When you're the world leader in making, drinking, and generally appreciating whiskey, people pay attention to what your bars do. But which booze-slingers are grabbing that attention, making those waves, and brewing what is widely considered to be some of the most innovative beer in the nation? Here are Louisville's most influential bars of 2014...
Louisville's 8 most influential bars of the year
It seems that the creative well of Against The Grain is infinitely full. And thankfully for us, it's filled with damn good beer. They never stop experimenting at ATG and have created over 100 unique brews since they opened their doors at Louisville Slugger Field. Their star is on the fast track and the announcement that they will be expanding their production by 400% in 2015 with the addition of a new facility in Portland solidifies their presence as the king of beers in The 'Ville.
Like the continuously rotating contemporary art exhibitions within Proof and the adjacent 21c Museum Hotel, the cocktails at Proof are avant-garde and ever-changing, and the expertly trained team behind the bar is crafting new drinks at the change of every season. Annual celebrations like Repeal Day and The Hog & The Barrel are not to be missed and 2014 saw the addition of a beverage-driven dinner series called Fork + Bottle, where wine, beer, and bourbon were the stars of the show. Without a doubt, Proof is where Louisvillians go to see and be seen.
When a bar puts a cocktail called The Sh*t on its menu, you know you're in the right place. This drink and everything about RYE's cocktail program lives up to that name and this year it rolled out a series of hands-on culinary classes, including a chance to learn how to craft its signature drinks yourself. Ever-changing and always on point, RYE is a no-brainer when your cocktail craving strikes.
What do you get when you combine vintage arcade games, live music, and plenty of booze? Zanzabar, of course! A Louisville original since 1938, Zanzabar is thriving as THE place to catch live local bands and DJs while sipping bourbon and dominating a game of Pac-Man. In addition to its nightly lineup of must-see artists, events like its weekly pin-ball tournament are what set Zanzabar apart, after 76 years and counting.
Meta sent shock waves through bourbon country this year when they chose to use their allocation of Pappy Van Winkle to make Jell-O shots. Whether you consider it genius or an abomination, there is no disputing that the people of Meta know how to make a mean drink. Their menu allows you to trace each inventive creation back to its roots, like the Normandy Invasion, their version of a Sazerac, and Pinkies Out!, their take on the classic Champagne cocktail with plum lemongrass and sage shrub.
With over 150 bottles of bourbon in house, Down One Bourbon Bar has quickly solidified itself as one of the premiere bourbon bars not just in Louisville, but in the country. Food and Wine took notice this year and nominated Down One as one of "The People's Best New Bars" in America. Their creative use of Kentucky's native spirit will make a bourbon lover out of anyone, and their cocktail menu is changing regularly, offering something new for everyone, even the bourbon aficionado in your life.
If tequila, mezcal, and rum are what you're after, El Camino is the place. Their list is impressive, and includes their very own proprietary single barrel bourbons and tequila. In the mood to share? Sidle up to one of the fire pits on the patio and order a Tiki punch bowl, extra-long straws included for you and your friends. Also named to Food and Wine's list of "The People's Best New Bars" in America, El Camino's unique mix of Tiki love and California surf shack offer an addictive vibe unlike any other in the city.
You know what's great about Haymarket? You don't have to wait in line for a beer. Just grab a PBR out of their vending machine. Genius! Don't let the dive bar atmosphere of this Downtown hot spot fool you though -- they know their liquor at Haymarket. The addition of bourbon education classes to their 2014 event lineup helped raise the profile of this small Market St bar and we have a feeling they have even greater things in store for 2015.
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1. Against The Grain Brewery401 E Main St, Louisville
2. Proof on Main702 W Main St, Louisville
3. RYE900 E Market St, Louisville
4. Zanzabar2100 S Preston St, Louisville
5. Meta425 W Chestnut St, Louisville
6. Down One Bourbon Bar & Restaurant321 W Main St, Louisville
7. El Camino1314 Bardstown Rd, Louisville
8. Haymarket Whiskey Bar331 E Market St, Louisville
Damn good beer and damn good barbeque are the hallmarks of downtown Louisville staple Against the Grain, located right at the famous Louisville Slugger field. Since opening their doors, the creative brewing team at Against the Grain have created over 100 unique beers that are so good they've evolved from local brewery to national beer distributor. With a full range of beer types, from light session ales to hop-full IPAs and smoky stouts, Against the Grain has a beer for every drinker. And if you don't drink, then chow down on their house-smoked barbeque, with favorites like brisket and pulled pork sitting alongside vegetarian options, like a signature chickpea sloppy joe, more adventuresome than just another salad.
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).
This NuLu cocktail bar is ever-changing and always on point, which makes it a no-brainer when your cocktail craving strikes.
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.
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.
Down One’s bourbon list is so large it is divided into eras: Pre-Prohibition, Post-Prohibition, and Modern. And their “Get Splashed” wall is the perfect photo opportunity for the bourbon lover.
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.
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.