Stacey Yates enjoying a Manhattan at the Brown Hotel's Lobby Bar, a stop on the Urban Bourbon Trail she created. Bartender Sarah Height pictured in background.

Trail Blazer

By creating the Urban Bourbon Trail, the CVB’s Stacey Yates helped put Bourbon tourism on the map.

[Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Food & Dining Magazine]

These days, Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail, a network of 34 establishments that promote and celebrate Bourbon by offering at least 50 brands, is so popular that “I’m waiting for Gattiland to call and say, ‘We have 50 Bourbons – can we be we on the Trail?’” says Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing communications for the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

She’s only half-joking. While the pizza buffet-and-game room concept is unlikely to seek UBT membership, she has had to turn away applicants who didn’t quite fit the profile. But such issues are fairly recent. In fact, it’s been only in the past decade that Louisville has intentionally focused on Bourbon as a means to draw tourists to the city. Oh, the Visitors Bureau might take a master distiller along on a New York media blitz and serve Bourbon balls, but “Bourbonism”? Not a thing. Not until the Urban Bourbon Trail was established in 2008 – and for that, the city has Stacey Yates to thank.

When Yates arrived at the CVB in 2006 from the Kentucky Derby Festival, the bureau was preparing to open the Visitors Center at Fourth and Jefferson streets. Her boss had talked with the Kentucky Distillers’ Association about the emerging Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which the KDA had begun in 1999, and Yates was tasked with including Louisville as part of the Bourbon story.

“First, we talked to the distilleries in town, like Brown-Forman,” she said. “‘Can you open up part of your plant to tours? Heaven Hill, can you do it? Anybody?’ They laughed at us. Of course, this was 10 years ago. ‘Bourbon tourism’ wasn’t really even being thought of.”

So the CVB’s initial move was to establish a Bourbon Country theme, declare Louisville “the Gateway to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail” and stock the Visitors Center with information about distilleries out in the state. “As that evolved a little, though, we thought, Well, our board isn’t going to let us do this forever, because we’re basically saying, ‘Pass through Louisville and go away,’” Yates said. “But we had this idea of coming back to stay in the city at night, and doing the bar scene and the restaurants, because you can’t really do that in a lot of these other places – or at the time you couldn’t.”

The CVB’s ad agency had included the phrase “urban Bourbon” in Bourbon Country ad copy, she said. “Putting two and two together one night on a run, I was like, ‘We could have the Urban Bourbon Trail.’” Highlighting the culinary scene recognized that Bourbon isn’t just a drink in Kentucky, Yates said. “It’s a part of the culture and the heritage, and food is so much a part of that.”

To build the concept, she and her team met with representatives from the Galt House, which served 150+ Bourbons; the Seelbach, where a famous sign at the bar said, “Now pouring 42 Bourbons”; the Brown Hotel; and a new place on Frankfort Avenue called Bourbons Bistro. They also sought advice from master distillers, liquor store owners, spirits distributors and restaurateurs.

That 50-Bourbon requirement was pulled from thin air, Yates said. “The Seelbach had kind of set the bar with 42, and we thought we needed a round number. And we wanted to set it apart. If you were in New York or Chicago or San Francisco at the time and went into a bar that had 30 Bourbons, they were like a true whiskey bar, a true Bourbon bar. We felt like in Kentucky, that had to be up a notch.” As on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, visitors would collect stamps in a passport to earn a T-shirt.

The Urban Bourbon Trail began with eight stops; now there are 34. (You need six stamps to get the shirt.) As the Trail has grown, more requirements have been added to maintain its integrity, Yates said. “It’s not a chain kind of thing; we want to keep it local, authentic. And we want places that have a commitment to educating their staff, so when somebody asks for a Bourbon, they don’t give them Crown or Jack.”

Upon the advice of the Louisville Originals, which noted the volatility of the restaurant business, establishments must be open for a year before they can apply for membership on the Trail.

For Bourbons Bistro owner Jason Brauner, who felt that Bourbon was under-marketed, making the decision to help launch the Trail was easy. “One of our first slogans was, ‘Bringing Bourbon back a sip at a time.’ The Urban Bourbon Trail gave us the power of new guests,” he said. “Not just locals, but tourists who would come in and seek it out.”

From a tourism standpoint, Yates said, “I don’t think you can underscore too much the gasoline [the UBT] put on the fire. If you go back and look at a lot of the first stories that came out [including the first cover story, in Food & Dining] they do have the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in them, but it was the Urban Bourbon Trail that was new, that really was putting this whole Bourbon experience on the map and that really helped move that needle in the tourism sector.”

By associating Bourbon with fine cuisine, the Trail also helped to give the spirit a more sophisticated profile, she said. “I know the industry talked a lot about ‘moving Bourbon off the front porch,’ and if you look at the advertising collateral that we’ve done with the Urban Bourbon Trail, it was very much about that.”

Not all of the stops require formal wear, of course. “The neat thing about the UBT, just like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, is the diversity of the experience,” Yates said. “I love that we have a dive bar, and 5-star dining, and then some neighborhood stops as well. Out of 34 stops, you can find six that fit your personality and your price point and get your stamps and get a T-shirt.”

One stop in particular, she said, vividly illustrates that diversity.

“Our staff got a call early on, maybe the second or third year, from Asiatique,” she said. “We kind of laughed at first, but we went to check it out. And sure enough, they had a beautiful Bourbon bar. What set them apart was their dedication to Japanese whisky, too – I thought there was a neat juxtaposition.

“But what I most loved about it was how they infused the spirit on their menu. So you might have a rice pudding with Bourbon, or Shaking Beef with Bourbon. I mean, OK, in New York, San Francisco, Washington, whatever, there are places called Bourbon Raw, or American Whiskey, and of course they’re Bourbon bars. But where else but in Kentucky would an Asian fusion restaurant also have 50 Bourbons?” F&D

[Featured image: Stacey Yates enjoying a Manhattan at the Brown Hotel’s Lobby Bar, a stop on the Urban Bourbon Trail she created. Bartender Sarah Height pictured in Background.]