From bourbon balls to Derby Pie, there are a few truly delicious foods that Louisville is famous for. Whether you’re just visiting or you’re a local who hasn’t crossed off everything on this list, you’ll want to make sure you try all of Louisville’s famous local foods!
In compiling this list, we ruled out several delicious foods that are popular Southern staples but don’t have any specific ties to Louisville or Kentucky (think pimento cheese or biscuits and gravy). But with local icons like the Hot Brown sandwich or delicious Benedictine spread, there are still plenty of tasty dishes to feature!
So head out for a bite – or a drink – and enjoy all that Louisville has to offer! Here are all the Louisville (& Kentucky) specialties that you must try in Louisville.
In 1926, Fred K Schmidt – the chef at the famous and historical Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville – invented a dish that is famous to this day: The Hot Brown.
A Hot Brown is a warm, baked open face sandwich consisting of a piece of bread topped with with turkey, tomato bacon, and creamy, bubbly, cheesy Mornay sauce.
It was one of two signature sandwiches created by chefs at the Brown Hotel after its founding in 1923. And while nobody remembers what the other one was, the Hot Brown stuck and is perhaps Louisville’s most famous food to this day!
Supposedly, the idea for the Hot Brown came from the hotel’s swinging dance parties, where hungry dancers would order ham and eggs. We love this theory because it is fabulously reminiscent of The Great Gatsby (although F. Scott Fitzgerald actually has closer ties to the Seelbach Hotel!)
But far more likely, the dish is actually a variation of traditional Welsh rarebit, which is a British dish consisting of a hot cheese sauce served over slices of toasted bread (and not, as I’d always believed, something involving rabbit).
Either way, the Hot Brown is a must-try while in Louisville. The real deal can be found at The Brown Hotel, where it was invented. But there are versions all over town – so many that the tourism board even created the “Hot Brown Hop” which lists out all of the places you can go to try a Hot Brown! My personal favorite is the classic Hot Brown from Buck’s in Old Louisville.
This delicious mix of cucumber and cream cheese is a staple at any self-respecting High Tea, and its roots are right in Louisville. It was created by Ms. Jennie Benedict, a caterer in Louisville, in the 1890s.
Although it is sometimes served as a dip, Benedictine spread is traditionally served on perfectly sliced sandwiches made with thin, white bread with the crusts trimmed neatly away.
Benedictine doesn’t quite have the popularity of some of the other Louisville famous foods on our list, but you can find it on some menus in town. The Cafe in Paristown is the perfect place to enjoy it, with their chic decor and expansive menu. They feature their homemade benedictine on their Queen Anne sandwich, which is served on artisan walnut wheat bread and garnished with sliced cucumbers, bacon and lettuce. It’s like a fancy, Kentucky BLT (minus the T).
But this is one Louisville specialty that is easy to make yourself: just blend a package of cream cheese with a seeded and grated cucumber, some grated onion, and a little dab of mayonnaise, and spread it onto a piece of bread. (I also like to add dill because I am ~fancy.)
A traditional mint julep is made with just four ingredients: bourbon and simple syrup are muddled with fresh mint and served over crushed ice. The glass matters, too: a traditional silver Julep cup is best, though if you can’t have that, a Derby glass is just as good.
Here’s the thing, though: Louisville can’t actually claim the Mint Julep. It’s a Southern drink without a specific origin story, though it appears frequently in early records as a cocktail prescribed and served for medicinal purposes.
But it makes the list because the Mint Julep is undeniably deeply associated with Louisville, because it is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby and has held that honor since 1938.
Try one at Pin & Proof, the Silver Dollar, or on a hot day at the racetrack at Churchill Downs.
Burgoo is a Southern stew that for some reason is more popular in Kentucky than anywhere else. A few places in Kentucky claim to be the Burgoo capital of the world, and as far as we know, no one is disputing that claim. (Currently, Owensboro seems to hold the title.)
Burgoo’s got a weird name to match its historically weird ingredients: it’s supposed to be made with pretty much whatever you’ve got lying around. Generally, a burgoo contains three types of meat, corn, okra, and lima beans.
My mom, who also grew up in Louisville, says it used to be made with squirrel. Wikipedia verifies this. Gross.
But don’t worry: the Burgoo that you’ll find on Louisville menus has received a foodie makeover, while still hearkening back to its (supposed) Kentucky heritage. You can find a fancy, foodie twist on Burgoo at Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse.
- Against the Grain | Address: 401 E Main Street, Louisville, KY (Downtown)
Yeah, the delicious creation of slow-cooked pork shredded and marinated in a tomato-based sauce was invented in Kentucky. You’re welcome, Earth!
At least, according to local legend. Most people who aren’t from Louisville just sort of vaguely refer to it as a “Southern invention.”
Pulled pork is ubiquitous on menus all over the country, but our favorite place to find it in Louisville is at Feast BBQ!
