Folks in Indiana are famous for their Midwestern friendliness—“Hoosier Hospitality”—but they also view themselves as tenacious underdogs, an aesthetic noted in just about every Hollywood depiction of the state, from “Hoosiers” to “Breaking Away” to “Rudy.” Locals have taken the same approach to craft distilling—until 2014 it was illegal to operate on-site tasting and retail, the way many small distillers in other states make sales. This made Indiana an unfriendly place for indie spirits, but pioneers plunged ahead, while working to change the laws.
“In 2014 the state said that if you had a license to distill spirits for three years you could open a tasting room,” recalls Blake Jones, co-owner and president of West Fork Whiskey Co. “That was still tough, but it sort of made distillery tasting rooms in Indiana a thing, and since then we’ve been able to get it reduced to eighteen months.” For this reason, the Indianapolis distillery boom is a very recent thing, and there’s a sense that the friendly competitors are in it together, which trickles over to the many craft cocktail bars serving their wares, the neighboring restaurants that deliver to their tasting rooms, and the craft breweries and cideries supplying barrels.
Indy is one of the nation’s most affordable cities, full of new upscale hotels with lower rates than in other major cities. The burgeoning food scene is similarly bargain priced. Getting around is cheap and easy, with low Lyft and Uber rates aided by the city’s compact layout—everything is less than fifteen minutes from downtown. Some is walkable and most is bikable with plenty of self-serve bike rentals and designated bike lanes. Its two main routes, the Monon and Cultural Trails, pass right by distilleries and cocktail bars.
Head south from downtown on the Cultural Trail to Milktooth in the Fletcher Place neighborhood. “Fine diner” is the ethos at this contemporary spot serving eclectic breakfast fare such as Sourdough Pearl Sugar Waffles and Cranberry Clafoutis Dutch Baby Pancakes. Breakfast cocktails like a Hot Bourbon Toddy will help you jump-start your day.
Fletcher Place is home to two craft distilleries, which sit almost next to each other. Hotel Tango Whiskey is neither a hotel nor an Argentinean dance hall, but it does make whiskey. Founder Travis Barnes is a Marine Corps alum whose wife Hilary was a pilot. The name represents the military call signs for their initials: Hilary, Travis, and, well, whiskey. Along with a 100% Indiana sweet corn moonshine they offer white rum, gin, vodka, liqueurs, and whiskey. The wheated 6 year old Bravo bourbon and rye-forward 18 month old White Label whiskey have been stalwarts, while the new rum-cask finished rye was just released this spring, along with a 2 year old single malt available only at the tasting room.
Hotel Tango Whiskey’s success caused them to outgrow their original production facility, now relegated to small and experimental batches. Commercial production is in a larger facility about ten minutes away, where they offer intimate tours by appointment only (you have to call, they don’t advertise or schedule them on their website). They also have an urban farm where they grow produce for the tasting room’s cocktails. “If you come in and try one of our craft cocktails, you can’t get something like a whiskey and Coke, because we only use things we make, like cucumber juice from the farm,” says Barnes. Try the Havana and Hive, their riff on a barrel-aged Old-Fashioned: Bravo bourbon, bitters, and honey, blended and aged in a used bourbon barrel.
Just a few steps away is 12.05 Distillery, named for the date Prohibition ended in 1933. If you like an intimate tour, this is the place, because owner Nolan Hudson or head distiller Brad Colver usually guide them personally. “We do schedule tours in advance, but we…can usually do an impromptu tour for you, spur of the moment,” says Hudson. Tours include a visit to their barrel room, a “dungeon” they found through a hatch in the floor.
While their signature product is a locally popular rhubarb liqueur, 12.05 has become known for their beer-to-whiskey. “The beer is made from grains and we follow all the legal steps of whiskey making,” Hudson explained. After a storage mistake left a local brewery with 70 barrels of sour beer that was not supposed to be sour, 12.05 experimentally distilled it. Named the Barreled Reporter, they released some at a year old, some at 2 years, and the final batch will be bottled this summer at 4 years. They have since distilled other types of beer into whiskey, which is currently aging.
