Fear and snacking in Louisville

Fear and snacking in Louisville

Liza Weisstuch finds a wonderful weirdness in Bourbon country

Travel | 27 Apr 2012 | Issue 103 | By Liza Weisstuch

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At Rye, a bar on Louisville’s bustling Market Street, you can get a world class, ultra-hoppy IPA on draft. At the Silver Dollar, you can get a giant chicken-fried steak or pillow-y empanadas. And at Meat, you can take wasabi peas and peanut butter-filled pretzels from glass jars. There’s a veritable endless supply of snacks if you’re inclined to nosh. I’m not generally inclined to nosh, but I did. How else to sustain myself as I tasted my way through the thoughtful, creative drink list? I certainly couldn’t abort my mission after my second drink, the Smoked Hickory Stick (Old Forrester Signature, Fernet Branca, luxardo, lemon chips).

Meat opened in October on a remote, industrial patch of Louisville’s Butchertown district (get it?), a neighbourhood settled in the 1820s by German immigrants. My friend and I walked past the entrance to Blind Pig, a tranquil bar on the ground floor with stylish brick walls, shelves crammed with Bourbon. We slipped around the grey building’ side, up narrow outdoor stairs, along a hallway toward a glass-enclosed, dramatically lit curing room, slabs of pork suspended like kids dangling from a jungle gym, and through a heavy curtain. The room beyond is dark and lounge-like: couches, candles perched on glass tables, antique lamps. The “tower of treats” on the bar.

“We resisted the ‘speakeasy’ description. We want to be of Louisville, not emulate places we’ve seen in Chicago or New York,” Peyton Ray, a co-owner Louisville native, tells me. Thus the portraits of former mayors on the walls. “We’re a hideaway. We wanna reinforce that feeling that you’re walking into a weird place, but your destination is beyond that.”

I was struck by Ray’s use of the word “weird.”

It reminded me of the wisdom of another native son, the inspired maniac who left a legacy of giddy recklessness. Hunter S. Thompson, godfather of Gonzo, famously noted: “When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.”

Hunter S. Thompson famously noted: “When the going gets weird, the weird go pro”

Louisville has come a long way from the days of the ubiquitous whiskey-sloshed saloon. Kentucky Bourbon flows freely in the planet’s most fashionable bars. Now Bourbon country’s locals have decided it’s time to bring that stylishness home. But what’s most noteworthy about this new generation of bars is they show how classy and casual go hand-in-hand. Looking for a hushed den where imbibers go to worship mixologists, deliverers of intoxicating salvation? Go somewhere else. No matter how lavish and impressive the cocktail gets, the bars are defined by casual conviviality, Kentucky’s trademark.

And few places are more convivial than The Silver Dollar, which opened in November in a building that was a firehouse from 1890 to 2009. Fire poles still stand. I’d heard it referred to as a “gastro-honky-tonk.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a better description. My friend and I settled at a thick wood table, the wood reclaimed from the Old Crow distillery. Same goes for the 42-foot bar. Those shelves behind the bar?Same. The record player under those shelves? Who can deny it: rockabilly sounds better on vinyl.

Co-owner Larry Rice tells it, Silver Dollar is an homage to Bakersfield, an area in Southern California settled around the Great Depression by migrant workers who travelled from the Dust Bowl. It’s historically known as the “Nashville of the West.” It inspired Hank Williams’s twang. Merle Haggard was a native son. The Bakersfield sound they developed was a rowdy response to the Nashville’s sanitized, formulaic country. The Bakersfield sound that blared in juke joints is raw, exhilarating honky-tonk that makes you want to drink whiskey and listen to cowboys’ yarns. That music blares here.

Bartenders pour $3 shot-of-the-day specials. They wax rhapsodic about the finer details of rare bottlings of Bourbon. They brightens up standard cocktails like the Manhattan with housemade root beer bitters.

Mike Rubel, head bartender who comes from Chicago’s famed Violet Hour, is what Rice proudly calls a “Bourbon savant.”

Bakersfield, mind you, is near Mexico, so it’s fitting that there’s an ample selection of tequila and mezcal. It goes well with the hickory-smoked beef brisket. And those empanadas. You might call the menu Lex-Mex. Everything is thoughtfully prepared by a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, including the assortment of sauces. I wish every restaurant had a bottle of deliciously piquant Mexican arbol waiting for me on the table like they did here.

“It’s farm-to-table, but we don’t wanna put all those buzzwords on the menu. We don’t wanna sound pretentious,” Rice tells me.

If this sounds too staged, rest assured none of it feels that way. But I should note that I found more minimalistic charm at Rye, a sepia-toned space with exposed brick and a killer playlist that runs the gamut from vintage punk to trip-hop to Brit pop.

Unobtrusive bartenders make drinks from a list that is decidedly not precious.

Consider ‘The Shit’ – Plymouth Gin, chili-lime syrup, lemon. Or opt for that ultra-hoppy IPA from California’s Green Flash.

The Bourbon will still be there next time.
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