Part 3: Urban Bourbon and Off-the-Beaten-Path Beer
For the more serious drinking part of the Kentucky drinking trip, I was eager to explore the Urban Bourbon Trail, a loose confederation of watering holes promoted by the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau. The bureau set it up in 2008 just as this whole renaissance thing looked like it was really happening. When it was first launching, LCVB marketing and communications coordinator Jessica Dillree told me, her office had to actively seek out pubs to get on the list and into the stamp-ready Urban Bourbon Trail passport. Now, the LCVB is practically turning them away on account of the stipulation that a bar must be open for at least a year before it’s eligible for consideration. As of this writing, there are 27 stops on the trail. Some of those can be quite touristy, so it’s best to steer clear of those.
The Silver Dollar occupies the space of a restored late-19th-century firehouse (There’s even still a pole!) in the city’s Clifton neighborhood. If Louisville has a Williamsburg (of the hipster Brooklyn, not colonial Virginia variety), Clifton is it. That is not a bad thing. Look, no one loves to skewer the hipsters more than I, but you have to admit, they like to hang out in cool places. Not to mention, it’s more fun to make snarky remarks about them when they’re in such close proximity. Add to that the fact that the Silver Dollar provides the perfect introduction to the Louisville drinking scene and you’re in for a hell of an evening.
The Brooklyn comparisons pretty much end there, as nothing as massive as the Silver Dollar would even fit in the borough. It also features an impressively large backyard seating area with a welcoming garden vibe. So if the weather’s nice…
And I haven’t even mentioned the whiskey selection yet. The menu boasts more than 100 Kentucky bourbons and ryes and nothing from outside the commonwealth (as far as whiskey’s concerned). I’m looking at you, Tennessee.
Its list includes some whiskeys that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It’s also one of the few spots that has its own proprietary barrel program. Luckily, tasting pours are available for just about everything. And you’ve got to love a place whose URL is whiskeybythedrink.com.
The Silver Dollar makes a damned good mint julep. Don’t judge. I was in Kentucky and had to see what they were supposed to taste like, versus the knockoffs I’ve had for most of my adult drinking life. And it was on the cocktail menu. Most of the better bars in my neck of the woods don’t even put it in the right cup.
I decided to keep it neat after that, but I veered off the bourbon path a bit into the rye domain—Angel’s Envy rye to be precise. Its grain bill sports a hefty 95 percent rye and it sits for 18 months in Franco Caribbean rum casks. It’s that aging that gives it a distinct dessert-y nose, which balances the usually spicy rye profile.
Sadly, happy hour cannot last forever and it is time to move on. The next stop? Harvest restaurant and bar for more fine drink and some honest-to-goodness Southern farm-to-table fare. I had a glass of Old Pogue Master’s Select bourbon, paired with the “bbq board,” consisting of smoked hunter sausage, smoked baby back ribs, a crispy chicken thigh, sauce and vinegar dip. It’s served with a side of pickled jalapeño grits, potato salad and a spicy slaw. Yes, it’s as good as it sounds. No, actually, it’s better. And the best part about it is, this being farm-to-table and all, everything is raised within a 100-mile radius of Louisville. I’m not one to take pictures of my food,
but I just had to text my wife with an image of the glorious carnivorous array that was spread out before me. Oh, and dessert? Mint julep ICE CREAM!
If you’re lucky, like I was, and you visit Harvest on a night that resident mixologist Jason is working, you might be able to persuade him to fix you an item that no longer appears on the drink menu: the Fire Walker, a mix of Woodford Reserve, Antica Formula vermouth and Campari aged in natural wood lump charcoal for three weeks. Why charcoal? The mixology muse whispered it in his ear when he was laid up after burning his foot on, yes, charcoal.
Imagine trying to make a Manhattan and you were out of bourbon, but you had a bottle of a peaty Islay Scotch (Laphroaig, for instance). That should give you pretty good sense of the flavor profile.
Jason’s very proud of his cocktail program and if you can’t get the Fire Walker or you’re just not into smoky, there’s something for everyone. There’s Harvest’s take on a classic Old Fashioned, featuring Old Forester, muddled blueberries, sugar and BD’s black currant bitters. The Portland Avenue combines Bulleit Rye, Korbel Brandy, Carpano Sweet Vermouth, B&B, Peychauds and Angostura Bitters. Or try the Devereaux: muddled strawberries, BD’s barrel-aged sorghum bitters, sorghum syrup and Maker’s 46 bourbon.
