On a recent Thursday night, nearly every seat at the Silver Dollar’s prodigiously long bar was taken. Three bartenders cracked open beers, poured shots and mixed cocktails in a constant churn set to old-school country music that spilled out of the open front doors of the former Frankfort Avenue fire station.
Reading the Silver Dollar’s drinks menu, you can easily fall into the vortex of its endless bourbon list. Avoiding that rookie error, I placed an order for a Woolworth’s Manhattan. Its version of the classic bourbon and vermouth cocktail includes house-made bitters and Cynar, an Italian bitter liqueur based on artichokes.
The bartender measured each ingredient into a jigger before pouring it into a shaker, adding ice, stirring with a long-handled spoon and shaking the entire concoction vigorously. Before straining it into a rocks glass, she dipped a black plastic straw into the drink and captured a drop, testing it to make sure it was just right.
Walk into any reasonably ambitious restaurant in Louisville and you stand a good chance of witnessing a similar display. The cocktail revival has been going strong in larger cities for the past decade or so, but only in the last several years have bartenders in Louisville started studying the classics, making their own syrups and bitters, even carving their own ice.
The Corpse Reviver
Kyle Higgins, an amiable young man with short dark hair and longish stubble, sat at the bar at Meat, the cocktail lounge on Washington Street in Butchertown.
Meat is one of the city’s only cocktail-centric bars that’s not part of a restaurant. Its cocktail menu is arranged from simplest to most complex and from sweetest to driest, making it easier for the uninitiated to find a drink he or she will like, according to bar manager Marie Zahn.
Like most servers and bartenders, Higgins has worked a lot of gigs. Sometime in the last decade, he got tired of serving what he calls “disco drinks” — vodka and a mixer. “You never poured gin, you never poured whiskey,” he said.
But the revelation came when Higgins met Larry Rice and Jared Schubert, who built the bar program at 732 Social, the now-defunct East Market Street restaurant that, along with Proof on Main, helped introduce the new style of craft cocktails to Louisville.
Schubert and Rice came from a standard bar background. “We started as shot and beer guys,” Schubert said. At the time, a few Louisville bars had rediscovered classic cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned, places like Jockey Silks at the Galt House, Jack’s Lounge and the Old Seelbach Bar.
But when Schubert and Rice had the opportunity to build a cocktail list for 732 Social, they traveled to Chicago to see what was happening in the larger cities, where the craft cocktail movement was already well under way.
While in Chicago, Schubert and Rice went to the Violet Hour, widely regarded as one of the country’s best cocktail bars. They watched the bartenders at work, with their obsessive technique, elaborate recipes and rows of house-made bitters.
Schubert and Rice came back to Louisville and set about learning everything they could about cocktails from books, blogs and YouTube. “It was just trial and error at first,” Rice said. “We would make the same drink 100 times before we figured it out.”
When 732 Social opened in early 2009, Rice, Schubert and Higgins were at the vanguard of serving cocktails that were both complex and consistent. But for all their unusual ingredients, the cocktails at Social were built on classic recipes and Prohibition-era favorites like the Corpse Reviver.
Their attention to ice was particularly novel — many drinks were served with a large, hand-cut ball of perfectly clear ice in the glass. This wasn’t an affectation, Higgins explained. “It’s not just about temperature,” he said, but dilution. The size and higher density of hand-carved ice slow down the melting process, keeping the drink from becoming too watery.
The creative approach at Proof on Main and 732 Social also proved influential for other Louisville restaurants. “More than just providing a service, we were creating a cocktail community,” Higgins said.
The Carpetbagger Julep
“You can’t unlearn things, and people in this industry migrate — it becomes like an infectious disease,” said Josh Durr, who travels the country as a cocktail consultant and tends bar one night a week at the St. Charles Exchange on Seventh Street.
With the intensity of a connoisseur and the patter of a salesman, Durr described the spread of serious cocktails in the last several years. After the demise of 732 Social in fall 2011, “it just kind of branched off everywhere,” he said.
Durr sat at St. Charles’ long bar, which with its huge mirror and heavy dark wood, mimics the look of a turn-of-the-century hotel bar. Nattily dressed bartenders mixed drinks from the extensive menu of cocktails and punches with precision and unhurried grace.
There was a time — six or seven years ago — when Durr was one of the only bartenders in Louisville interested in what he calls craft cocktails.
