My favorite dive and music bar is spacious, welcoming Odeon Louisville…, the kind of spot that recalls East Nashville, where local musicians jam in a midcentury living room setting, warmed by shag carpeting and a roaring fireplace. It’s not about the drinks so much as communal space and “slice of life.”
Frequenting US cities and countries has been one of the privileges of my work in food and drink, and Louisville has been a regular work destination for over a decade. There I’ve judged spirits, toured distilleries and extensively researched the city’s restaurants and bars. I’ve also delved into regions and distilleries surrounding, from Bardstown to Lexington. Louisville had a growth spurt a few years back on the restaurant/bar side, but the last couple years pre-pandemic slowed down to a spare few notable newcomers a year.
Though not known nationally as a city pushing boundaries on the food and bar front, Louisville’s “bests” have been holding steady, and new openings have added a few splashes of color. The city holds a few superb dive bars, like The Pearl of Germantown (https://www.facebook.com/thepearlofgermantown/) (no word when I reached out to them on when they would be reopening) or beer nirvana from the one, the only, Sergio Ribenboim of Sergio’s World Beers (http://www.sergiosworldbeers.com/). My favorite dive and music bar is spacious, welcoming Odeon Louisville (http://www.odeonlouisville.com/), the kind of spot that recalls East Nashville, where local musicians jam in a midcentury living room setting, warmed by shag carpeting and a roaring fireplace. It’s not about the drinks so much as communal space and “slice of life.”
When it comes to historic bars, The Seelbach Bar (http://seelbachhilton.com), which never was a cocktail destination, has changed for the worse. Since its generic remodel, it’s now a typical-looking hotel bar with dreaded TVs making it feel more like the rest of 4th Street’s sporty, touristy bars. Even if its namesake cocktail turned out to be a fake (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/02/dining/seelbach-cocktail-louisville-fake.html) “classic” cocktail, the Seelbach is important because it’s over 100 years old — and was mentioned in The Great Gatsby, for goodness’ sake. I wish they’d kept the original decor, as stopping in for an occasional vintage whiskey was the main draw in that storied space. Sadly, it has become a place where the rich history has been whitewashed into the bland neutrality one finds in any hotel chain.
In 2019 in Distiller (https://distilling.com/distillermagazine/louisville-2-0), I wrote about Louisville’s distillery newcomers like Rabbit Hole and Copper & Kings (C&K), both showing a more modern style and, at C&K, going beyond bourbon and whiskey. This was happening alongside a spate of major, traditional brands opening downtown Louisville tasting rooms and working distilleries visitors could tour when not out on the Bourbon Trail. The biggest news since has been pandemic and its effects, which I cover in my article on page 14.
The last time I took a general look at Louisville in Distiller was 2014, so consider this an update on the Louisville scene. Here are 10 of the city’s best bars, both those opened in recent years and longtimers:
Alex&nder at Copper & Kings Distillery
Boundary-pushing brandy producer Copper & Kings was bought by Constellation Brands in fall 2020. The resulting changes have yet to be fully seen. Their rooftop bar, opened in 2018, is still a Louisville bar standout, especially with its COVID-friendly outdoors and lofty indoor bar, making it easy to spread out. Of course, their drinks feature Copper & Kings spirits, but as the line has grown beyond brandies and absinthe to include gin, orange curaçao, cocktail modifiers and more, there is a range to work with here, and they feature other spirit brands, local craft beers, wine by the glass and cocktails on draft. The menu lists a range of cocktail classics and changing house drinks like Paper Tiger (C&K’s American Craft Brandy, Plantation Pineapple Rum, chili lime shrub, pineapple juice, lime).
The Fat Lamb
Opened in 2016, The Fat Lamb is one of those rare Louisville spots that reminds me of the typical spot at home in San Francisco: a casual, quality restaurant centered around quality ingredients and technique from chef/owner Dallas McGarity with balanced cocktails (dishes include the likes of kimchi arancini or ricotta gnocchi in lamb ragu). Recent cocktail menus are a little COVID-simplified, with fewer drinks, heavy on variations of classics except for the Midnight in Paris (Wodka vodka, elderberry liqueur, lychee puree, lemon, butterfly pea flower tea). In the past, I savored creative cocktails like The Best Friend, infusing Copper & Kings Brandy with strawberry rhubarb, Amaro Nonino, lemon, Carpano Bianco vermouth and a touch of absinthe.
Jimmy Can’t Dance
While Jimmy Can’t Dance is more about the live jazz and music than it is about the drinks, they do right by drinks, too. As a New Orleans-inspired jazz bar that also hosts local and touring bands — like a Doors tribute band — the dim, underground space and live music certainly have suffered greatly under COVID-19. Thankfully, they are back with limited spacing/tickets for live shows. Expect classic cocktails alongside house drinks, like Swan & a Pistol: Cynar 70 Artichoke Amaro, Carpano Antica vermouth, thyme-infused fino sherry, Chareau aloe liqueur, seltzer water and lemon oil.
I’ve been heading to La Chasse bistro since 2015 for laid-back service, quality comfort food (think tarragon crab cakes, gruyere gratin, trout a la meunière) from exec chef Alex Dulaney and sous chef Eric Steele — and for Isaac Fox’s balanced, wide-ranging cocktails. Variations on classics, whether a Pisco Sour or Aviation, abound. But my eye goes straight for Fox’s welcome play with spirits you don’t often see in Kentucky or in the South. Examples: aquavit in Spring in Reykjavik (jalapeno-infused Svol Aquavit, dill syrup, grapefruit shrub, Aperol, lime) or the cleverly named Ooh, Mommy!, a savory martini twist with Polugar garlic and pepper bread wine, La Cigarrera Manzanilla Sherry, Japanese Umami Bitters, garnished with a pickled Calabrian chili. In pandemic, they launched takeout and delivery, employing their front of house staff (no third party delivery companies).
