The trip started with a pre-dawn drive and continued with some morning cruisin’, followed by an afternoon on the road and finally ended with even more time behind the wheel. It’s a long trip, but we managed it in one day, pulling into Louisville at about 6pm local time with the sun and southern warm weather to welcome us.
This first day was supposed to be dedicated to “getting there” but once the car was parked we definitely made the most of it. We arrived at the hotel and were greeted by valets, eager to help us with our bags. It’s actually pretty quiet this time of the year in downtown Louisville—this is the calm before the storm. In about a month, it will start to pickup as everyone prepares for the onslaught of over 100,000 visitors on Derby Day.
As you can see from the image in the last post, the actual building is impressive, taking up the corner of the block with it’s brick and stone. The decorative facade gives clues to the details within. The lobby’s expansive white marble floors give rise to a colorful palette of other imported marbles—Italian stone was used everywhere, from the columns to the front desk. Gilded ironwork and intricate plaster crown molding decorate the entire room. Giant crystal chandeliers hang beneath the 800 backlit glass bevels, barreled into the ceiling that was once a skylight some three stories high. I was impressed, probably much like the 25,000 people that filed through this room on opening day back in 1905. The lobby appears today virtually unchanged in over 100 years.
We took elevator number 3 up 8 floors to our room which was nicely-appointed. We later learned that a ghost—referred to as the Lady In Blue—has been seen passing through the closed doors of elevator 3 on separate occasions. This is the elevator shaft into which she plunged to her death in 1936. Her apparition was last seen in 1987, and no, she did not give us the pleasure.
The Bourbon Tasting Begins
Adjacent to the lobby is the Old Seelbach Bar. After our long drive, we treated ourselves to the hotel’s signature cocktail, the Seelbach which we enjoyed at the mahogany bar. The bar itself boasts an incredible whiskey selection, many of which are smooth, single barrel bourbons. We’re not experts (yet) but we certainly know how to count a lot of bourbons all lined up on the back bar! With all of these choices, we knew we would need some recommendations from the staff.
We initially suggested to the bartender that we were going to torture her and order a Mint Julep, to which she replied in her sweet southern voice, “Well, I don’t have any mint, so I guess the torture’s over, Darlin’.” After a good laugh, we decided to settle for just the bourbon—a good choice.
Our selections included Four Roses Single Barrel and the Eagle Rare Single Barrel on their recommendation. Eagle Rare 10-year is the second-oldest single barrel bottle available. A bourbon that has been allowed to mature in oak for 10 years takes on incredible flavors and complexity. Every barrel is different which is why many well-known distillers combine the barrels to achieve a flavor that is consistent with their brand. Single barrel bourbons are just the opposite—bottled using whiskey from only a single barrel at a time. This allows the drinker to experience the full complexity and variety of flavors from oak maturation.
We quickly recognized that it was time to eat something for dinner, and with that decision came another: Blanton’s Single Barrel or Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel. We tried both. Blanton’s has remained unchanged since the 1800’s. It has a unique stopper on each bottle that depicts a mounted thoroughbred in stride. Each bottle stopper has the horse in a slightly different position and collectors that drink Blanton’s try to get the entire gallop in stoppers like individual frames of film. It’s a delicious bourbon with notes of maple syrup. The Rock Hill Farms is even sweeter, yet despite that, it seems to hang on to a hot burn even after adding four ice cubes.
After dinner, we wrapped up our sampling with a comparison between the 20-year and 23-year Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve. Twenty years of barrel aging is unheard of for bourbons, yet Pappy comes out smooth and rich—more like a fine cognac than a whiskey. Although the 23-year is both older and more expensive, we found the 20-year to have a richer caramel flavor that was smoother all around. No wonder it’s the highest rated bourbon in the world. The 23 seemed to hit harder with complex heat right away, but its long finish helped explain the higher price. The 23 is very complex. We left the Old Seelbach Bar happy, and after seeing the sunrise earlier that morning and twelve hours of driving, it was nice to be ending the long day with only a short elevator ride.
We wouldn’t really be doing the Seelbach justice without mentioning the Rathskeller. Within the basement of the hotel lies a huge room modeled after the social halls of Germany. It is completely lined form floor to ceiling with thousands of decorative ceramic tiles. It is the only surviving complete Rookwood pottery room in the world. All of the tile work was made by hand at the famed Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati. The designs are drawn by hand and fired. Colors are applied by hand and the tiles are fired again and again for each additional color. The designs on the walls depict apple orchards and walled cities of the Rheine region where the Seelbach brothers who built the hotel were born. The pelicans that decorate the pillars in the room are a symbol of good luck. When the room opened in 1907, it was cooled by a steam powered air conditioning system and the brothers boasted that it could keep the room at least ten degrees cooler than it was outside and that it was replaced with fresh air every 5 minutes.