“It’s kind of weird because I was the nerdy kid in the room and now it’s trendy,” he said.
St. Charles Exchange may have taken the cocktail to its most extreme form in Louisville — its punches involved about 10 ingredients each. Lined up on the bar in front of the stations are rows of house-made syrups and bitters.
Bartenders arrive hours before their shift to carve ice into balls. While at their stations they also have long-lasting cubes of ice from a machine called a Kold-Draft for shaken cocktails, as well as pebbled ice for juleps. Behind each bartender is a cooler storing chilled cocktail glasses in various sizes and shapes.
To manage the bar, St. Charles’ local owners brought in a team from the renowned Philadelphia cocktail bar the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. (the name, according to their website, comes from a company that served as a front for a bootlegging operation during Prohibition).
Al Sotack, the head bartender at the Franklin, explained that many of the cocktails on the St. Charles list originally debuted in the Philadelphia bar, with a couple of innovations just for Louisville, like the Carpetbagger Julep, which uses rye instead of bourbon.
Despite the turn-of-the-century touches, the cut-glass punch bowls and the bartenders tricked out in ties and pomade, Sotack defended the bar — and by extension, the entire craft cocktail movement — against charges of nostalgia.
“I like to think we do things for a reason, and not just for nostalgia,” Sotack said.
Instead, cocktail artisans look to the days before the repeal of Prohibition for guidance because standards were higher then. “The fact that 100 years ago they would have been using all fresh juices, I think is preferable,” Sotack said.
The Bourbini vs. a beer and a shot
For a restaurant opening now, a well-designed cocktail list is almost as important as the food. “I would say 100 percent, from here on out you need a cocktail list or you’re going to look like an idiot,” said Jacquelyn Pobst, the bar manager for Doc Crow’s on Main Street and La Coop on East Market (the restaurants’ part-owners, Michael and Steven Ton, were also initially involved with 732 Social).
Pobst revamped Doc Crow’s cocktail list last month in response to her observations about the clientele for cocktails — largely out-of-towners, largely female, many of whom would fall back on the familiar cosmopolitan if the ingredients on the list seemed too unfamiliar.
“What I did was gear everything toward women, but try to get women onto bourbon in comfortable ways,” Pobst said. The Bourbini, for example, adds bourbon to a Bellini. “Everything is done in a way that makes it pink or pretty.”
And so far it’s working. “The cocktails in the new list have sold more in the past three weeks than the ones on the old list sold in the past five months,” she said.
More than a list, however, new restaurants need an organizing concept to distinguish themselves from the competition. For La Coop, a French-style bistro, Pobst designed a cocktail list in which each drink involved some sort of wine.
Rye and Decca, two other recent entrants to the East Market Street corridor, both feature cocktail lists strong enough to justify choosing to sit at the bar instead of waiting for a table.
At Decca, Clay Reynolds — who splits his time between Louisville and restaurants in San Francisco — built a cocktail list that reflected the restaurant’s interest in simplicity and quality. He described the ethos as “simpler cocktails crafted well so that the ingredients don’t get lost in the shuffle.”
After some learning on the job at Rye — Doug Petry, the head bartender, recalled serving strawberries in wintertime until the restaurant’s chef set him straight — the cocktail list has evolved to match the kitchen’s influence on seasonal ingredients.
The same philosophy guides the bar at Proof on Main, according to Rachel Cutler, the general manager. “The same way we treat our food, we should be treating cocktails: layers of flavor, complexity, fresh ingredients,” she said.
The Silver Dollar, which Rice opened with partners from the Violet Hour after 732 Social closed, takes a stripped-down approach. The cocktail list has just eight entries, all of which have between three and five ingredients.
With its long bar, crowd-pleasing menu and honky-tonk aesthetic, the Silver Dollar aims to be more crowd-pleasing than 732 Social. “We really want to turn as many people on as possible to what we do,” Rice said.
Still, Rice added, the drinks at the Silver Dollar are still made to “the same standards that we had, we just wanted it to be a lot more approachable for people.”
For all the passion and creativity involved in crafting cocktails behind the bar at places like St. Charles Exchange or Meat, many of the bartenders expressed a preference for simpler beverages.
“I traditionally don’t drink cocktails,” Schubert said. “I’m a drinker of instant gratification: beer and a shot.”
“Most of us are like that.”