Landan, knows so much about whiskey and bourbon, he literally hosts whiskey and bourbon education workshops. Haymarket has more than 100 unique bourbons alone, so if you’re one of those elusive bourbon virgins (good God, fix that immediately), this is a good place to get an education, as well as your first glass. Allow us to recommend Pappy Van Winkle.
If you tell someone you’re from Kentucky, the first thing they think is proooobably not "I bet this person spends a great deal of time strolling through a 24-hour modern art museum with a craft cocktail in hand". But thanks to Proof, that might actually be the case. An art museum, boutique hotel, amazing restaurant, and gorgeous bar all in one, they also host one of the most bonkers post-Derby parties in town; the last one had an acrobat literally pouring Champagne into people's mouths from her perch upside down on a crystal chandelier.
Hilltop has a ping pong table, a stack of board games, foosball, and pretty much everything you would expect from a local haunt, but the food on their menu is magnificent, home-cooked, bourbon-syrup drizzled, and mouthwatering (pulled pork tacos? Yep. Smoked PBR chicken? Yep.). Their booze ain’t bad either (vodka infusions rotate with the season, a cocktail list stays on-trend, and there’s a solid list of draft beers), and it’s incredibly affordable: a (well) bourbon and Coke at this joint will set you back a mere $3.
Tiki drinks might never be the most popular cocktails in the bourbon state, but El Camino is certainly trying to make them a runner-up. The drink menu is loaded with twists on traditionals like a Mai Tai or a daiquiri, as well as large-style punch bowls, and their beers appropriately lean toward the SoCal direction, too. It’s the closest thing you can find to a surf beach in Kentucky, and’s one of the best new bars not just in The ‘Ville, but in the country, too.
The Holy Grale is located in a renovated Unitarian church in the Highlands, and it’s practically a temple to craft beer. Their draft menus and beer list change almost daily, but there are at least 20 excellent, rare, and interesting beers on tap at any time. There’s a choir loft available for additional seating or event space, and a gorgeous garden behind the church that connects to the associated coffee house: Gralehaus. It’s your one-stop shop for dinner, drinks, and hangover cures!
Nach Bar is a well-kept Germantown secret. On the surface, it’s just your run-of-the-mill neighborhood bar with a good outdoor area (and it’s dog-friendly!), a great beer selection, and inexpensive drinks. But some would say Nach Bar is the soul of young Louisville’s music-loving, sort-of-hipster, just-wanna-hang-out-somewhere-tonight youth. They embrace their dive-ier aspects, and they do it well.
Groucho’s is dive-y and small with a dedicated band of regulars who crowd the Goss Ave bar for karaoke. This is not a big-city karaoke experience; it’s got the same essential feel as singing in your best friend’s basement at a party. Groucho’s is sparse, but it’s the perfect way to end a long night out with people who will still love you after they hear your belted-out version of "Don’t Stop Believing".
Sign up here for our daily Louisville email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.
1. Garage Bar700 E Market St, Louisville
2. Meta425 W Chestnut St, Louisville
3. The Back Door1250 Bardstown Rd, #116, Louisville
4. Play1101 E Washington St, Louisville
5. Zanzabar2100 S Preston St, Louisville
6. Haymarket Whiskey Bar331 E Market St, Louisville
7. Proof on Main702 W Main St, Louisville
8. Hilltop Tavern1800 Frankfort Ave, Louisville
9. El Camino1314 Bardstown Rd, Louisville
10. Holy Grale1034 Bardstown Rd, Louisville
11. Nach Bar969 Charles St, Louisville
12. Groucho's Bar & Karaoke935 Goss Ave, Louisville
Especially in the warmer months, this renovated garage in the trendy NuLu area is a must-visit. Glowing ping pong tables, Astroturf-covered places to perch, and a consistently ultra-hip crowd make this bar the go-to destination for sticky, hot nights in The ‘Ville. Garage Bar uses local veggies and cured meats to top its pizzas, which bake in a blistering wood-fired brick oven. Be sure to order a tasting platter from the ham bar (yes, it has a bar dedicated to ham) to pair with your pie. It’s got a pretty extensive beer list, too.
Meta is a wonderful world of contrasts -- a marble-barred, copper-penny-floored temple of swank drinking lodged next to a strip club. But it’s not just bravado and balls that make Meta the best damn cocktail bar in a city that was doing craft cocktails long before they were trendy. The signatures are all grounded in tradition, but with a nice kick in the knickers. Take, for example, The High Pant, which augments some Old Fitzgerald with fernet and ginger to transform the Old Fashioned into something completely new. And hey, with cocktails this good, that strip club next door just keeps getting less lurid by the sip.
This Highlands dive(ish) bar is a classic local watering hole with a wide array of fans, from newly-21 frat boys to 60-something bikers, and the walls are decorated with the painted-on faces of patrons past and present, young and old, not to mention a simple drink menu featuring strong, yet cheap libations.
This Butchertown club has everything you could possibly want for a blowout night on the town: a high-energy Technicolor-lit dance floor, a plush-VIP seating area, and a covered porch for outdoor socializing.
The late weekend nights at this Germantown establishment are notoriously crazy, but the weekdays are much more neighborhood-friendly, with a weekly pinball tournament and cheap and simple drinks, not to mention a deliciously underrated Southern restaurant.
Haymarket Whiskey Bar has more than 100 bourbons and almost 200 whiskeys, as well as live music four-plus nights a week. If the extensive liquor selection isn't enticing enough, visit for the décor alone: '80s memorabilia, Star Wars posters, old pinball machines, and a gorgeous green glass bar.
Located in The 21c Museum Hotel Louisville, a boutique hotel and art museum, Proof on Main serves up gourmet meals from Chef Levon Wallace, including a unique and scrumptious burger made out of bison and topped with a Jezebel sauce that gives it a fruity, earthy flavor, plus Tillamook cheddar and applewood-smoked bacon. You'll want to throw in a side of the crispy cauliflower, and top it all off with the s'mores dessert. This trendy spot houses the Proof Bar, too, which offers an enormous bourbon list (we're talking upwards of 50 varieties).
If you really want to hang out with locals, do so without ostentation at Hilltop Tavern, which has a ping pong table, a stack of board games, foosball, and pretty much everything you would expect from a local haunt. It doesn't hurt that their cuisine is a home-cooked, bourbon-syrup drizzled, and mouthwatering selection of American classics. Check out this friendly spot's Facebook page to get a sense of their changing daily specials.
Tequila might never be the most popular spirit in The 'Ville, but El Camino is certainly making it a runner-up. The drink menu here is “artisan Tiki” offering both twists on traditional options like a Mai Tai or a daiquiri, and more traditional libations like bowls of punch that you should definitely not try to drink by yourself. And whoever said honky-tonks don't deliver on food hasn't checked out El Camino's list of Mexican eats, which includes savory creations like grilled petite filete with cotija, and a pan roasted salmon with grilled pear.
This converted century-old church now works full-service as an artisanal pub specializing in beer and food pairings. The space is equal parts ingenious adaptation and gorgeous design and the menu is always changing, as are the beers. Be sure not to miss the choir loft and the beer garden, and if the Scotch quail eggs are on the menu, order them immediately.
On the surface, this Germantown drinkery just your run-of-the-mill, neighborhood bar with a good outdoor area (and it’s dog-friendly!), a great beer selection, and inexpensive drinks. But some would say Nach Bar is the soul of young Louisville’s music-loving, sort-of-hipster, just-wanna-hang-out-somewhere-tonight youth.