Distiller Colver lost a finger during construction of the distillery, so one of their core whiskeys is called Four Finger rye. They also have a wheat whiskey called White on the Line, a straight bourbon, and a barrel-aged corn whiskey made with corn and peated malt, both Indiana-grown. Because state law requires that all alcohol served must be made on-site, they distill their own absinthe to make Sazeracs in the tasting room. The beer 12.05 distills comes from Fountain Square Brewery, with a public taproom a short walk away, and there’s another at New Day Craft cidery.
Indy has more business hotels than boutique properties, but the notable exception is The Alexander, located on the southern edge of downtown within walking distance of Fountain Square and Fletcher Place. Named for Alexander Ralston, the Scottish surveyor who helped lay out the street plans here and for Washington, D.C., it is hyper-local, with Indy references throughout almost every square foot, like a bar footrest created from a piece of railroad track uncovered while excavating the site. Its whiskey-centric Plat 99, which sits on the city’s 99th surveyed plot of land, is a mixology lounge focusing on local beer and spirits. If you prefer to be in the heart of downtown, the best choice is Le Meridien, more intimate than the other large hotels surrounding it, and home to Spoke & Steele bar, with mini-casks aging brown spirits in-house.
Indianapolis is on the move, transforming in recent years from staid Midwestern city to an economically vibrant urban center of tech, food, sports, and culture, while also honoring its roots. This is embodied by Thunderbird in artsy Fountain Square. The former recording studio and rockabilly club has been serving comfort food with a sense of fun since 1950 and continues to embrace its retro vibe. The updated menu ranges from basic burgers and fries to mole and cotija cheese poutine, and a gourmet take on chicken and waffles. Ditto for the drinks list, where there’s a Bud & Bourbon shot combo for $6 and cocktails like the Le Freak, a mix of Bonesnapper rye, Bacardi rum, bananas, cinnamon, Peychaud’s bitters, and house-made mole bitters.
Make a late-night stop at The Inferno Room, a nearby tiki bar. They serve up classic tiki cocktails using authentic tiki glassware in a space decorated with original art from Papua, New Guinea. Tropical kitsch!
Awaken in any downtown hotel and you’re not far from a Café Patachou location. Calling itself a ‘student union for adults,’ offering an inventive, farm-to-table menu with specialty breakfast dishes including Cauliflower Fried Rice and Sweet Indiana Corn Cakes.
Once fortified, take in the sightseeing highlights. White River State Park runs through the center of downtown and is home to Indy’s canal—complete with Venetian gondoliers and paddleboat rentals—as well as the Indiana State Museum, the NCAA Hall of Champions sports museum, and the Eiteljorg Museum, with one of the world’s largest collections of Native American and Western art. The park also houses Victory Field, home of minor league baseball’s Indianapolis Indians and a fun venue in warmer months, while diehard sports fans can take year-round tours of nearby Lucas Oil Stadium, host to the Colts, Super Bowl, College Football Championships, and NCAA Final Four.
It’s worth the ten-minute cab detour to the city’s top attraction, the museum within the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the “Brickyard,” home to the Indy 500. The museum offers various exhibits, events, and tours with some including a drive around the two-and-a-half-mile track.
Running northwest from downtown is the bike-friendly Cultural Trail and Massachusetts Avenue, which run into the Windsor Park neighborhood, home to 8th Day Distillery. Their current focus is gin and rum, but their long-term distribution plan includes whiskey, currently only sold on-site. “We started with whiskey on day one,” says co-founder Matt Lamping. “We have a limited amount of our high-rye bourbon available only here [at the distillery], and we just released our first 100% rye, aged in smaller barrels.” Their tasting room offers custom cocktails named for Indiana celebrities. Try the ABC, honoring the Indiana-born Jackson Five, with 8th Day bourbon, house-smoked maple syrup, and lemon.