Harvest is one of those places a person could hang out all night, just soaking in the hyper-local vibe. The dining room doubles as a shrine to Kentucky craftsmanship as artfully composed photo portraits of area farmers and artisans line the walls like the rock stars they are.
If you’re looking for a full-on art experience in Louisville, the place to get it is at the 21c Museum Hotel. Yes, it’s a museum (of the modern art variety) and a hotel and yes, it can be quite touristy for those two specific reasons—and it’s spitting distance from the Louisville Slugger museum, which certainly does not help. But I get a touch of cognitive dissonance about the place because it does have a pretty great bar that unfortunately—especially on the weekends—can attract a disproportionately large percentage of non-locals (The 60ish woman sitting next to me at the bar asked for a “Proshecco”). So should I write off Proof on Main entirely for that reason alone? I’m still not sure but I will say it’s got a fantastic bourbon list (but then again, what place really hasn’t got one in this town?) and some signature cocktails that definitely are worth trying.
It also plays on the somewhat avant-garde environs of its host hotel with fringe-y photo exhibits on the walls and a rather sinister-looking statue of a satyr perched on the edge of the bar nearest the door, beckoning drinkers in with that most biblically tempting of fruits in its hand, the apple.
Stay for a drink or two, maybe a neat bourbon and then perhaps Proof on Main’s signature cocktail, Death’s Grip, which consists of a syrup made from local Bluegrass Brewing Co.’s Darkstar Porter, toasted hazelnut cherry bitters and Old Granddad Bottled in Bond bourbon and garnished with a blackberry and lemon sliced pierced with a toothpick. It’s served in a stemmed glass. Another curious attraction is the men’s room. Yes, I said it. It features a rather elegant riff on the communal trough urinal with an even more novel twist: Its two-way glass enables gentlemen to do a bit of clandestine, unreciprocated people watching as they relieve themselves. Sorry, I can’t vouch for what goes on in the ladies’ room.
Across the street from Proof on Main is the large slice of classic elegance that is the St. Charles Exchange. Its walls and foundation are soaked in whiskey, as it’s housed in what was once the Bernheim Distillery during bourbon’s pre-renaissance heyday. There’s plenty of elbow room here, as the Exchange occupies about 3,800 square feet. The hardwood floors, exposed brick, art deco light fixtures and seemingly never-ending extra-long banquette give the bar and restaurant a Roaring ‘20s aura, while the back dining room features a wall made entirely of wooden barrel staves. The latter component and the extensive list of fifty-plus locally produced bourbons serve as a constant reminder that this is Kentucky (and don’t you ever forget it). A brick patio keeps things classy for those who want to bring the party outside.
For those not drinking their whiskey neat (I had a glass of Hirsch Small Batch), this is really the type of place to go for a slightly modern interpretation of age-old cocktails like the Manhattan or Old-Fashioned. Don’t order any fruity, day-glow drinks here!
Employees eschew the hipster irony that pervades much of the 2013 whiskey scene in favor of a dress-to-impress philosophy held over from a bygone era. The male bartender donned a solid black apron over an Oxford shirt finished with a dark necktie; the woman, a smart black dress.
However, if you don’t mind venturing into hipsterdom and don’t feel like trekking the two-plus miles back to the Silver Dollar, Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar has become a popular hangout among twenty-, thirty- and (a few) early-fortysomething locals—especially those who like their bourbon and peel-and-eat shrimp with a side of irony. “What’s that?” you ask. “Shrimp? Raw bar? Isn’t Kentucky land-locked (not counting rivers) and at least a nine-hour drive from the nearest ocean?”
Well, have you tracked a package at UPS.com and noticed that your shipment always seems to be coming from Louisville, Ky. at some point in its journey? That’s because the Worldport, the worldwide hub for UPS is located at Louisville airport. And that means the immediate region surrounding the hub is treated to some of the freshest seafood in the world. When a waitress tells a patron “All of our seafood is flown in fresh daily,” it’s very likely that it had a quick layover in Louisville. So, yes, it’s a raw bar and a pretty stellar one at that.
And by bar, I mean a very long and zig-zaggy affair the spans a good portion of the restaurant’s area. This is what one would call “a scene”—or, a “seen,” if you will, as many show up to be just that.
As far as the “ironic” part of Doc Crow’s is concerned, it’s mostly reserved for the “Southern Smokehouse” portion of the menu. That doesn’t mean it’s not good. Quite the contrary. The fried pork chop is absolutely worth sacrificing one’s firstborn. (Thankfully, it’s a lot more modestly priced than that.) But I just couldn’t get the sense that such culinary offerings were the designs of self-aware foodies trying to somehow get in touch with their Southern roots in between visits to foie gras festivals.
