It may be hard to believe that Louisville, Ky., didn’t have a bourbon-themed hotel before now. After all, the spiritual home of bourbon can feel a bit like a whiskey theme park sometimes. Yet Hotel Distil, which opened in fall of 2019 on a historic stretch of Main Street known as Whiskey Row, rightfully claims the title as Louisville’s first.
A splashy launch party on December 5—Repeal Day, of course—officially rolled out the welcome mat, greeting guests with 1920s-era costumes, entertainment and, of course, plenty of bourbon, including an ice luge for chilling (or chugging) the hotel’s signature Old Fashioneds.
Why build a hotel around bourbon? “We’re in Louisville, right?” says Mark Billing, the director of sales and marketing for the Whiskey Row Hotel Collection (which includes Distil, as well as non-bourbon-themed Moxy and Aloft hotels on the same corner). “Back in the day, pre-Prohibition, our 100 block of West Main was known as the Wall Street of whiskey,” close enough to the Ohio River for boats to transport bourbon from Kentucky throughout the country, at least until the dark days of Prohibition. If a hotel was going to be developed on that particular stretch, it was decided, “it had to be around bourbon and barrel culture,” he says.
Getting into the Spirit
I arrived at Hotel Distil to partake in the Repeal Day festivities and was surprised to discover that staying at a bourbon-themed hotel didn’t involve nearly as much bourbon as I’d hoped. In fact, it’s entirely possible to stay at the hotel without actually interacting with booze, disappointing as that may be.
A bit of backstory about Distil: It’s part of Marriott's Autograph Collection, a group of independent boutique hotels. What that means is that although reservations can be made through the standard Marriott Bonvoy channels, the Louisville team essentially had complete authority to build and brand Distil as they saw fit. And that meant lots of bourbon.
The site is part of bourbon history: It was once a barrel house once owned by J.T.S. Brown & Sons (the bourbon brand is now part of Heaven Hill). It hadn’t been a bourbon facility in many years when in 2015 a fire destroyed what was left of the building. The city of Louisville was able to save the cast-iron façade, which dates back to 1855, but there wasn’t much else left. Over the course of more than two years, the hotel was rebuilt around that façade.
Working with architect HKS and FlickMars, which specializes in interior design for hospitality and leisure brands (both headquartered in Dallas, not Louisville), the team made plans to build out the hotel.
With a name like Distil (the less-common spelling of the verb “distill,” explains Billings), of course bourbon had to become part of the design story. Throughout the hotel, spaces are warmed with oak and copper design elements; images of stills are displayed on the walls; the “Do Not Disturb” signs show a whiskey-filled rocks glass filled (for housekeeping) or empty (to signal privacy). Even the vanilla-scented “oak” hand lotion supplied to guest rooms nods to the barrels.
Of course, for those thirsting for bourbon, there’s plenty available, although you do have to seek it out. For example, the in-room bourbon cart may be empty, but guests can ring for a “bourbon ambassador” to bring a flight or make an Old Fashioned on the spot. Heading to the lobby, Repeal restaurant features a wood-fired grill, its flames fueled by oak sourced from Old Forester distillery (which has a visitor center up the block) and a bar with 160 different bourbons, including many old and rare bottles. “We try to set ourselves apart with our rare and rotating available bourbons,” says Billing. “We want [guests] to try something they’ll never be able to try tomorrow.”
Many of the bottles are supplied by Lexington’s Justin’s House of Bourbon, which in 2019 opened an outpost a block from the hotel and specializes in rare and antique bourbons. Recent strong sellers at Repeal have included a 1967 Weller, a 2002 George T. Stagg named as bourbon of the year and a 1992 Blanton’s Japanese export.
In addition, Bitters End peeks out from behind the hotel’s salvaged cast-iron façade. An open-air bar, it was closed for the winter at the time of my visit, scheduled to reopen in March. It specializes in Old Fashioneds, including bitters made in-house.
Finally, the hotel also features a daily toast in the lobby at precisely 7:33 p.m., or 19:33 in military time, a nod to the year in which Prohibition was repealed. “We do a different cocktail or bourbon every night,” says Billing. Distil has plans to partner with various distilleries, such as a planned “toast to the trees” with Angel’s Envy distillery, located just a few blocks away.
Yet even as the pours vary, the evening’s toast is expected to remain the same: "May our hearts be light, our glasses be full and our spirits never know Prohibition."