Sweet sorghum syrup is a dark amber, thick, fragrant syrup that is very similar in appearance and taste to Molasses. Unlike the Molasses you’re probably used to, it’s not made from sugar cane, but rather from Sorghum cane – the majority of which is grown in Kentucky (and Tennessee).
I grew up associating sorghum with the Kentucky State Fair, where a farm booth handed out free samples of Sorghum syrup on fluffy buttermilk biscuits. You can find jars of Sorghum syrup in most stores in Kentucky, and keep an eye out for it on menus in Louisville.
To experience sorghum in many forms, order the Pork Cakes at Feast BBQ in NuLu, sample straight Sorghum syrup or a bite-sized Sorghum Cookie at Bourbon Barrel Foods, or try the unique Sorghum Cortado at GraleHaus.
What sounds like a drunken late night invention is one of Kentucky’s most delicious creations. The name isn’t misleading: it’s pretty much a sauce made from beer and cheese. This is Kentucky, were you expecting something more complicated?
But there are, of course, endless combinations of craft beer and various kinds of cheeses that can take a basic beer cheese to a whole new level of deliciousness. Imagine a dark, smoky stout paired with a creamy gouda versus a hoppy IPA blended with a sharp cheddar. Is your mouth watering yet?!
This is a Kentucky invention rather than a Louisville creation, and the best place to sample beer cheese is actually along the Beer Cheese Trail in Winchester, Kentucky. Yes, there’s a Beer Cheese trail. Yes, it’s on our bucket list, too.
In Louisville, you’ll usually best beer cheese on the menu at craft breweries, for obvious beer-related reasons. Pick up a pretzel and some delicious beer cheese to dip into it at Four Pegs Beer Lounge in Germantown.
These grits get their name because they are made at Weisenberger Mill in Midway, Kentucky. Weisenberger Mill has been owned and operated for 6 generations by the Weisenberger family and their reputation dates all the way back to 1865.
Most importantly, they’re the best grits you’ll find in Louisville – or the rest of Kentucky. Fluffy and slighty sweet, these are grits in their purest form!
The quality of Weisenberger grits is so good that many restaurants exclusively serve Weisenberger Grits, and make sure to call it out on the menu, too. Our recommendation is the phenomenal Shrimp and Grits from Jack Fry’s.
Derby Pie™ is a delicious Louisville tradition created by the Kern family in 1954. The traditional version of the pie, made by Kern’s Kitchen, consists of a layer of walnuts over a layer of chocolate, all in a flaky pie crust.
As you can see, Derby Pie™ is trademarked: its original inventors are notoriously obsessed with guarding their original creation, and seem to spend as much time selling tasty pie as they do suing the pants off anyone who dares write “Derby Pie” on their menu or online recipe.
That said: the original Derby Pie™ is both delicious and easy to find: you’ll see it frozen in most local grocery store aisles.
But if you know what to ask for, you can find freshly baked knockoff Derby Pie™ all over Louisville, especially during Derby season. Most of the not-actual-Derby-Pie recipes are made with pecans, and are closer to a pecan pie with a chocolate layer.
If you go to a restaurant or bakery and try to order Derby Pie™, you might get a few suspicious looks and some loud disclaimers like “we don’t serve Derby Pie™ here but we do serve Chocolate Pecan Horse Racing Pie, which is completely unrelated.”
It’s a funny Louisville quirk: a famous Louisville food that often can’t legally be called by its name. But it’s absolutely heavenly and you MUST try it!
You can find an excellent Pecan Pie with Chocolate at Homemade Ice Cream & Pie Kitchen, or pick up the original version in the frozen aisle at Kroger.
Modjeska candies were invented right here in Louisville, and the original recipe was inherited by Muth’s Candies. The candy is essentially a delicious, soft caramel with a chewy marshmallow center. Try it dipped in chocolate or rolled in nuts!
The Modjeska was named after a Polish actress, Helen Modjeska, who starred in a play in Louisville in 1883. The inventor of the candy was so taken by her performance that he named his creation after her, and the name has stuck! (Yes, y’all: the Louisville theatre scene has been that good for well over a century.) You can read the full story of the Modjeska on the Muth’s website.
You can buy a bag of Modjeskas at Muth’s Candies. This candy store has been an iconic Louisville staple for over a century and is run by the 5th generation of the same family, and it still makes some of the best sweets in town. Pick up a bag or 3 of each and anything else that strikes your fancy!
Bourbon Balls are the meeting of bourbon and chocolate in candy perfection. They’re heavenly. If I had to pick a favorite Louisville famous food from this list, bourbon balls is at the top and nothing else would even come close. I could happily eat nothing but bourbon balls for the rest of my life!
There are technically 2 correct versions of bourbon balls.
First, there’s the classic version: a delicious round chocolate shell filled with a soft bourbon cream and chopped pecans. This confection is the kind you’ll find at local candy makers or paired with your bourbon tasting on Woodford Reserve or Maker’s Mark distillery tours.
