From Kentucky to Los Angeles, hoteliers raising the bar with bourbon

Fueled by renewed interest in classic cocktails and a thriving craft spirits culture, whiskey has experienced a renaissance over the past decade, with no segment seeing a bigger surge than bourbon.

The American spirit has proven so popular that it's fueling a major tourism boom in bourbon's Kentucky birthplace.

According to the Kentucky Distillers Association, bourbon tourists made a record 1.4 million visits to Kentucky distilleries last year, with the state's Kentucky Bourbon Trail  which includes stops at the Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Wild Turkey distilleries, among others  drawing a million guests for the first time since its debut in 1999.

With bourbon-related travel clearly on the rise, Kentucky hotels are eager to bring whiskey out from behind the bar and into the spotlight.

Most recently, Omni Hotels & Resorts put bourbon front and center at its Omni Louisville hotel, which opened last spring. According to Omni president Peter Strebel, the downtown property takes many design cues from bourbon: Its lobby features a curved, whiskey barrel-inspired ceiling, and the hotel's design scheme matches amber hues in the guestrooms to the colors of 17 different bourbon bottles.

The Omni Louisville hotel, which opened last spring, takes many of its design cues from bourbon, including a whiskey barrel-inspired ceiling in the lobby.
The Omni Louisville hotel, which opened last spring, takes many of its design cues from bourbon, including a whiskey barrel-inspired ceiling in the lobby.
Hotel Distil, which is set to open in Louisville later this year, will feature more than 100 bourbons at its steakhouse.
Hotel Distil, which is set to open in Louisville later this year, will feature more than 100 bourbons at its steakhouse.

"When we start building a new hotel, we always go on an immersion trip, and we went to Louisville thinking it would be about the Derby and horses," Strebel said. "But when we got there, we realized there was this exciting bourbon culture, so we decided we really wanted to bring the essence of bourbon into the hotel and the guest rooms."
Upcoming Louisville property Hotel Distil plans to be even more explicit in its whiskey focus. Set to open later this year as part of Marriott's Autograph Collection, the hotel will be located on Louisville's historic Whiskey Row.

"The entire hotel, including the restaurants and rooms, will reflect Kentucky's deep bourbon heritage," said Chris Anderson, chief commercial officer of Hotel Distil operator White Lodging.

Anderson asserted that bourbon's recent resurgence has transformed Kentucky into the "Napa of the South."

Hotel Distil's steakhouse, Repeal, will feature more than 100 bourbons, while its Bitter's End rooftop venue will serve bourbon-inspired small plates. The property will also have a barrel room event space for tastings and dinners.

Kentucky, however, isn't the only place where hotels are riding the whiskey wave. In Texas, the Hilton Austin unveiled an intimate, eight-seat, whiskey-only venue within its Cannon + Belle restaurant. The Bourbon Bar opened in January, featuring a selection of some 60 whiskeys, the vast majority of which are Kentucky and other American bourbons.

The newly opened Bourbon Bar at the Hilton Austin offers guests innovative cocktail options like a build-your-own Old Fashioned.
The newly opened Bourbon Bar at the Hilton Austin offers guests innovative cocktail options like a build-your-own Old Fashioned.

"When we looked at what's going on in Austin and around the country and what's selling, it was clear that bourbon was the direction to go in," said Anthony Ybarra, assistant director of food and beverage at the Hilton Austin.

Among the Bourbon Bar's most popular cocktails are a build-your-own Old Fashioned, which gives guests the chance to pair a 2-ounce whiskey pour with bitters of their choosing, and the Autumn Old Fashioned, made with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, cinnamon-infused sweet vermouth, cherry and vanilla bitters, lemon, star anise, clove syrup and rosemary. The bar also specializes in rare and allocated whiskeys, those distributed to limited outlets, stocking cult favorites from Old Rip Van Winkle, Whistle-Pig and others.

"Allocated items really make our menu pop," added Ybarra. "Being that we're one of the larger hotels in town, we have access to bottles that other bars around don't have. That lends some exclusivity to the Bourbon Bar and also helps attract locals."

Meanwhile, over on the West Coast, hotelier and restaurateur Adolfo Suaya plans to open a whiskey-themed hotel in Los Angeles in 2021, to aptly be named the Whisky Hotel.

While details on the property's beverage programming remain scarce, given current trends, it would be no surprise to see the property give bourbon a starring role.

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