Off the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
is a review of things to do, places to stay
and honey holes to visit off the
Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Merle's Whiskey Kitchenby Jeremy Schell
In downtown Louisville there is no shortage of choices of things to do, especially when you’re Off the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Whether taking in a show at Actor’s Theatre, touring one the many museums or grabbing a bite to eat, downtown Louisville has plenty to offer and more than you can enjoy in a single day.
Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen has a toe-tappin’, honkey-tonk dive bar vibe with award-winning southern American cuisine, not to mention, plenty of fine whiskey. Named one of the 2017’s America’s Best Bourbon Bars by The Bourbon Review, Merle’s is located on Whiskey Row right across the street from the Old Forester Distillery. Close to the Yum! Center, the revitalized downtown Nulu district and easy walking distance from many other downtown attractions, Merle’s offers a perfect blend of Louisville’s easy-going dining experience, with its exceptional food, entertainment, music and other events and an extensive whiskey menu. Merle’s takes whiskey and bourbon seriously as Stave & Thief Society member with many of their bar and wait staff highly trained in bourbon and whiskey. They are ready to expertly guide guests through whiskey and flight selection from modest to rare and elusive. Don’t let staying inside get you down, step outside and enjoy their outdoor patio while sipping on one of their many exclusive single barrel bourbon selections or creatively crafted cocktails.
The cuisine at Merle’s can easily be described as southern comfort food perfect for enjoying before, after or between many of the local distillery tours. Never go wrong starting with either the Candied Bourbon Maple Bacon ($7) made with their famous Old Forester Bourbon maple glaze or the Texas Red Chili ($7.50) proudly made with no beans, no noodles, and no B.S. You’ll only get tasty all beef in this chili. Although there are several good salad options, your first thought will be “Why bother?” as the Dunked Cuban Sandwich ($10) is a must try for anyone without a cheese intolerance. This slow roasted pork and ham sandwich is packed with yellow mustard and premium pickles on a Telera roll. It is then dunked and smothered in homemade queso. Let’s be honest, you can never have too much dairy! If cheese isn’t your thing, go for the tasty Big Pig sandwich ($9.50). Slow roasted pulled pork with their homemade southern slaw and Old Forester Bourbon BBQ sauce. Not looking for a sandwich, the Taco Stand at Merle’s offers plenty of taco options including the Bourbon Que ($4) made with slow roasted pork and Old Forester Bourbon BBQ sauce or the Green Chili Pork tacos ($3.50) made with pulled pork, green chili jam, roasted garlic crema and cilantro. Vegetarians will enjoy the Wild Mushroom taco ($3.50) made with roasted wild mushrooms, corn salsa, cotija cheese and picked red onions. Although not my jam, Merle’s Fried Chicken (half/$12, quarter/$7) is award winning and often a crowd favorite. Try any of these with their Lip Smack’n Mac & Cheese ($5) or the Parmesan Garlic Fries ($5) and you’ll be stuffed for hours.
The food options at Merle’s may be great but they are only surpassed by the selections from behind the bar. The cocktail options are well thought-out and proudly represent many of the bourbons found around the Commonwealth including George’s Famous Old Fashioned ($10) w/ Old Forester Signature, Jimmy’s Front Porch Lemonade ($9) w/ Wild Turkey 101, The Main Street Manhattan ($8.50) featuring Evan Williams Bonded, Merle’s Kentucky Mule ($10) w/ Buffalo Trace and Kentucky Slushies ($7) featuring Jim Beam. Non-bourbon drinkers will appreciate the featured selection of tasty vodka and rum cocktails, as well as a variety of locally brewed beers.
Although you may sense Merle’s has a dive bar feel, the range of whiskey selection is nothing of the sort. From modest to extreme, rare to super rare, you’ll find something of interest behind the bar to fit everyone’s wallet including Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Pappy Van Winkle’s, Kentucky Owl, Weller Antique, Weller 12, Michter’s 20-yr and more. Although for $2 more you can upgrade to a two ounce pour, don’t be surprised at the pricing of the rarer selections. If you’re celebrating or showing off in front of friends, then throw cost to the wind and indulge yourself. Regardless, there are some extremely affordable whiskeys that most will enjoy: Buffalo Trace ($6), Old Forester Signature ($7), Eagle Rare ($8), Henry McKenna Bonded ($8), Old Forester 1920 ($13), Woodford Reserve Double Oaked ($13), Old Forester 1910 ($14), Booker's ($23) or Michter's 10yr ($31).
Despite many of the elusive bourbons being higher priced, the real gem at Merle’s is their selection of outstanding single barrels. These are available by the pour or bottle purchase. Both are priced affordably and genuinely available although they do change periodically. Others include: 1792 Full Proof Single Barrel ($13/$49). Buffalo Trace Single Barrel ($7/$38), Elijah Craig Single Barrel ($10/$40), Knob Creek Single Barrel ($13/$48), Maker's 46 Private Staff Stave Select ($20/78) and Russell's Reserve Staff Hand Select ($16/$64). My favorite has been their Weller Antique single barrel however it sold out rather quickly but check with the bar staff to see what new options have arrived, you may be surprised.
When you’re Off the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen is a great downtown restaurant to visit for lunch, dinner or just hangout for a cocktail or dram of whiskey with friends.