The other kind is a made-at-home version made with chocolate, pecans, vanilla wafers, and rolled in confectioner’s sugar. It’s practically fail-proof, and it’s the one I’ve been making at home myself every year for Christmas since I was little (yes, that’s right. I’ve been eating chocolate & bourbon since I was a baby. Explains a lot, right?)
You won’t find these no-bake bourbon balls at any reputable restaurants, but if you’re addicted to the chocolate bourbon flavor by the time you leave Louisville (as you should be) you can make your own version by following this recipe.
You can taste the classic version at Muth’s Candy in NuLu. Or try the Bourbon Truffles at Art Eatables, which is a nut-free twist on the classic chocolate and bourbon flavor combination.
Henry Bain’s Famous Suace
Henry Bain was the Matri d’ at Lousville’s swanky and exclusive Pendennis Club for 40 years. During his tenure, he got a little creative in the kitchen and came up with what is now a famous Louisville sauce.
Designed to compliment game, beef and other meats, Henry’s sauce (heh) bursts with rich and tangy flavors of tomato sauce, vinegar, tamarind, and soy sauce blended with sweet chutney and pickled walnuts. Try it on tenderloin, cocktail meatballs or spread over cream cheese for a fancy party appetizer or passable hors d’oeuvre, whose spelling I had to Google and whose pronunciation I have never quite mastered.
For over a century, this delicious sauce was only available to members and guests of the Pendennis Club, which was limited to literally only white men until freakin’ 2006 (yeah, really) when they finally opened their doors to the rest of us, especially Jewish, Black, and female Louisvillians, who were particularly targeted. (As someone who is 2/3 of those things, I would like to extend my deepest and pettiest shade to the whole establishment).
Today, you can purchase the sauce to try it yourself at home – no visits to a once deeply racist and sexist institution necessary! Pick up a bottle at Bourbon Barrel Foods online or in person at their location on Frankfort Ave.
The Old Fashioned
Louisville’s official cocktail (and my husband’s favorite) is simple and classic. The drink is made with bourbon, simple syrup (or a sugar cube), bitters (usually Angostura), a flamed orange peel, and a cherry garnish. It’s typically served on the rocks in a lowball glass.
This famous cocktail is not only the official cocktail of Louisville, but it is said to have been invented right here, at the famous Pendennis Club! Rumor has it that the recipe was invented by a bartender in honor of Colonel James E. Pepper, a prominent bourbon distiller, who then brought it to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City, where it flourished as one of NYC’s most beloved drinks.
However, this is widely disputed and a lot of people (New Yorkers, mostly) strongly disagree with that claim. A little digging reveals that the first mention in print of an “old fashioned cocktail” was in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1880, which is a full year before the Pendennis Club opened its very fancy doors to the upper eschelons of Louisville society. Gasp!
extremely salty people also claim that the old fashioned was simply a re-packaging of a drink that already existed. But what do they know, anyway? Did they write the book on the history of cocktails?! (Ahem: actually, yes.)
Regardless of its origins, the Old Fashioned IS the official cocktail of Louisville, and that makes it a Louisville specialty. We even have a whole week dedicated to the drink!
Wait, what about…?
During our research for this post (and a few conversations with my mother, who has roughly 70 years more experience living and eating in Kentucky than I do) we discovered a few surprises. Here’s what didn’t make our list of famous Kentucky foods:
- Kentucky Butter Cake: This buttery bundt cake isn’t from Kentucky at all: the creator of the original recipe just subbed bourbon for vanilla! The cake’s creator was a Ms. Nell Lewis of Platte City, Missouri, who entered it in the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest in 1963. Sadly, she lost, but the cake has remained as one of the most popular examples of “poke cakes.” Unfortunately I’ve never tried it, and I have yet to see it on a menu anywhere in Kentucky.
- Kentucky Mule: A Kentucky Mule is just a Moscow Mule made with bourbon instead of vodka. This drink is yet another instance of using bourbon as an ingredient and adding on the name Kentucky, but it’s definitely not from Kentucky. The Moscow Mule was actually invented in Los Angeles, along with its cousin varieties, the Mexican Mule (made with tequila) and the Jamaican Mule (made with rum). That said, you can probably order a Kentucky Mule at any bourbon bar in Louisville and get it served in the appropriate copper mug.
- Kentucky fried chicken: Once upon a time, Kentucky was known for a version of fried chicken using a technique that involved a buttermilk marinade, a quick blast in a deep-fryer, and a long stint in an oven, resulting in maximum crispiness and a lusciously moist center. That technique was adopted by a fast food chain which originated in Corbin, Kentucky and is currently headquartered in Louisville – its founder is even buried in Cave Hill Cemetery. But that was a long time ago, and there’s a good chance you won’t find much Kentucky fried chicken these days outside of that chain (which no longer uses Kentucky in its name). Also, we just felt weird about recommending a massive corporate chain, even one with roots in Kentucky. Sorry, y’all.
Is there anything that didn’t make our list that deserves a shout-out? Which Louisville or Kentucky food are you most excited to try, and how many have you tried already? Drop us a comment below!
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