Drinks

A Derby Day Guide to Louisville's 7 Best Bars

Let the pregaming begin
Photo: Courtesy of the Brown Hotel

If you're under the impression that the Kentucky Derby is all about horse racing, you've clearly never spent a weekend in Louisville. The whiskey-loving city is famous for its bustling nightlife, boasting more top-quality bars than you can wave a snifter at. And come Derby time, these liquor-hocking hot spots are livelier than Churchill Downs at 6:46 p.m.

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From rowdy beer bar to old-school elegance, these are Louisville's seven best bars for experiencing all the Derby weekend madness.

Haymarket Whiskey Bar

Bourbon bars are a dime a dozen in this neck of the woods, but this neighborhood gem sets itself apart with pinball machines, vintage arcade games, raucous live music and, yes, nearly 400 selections of bourbon, rye and malt whiskeys (including a few hard-to-find numbers like 10-year Old Rip Van Winkle). You might not see too many folks dolled up in their country club best here, but that's the beauty of it: all of the booze, none of the schmooze.  

Garage Bar

A member of the growing, oh-so-hip 21c hotel empire, this industrial-chic converted auto shop is dishing out some of the best pizza, cocktails and craft beers in town. The Derby faithful will inevitably be pregaming on the spacious, sunny patio, pairing exquisitely blistered pies loaded with farm-fresh toppings with a fittingly potent Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale or a light, crisp basil gimlet (New Amsterdam gin, lime juice and basil). There's plenty of bourbon to go around, too, and for the adventurous drinker, a particularly tasty oyster shooter.

 

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8Up Elevated Drinkery & Kitchen

This trendy rooftop den is elevated in all senses of the word—breathtaking city views; a sexy, lounge-like ambiance; a modern take on Southern classics; and, of course, top-shelf cocktails. Class it up around the outdoor fire pit with a New Fashioned, a chilly rocks glass filled with the bar's signature Weller 107 Barrel Select, root, Creole and orange bitters, and a splash of sweet maple syrup. Hungry? Fuel up before the race with a belly-warming order of fried green tomatoes or sizzling goat cheese-smothered french fries.

 

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The Brown Hotel Lobby Bar

When it comes to hosting lavish Derby parties, suffice it to say that it's not this 94-year-old hotel's first rodeo (it invented the iconic Hot Brown, for Pete's sake). The posh lobby bar is the ideal spot to see and be seen, a seasonally appropriate Kentucky Derby cocktail (Evan Williams Single Barrel bourbon, sorghum, pink grapefruit juice) or icy mint julep in hand. Prepare for a lively crowd, dressed to the nines in searsucker suits and jaw-droppingly opulent hats.

 

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Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse

Another down and derby drinking option, Against the Grain is Louisville's favorite local spot for expertly brewed, cheekily titled craft beer (anybody up for a refreshing Richard Persimmons?). A menu of Southern BBQ accompanies the suds, featuring hot links, pork rinds served with pimento cheese and hot sauce, and smoky spareribs sold by the pound. And if you're cocktail-inclined, don't miss the Kentucky Hold'em, a smooth blend of white whiskey, peach liqueur, sorghum, three kinds of bitters and lemon zest, served with a black tea ice cube and garnished with hometown pride.

Down One Bourbon Bar & Restaurant

Stashed in a gorgeously designed former underground parking garage smack-dab at the center of Louisville's famed Whiskey Row, this hipster-friendly bourbon emporium truly has it all. Think: breezy, magnolia-lined patio; upscale pub grub, like bacon-wrapped Medjool dates and a pork-three-ways sandwich (just go with it); classic and seasonal cocktails; a secret speakeasy stocked with rare spirits; and a full 160 bottles of the good stuff to keep you raging well past the most exciting two minutes in sports. Can't decide? Opt for one of the house's curated bourbon flights, three one-ounce pours of pure boozy bliss.

Doc Crow's Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar

Surf and turf is the name of the game at Doc Crow's, a laid-back Whiskey Row haunt specializing in dry-rubbed, slow-smoked BBQ; succulent oysters flown in fresh from around the country; and creative twists on Southern cocktail staples, like the Near Eastern Julep, a peppery combo of Old Grand Dad Bonded bourbon, ginger, Becherovka (a Czech digestif) and a punch of cooling basil. Saddle up to the long, winding bar and fix your eyes on one of the flat-screens suspended above for a front-row seat to all the action.  

 

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