For years, Butchertown Grocery has been one of Louisville’s best restaurants, thanks to the vision of chef Bobby Benjamin. Set in a historic 1856 brick building, the restaurant and drinks hit on a number of fronts, whether in Benjamin’s creative salads (think greens, shallots, red grapes, manchego cheese in banyuls vinaigrette) or spot-on pastas like bucatini in bourbon barrel black pepper, white wine, parmigiano-reggiano cheese and shallots. In pandemic, it has switched to to-go mode while also adding a new in-house bakery. They had to lay off most of their staff, but they are slowly building back up, including on the bar side. Their truly transporting, seductive upstairs space — Lola — has remained closed, also a live music venue. The hope is they will be back open in fall 2021 with a revamped cocktail program employing culinary ingredients, cocktails inspired by Benjamin’s global travels and relationships with local growers who hail from other countries. Knowing the quality of what they have done for years, I expect this to be good.
The Silver Dollar
Inspired by a “1950s Bakersfield, California, honky-tonk,” The Silver Dollar has topped many a bar list nationally and been one of my regular Louisville haunts since it opened in 2011, especially for its tunes (vintage country records) and historic fire station vibe, accented by colored lights. While my beloved “Bakersfield Sound” and classic country vinyl plays in the background, their modern Southern food (think breaded catfish, beer-can hen, hickory-smoked beef brisket and California nods like chilaquiles verdes) and solid cocktails have often made the place feel like a party. To-go kits and takeout dominate in COVID times and the cocktail menu is agave- and whiskey-heavy, not so much about destination or creative drinks, but easy drinking, straightforward cocktails.
Proof on Main
A Louisville cocktail pioneer since 2006, well ahead of the general cocktail renaissance in this city, Proof on Main in the original 21c Museum Hotel has become a modern-day institution in Louisville. Colorful, bold art, wallpaper and a robust whiskey selection is all back in play as they reopened for dine-in and have held steady with curbside pick-up orders. House bottlings of whiskeys showcase their partnerships with Kentucky distilleries, while cocktails like No Spectators (bourbon, Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro, grapefruit rosemary cordial, lemon, Scotch spritz) highlight their deft use of whiskey in drinks. But they also play with all spirits and low-proof drinks. Case in point: drinks like Shoots & Leaves: manzanilla sherry, blackberry-sage-infused vermouth blanc, cherry blossom shoyu.
Olivia Rose Griffin is our bar manager interview this issue (page XX). Her whimsical, first-in-the-city tiki bar is already a Louisville treasure since opening in 2018. Moving from San Francisco to Louisville in 2014 to open her nearby hat and apparel shop, Mysterious Rack (which goes gangbusters around Derby), she packed The Limbo with vintage furniture, a jukebox, an outdoor patio and plenty of quirky charm. Griffin’s inviting, “come as you are” spirit draws in a wide range of people to drag shows, bingo, karaoke, live music and playful nights like “Titty Taco Tuesday.” Drinks — often served in tiki mugs with flowers and paraphernalia — run from classic tiki to bourbon- and rye-heavy variations, as well as fun specials like Yes, Daddy: mezcal, Triple Sec, beet juice, lime and jalapeno.
Under a glowing neon sign in downtown Louisville, Meta owner Jeremy Johnson was the bar manager interview in my 2014 coverage of Louisville bars for Distiller (http://distilling.uberflip.com/i/418806-distiller-winter14-u-pdf/113?). Though I still miss Jeremy’s former bar, Meat (my OG fave in Louisville , now Lola at Butchertown Grocery), Meta has been a regular destination when I am in town for quality cocktails, historic-chic space and DJ music. In pandemic, they’ve amped up to-go, curbside orders and some delivery. Bar manager Amy Fisher (who has been there since day one) works with Jeremy on simplified pandemic menus, opening a vibrant courtyard space in pandemic and managing spaced-out indoor patrons. They serve crushable drinks like Return of the Mack (aged rum, fino sherry, Carpano Bianco Vermouth, strawberries, basil, lime) and cleverly (musical) named beauties like Cut My Lime Into Pieces (This Is My Last Resort): gin, dry vermouth, velvet falernum, clarified lime, Suze, pulverized dehydrated lime & sugar and salt rim.
Hell or High Water
The speakeasy “trend” came late to Louisville, but when multiroom Hell or High Water opened early 2018, they did it right. Atmospheric and historic, the space’s dark woods, red velvet banquettes and nooks and corners immediately calls to us romantics. The cocktails have also been quality, and it’s the kind of space where conversation and calm reign. Sadly, HoHW has closed in pandemic but is staying afloat with cocktails, spirits, punch kits and single barrels for delivery or take-away. Cocktails change seasonally, but expect “High water” easy drinkers like Roman Holiday (Averell Damson Plum gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon, tonic) alongside spirituous “Hell” sippers, like Nod & a Wink (Russell’s Reserve house single barrel, chocolate-infused Cognac, Contratto Aperitif, PX sherry, black walnut bitters).