Being on Main Street, Doc Crow’s can be a little too accessible to undiscerning tourists. For a similar vibe that’s far from the Slugger-worshipping crowds, Hammerheads is a sure bet. It’s where many of the bartenders at most of the places I’ve mentioned hang out. It tilts a lot more on the divey side of the nightlife scale, but that’s a good thing. Getting there requires a cab, car or bike—I vote the latter; it’s cheapest and you’re less likely to kill someone. The neighborhood can be a bit of a puzzle. When I was pulling up to it I thought I was completely lost because it’s a mostly residential area. Only when I saw the full-size replica of a hammerhead shark hanging above the door did I realize I was in the right place. It’s a bit below street level, which, aside from the sparse décor, gives it a basement rec-room feel.
Regardless of what night you plan on going, expect to wait (its website explicitly states, “No Reservations, No Call Ahead”). And expect the staff to be cold and aloof about it—you know, hipsters. However, the wait’s definitely worth it, the patrons will be warm and you might even gain their immediate respect for being there at all as an out-of-towner, versus one of the easier-to-stumble-upon downtown spots. The menu features a lot of the (ironically prepared) Southern fare: shrimp & grits, chicken & waffles, crispy catfish sandwiches and traditional barbecue options like pulled pork, beef brisket and baby back ribs. There’s also the less-conventional bbq lamb ribs and the PBLT: pork belly, spring mix and tomato with sundried tomato aioli.
As for the drinking selection, I’d say this is the place to go if you want something other than bourbon or rye. Hammerheads is known for its beer selection, mostly regional and local crafts.
But, wait. Why am I talking about beer in bourbon land? Any traveler may eventually tire of America’s Native Spirit—there is such a thing as too much of a good thing—and a pale, a porter or an IPA might help reset the palate. More likely, though, there will be one wet blanket in a group of travelers who whines, “I don’t really like whiskey.” It happens. Luckily, the American craft beer movement hasn’t skipped over the greater Louisville area.
An easy, albeit lazy, option would be to stop for a few pints at Bluegrass Brewing Company’s downtown brewpub in the Main Street area. It’s a perfectly serviceable beer destination, if not particularly inspired, but expect the usual annoyances associated with bars so close to tourist sites.
For the more adventurous, I highly recommend hopping in a car—with a designated driver, of course—and cross the bridge into Indiana. About five miles over the border is New Albany, Ind., home to the aptly named New Albanian Brewing Co. There are two locations, the Bank Street Brew house and the Pizzeria & Public House. I suggest the latter; not only is the beer pretty phenomenal, but the cavernous pub really is a sight to behold. One room’s a veritable shrine to music that’s a little bit country, a lot rock ‘n’ roll. Among the wall adornments are a framed Rolling Stone cover commemorating Kurt Cobain’s death, a photo of Jimmy Carter on stage with Willie Nelson, the requisite iconic shot of Johnny Cash flipping off the audience and a blue toilet seat that’s purported to be from Jim Morrison’s famed Blue Bus. There’s a bit of human rights thrown in for good measure, with a framed cover of The Economist featuring Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison in 1990. Things get even more political in a somewhat secluded little nook that serves as a curious love letter to communism with images of Lenin, Marx and Mao decorating the walls.
Oh yeah, the beer. New Albanian’s range includes the likes of Elector Imperial Red Ale, Hoptimus Imperial IPA, Old 15-B robust brown porter and Bonfire of the Valkyries Smoked Black Lager.
No other brew, however, made me want to return time and again more than its Get Off My Lawn session IPA. The name alone
sums up what I love so much about this brewery. And the pizza’s pretty great too.
Speaking of grass, it’s time to hurry back to the neighboring state’s bluer pastures. Frankly, aside from spending an afternoon or evening at New Albanian, the reasons to leave Kentucky are few. The only other one I can think of is a need to escape the mayhem in May that is Derby weekend. I sympathize with locals who wish to do just that. Its not unlike the exodus of Münchners from Munich during Oktoberfest.
But if you’re actually visiting during the Kentucky Derby and looking for places to go, you’re reading the wrong book. From restaurants to bars to hotels—assuming you can get into any of those—it’s going to be gouge-a-palooza. I get the allure of wearing a funny hat at a horse race, but if you’re that into watching the equine extravaganza, mix a couple of mint juleps and host a viewing party from a safe distance—namely home.
If a city—or the state it’s in–is only worth visiting once a year, it’s not worth visiting at all. But that city is not Louisville, Kentucky.