With quick and casual service, Mimi Blue Meatballs has been around for nearly 80 years. Menu options include an eclectic mix-and-match slate of comfort foods, including brisket, sliders, and lots of gourmet meatballs with a choice of nine sauces. It’s on Mass. Ave., home to a rich concentration of bars, like Ball & Biscuit, Indy’s well-known artisan cocktail venue; Libertine, with seasonal drinks, whiskey tasting flights, and famous “$9 Angel’s Envy Manhattans always available;” and Liberty Street, with live music and a focus on historical cocktails, like the Sazerac, Collins, and Hemingway Daiquiri. Also on this stretch is the Wiseguy Lounge, better known as the “speakeasy at Goodfella’s pizzeria,” an unassuming bar that may very well have the city’s best bourbon library, with between 250-300 bottles.
Just northeast is the Kennedy-King neighborhood, named for the Landmark for Peace sculpture in Martin Luther King Memorial Park. This marks the site where Robert Kennedy gave his iconic oration the night of King’s assassination. The neighborhood is also home to West Fork Whiskey Co., which occupies a small storefront with two garage doors opening to the sidewalk. Behind one is the bar and tasting room, behind the other the still, separated by a glass wall affording a full view.
“Being in Indiana, we want to be corn-forward in all our mashbills,” said West Fork’s Blake Jones. They are one of the largest producers in the state and their whiskeys are widely available. They also produce small batches and release distillery-only bottlings in their Distiller’s Collection. Such efforts included a maple syrup cask-finished 100% corn whiskey, cider barrel-finished rye, and The Full Bird Colonel, their first cask-strength single barrel release. This is a twist on their permanent offering, The Colonel, a wheat-forward bourbon. Flights of three of their whiskeys cost just $8, as do all of their craft cocktails. Hungry? Order a panini from the kitchen at Cannon Ball Brewing Co. next door.
For a grand-finale dinner go to the city’s famous St. Elmo, a classic steak house since 1902. It’s old school, with dark wood, uniformed staff, and excellent dry-aged steaks, seafood, and pork and chicken from Indiana farms. Signatures of the house include a horseradish-laden, spicy shrimp cocktail and the Elmo Cola, which allows you to combine glass-bottled Coke or Diet Coke with house-infused bourbon (Italian Luxardo cherries and Madagascar vanilla beans steeped in Maker’s Mark) to your liking. What could be more hospitable than that?
Distilleries, Breweries & Cidery
8th Day Distillery 1125 E. Brookside Ave.
12.05 Distillery 636 Virginia Ave.
Cannon Ball Brewing Co. 1702 Bellefontaine St.
Fountain Square Brewery Taproom 1301 Barth Ave.
Hotel Tango Whiskey Tasting Room 702 Virginia Ave.
Hotel Tango Whiskey Production Distillery 1101 E. 16th St.
New Day Craft 1102 Prospect St.
West Fork Whiskey Co. 1660 Bellefontaine St.
Bars & Restaurants
Ball & Biscuit 331 Massachusetts Ave.
Café Patachou (downtown) 225 Washington St.
The Inferno Room 534 Virginia Ave.
Libertine 608 Massachusetts Ave.
Liberty Street 653 Massachusetts Ave.
Milktooth 534 Virginia Ave.
Mimi Blue Meatballs 870 Massachusetts Ave.
Plat 99 (The Alexander Hotel) 333 Delaware St.
St. Elmo Steak House 127 Illinois Ave.
Spoke & Steele 123 S. Illinois St.
Thunderbird 1127 Shelby St.
Wiseguy Lounge 545 Massachusetts Ave.
Eiteljorg Museum 500 W. Washington St.
Indiana State Museum 650 W. Washington St.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway & Museum 4790 W. 16th St.
Lucas Oil Stadium 500 S. Capitol Ave.
Martin Luther King Memorial Park 1701 Broadway St.
NCAA Hall of Champions 700 W. Washington St.
Victory Field 501 W. Maryland St.