Bourbon's oasis

Four years after it opened the Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge is an island of quality in a sea of garish neon. Our man took refuge there
By Rob Allanson
Louisville’s Fourth Street is a disturbing glance in to a nightmare future. It serves as a reminder as to what might happen if the anti-alcohol lobby across the world gets its way and starts to introduce cultural apartheid in our city centres.

Louisville is, of course, the capital of Kentucky, the home of bourbon. It’s a quirky city nestling up on the southern shores of the Ohio River, and is known as the gateway to the south.

Ever since the pioneering days when frontier men, hardened drinkers and gamblers, would carouse the night away on gambling ships, it has always had a rebellious heart.

It was here that Louisville son Muhammad Ali threw his Olympics medal into the Ohio’s brooding waters, and from here that the great names of bourbon set up the companies that would define bourbon in to the 21st century.

And it has always had a healthy college fraternity, boasting two of the country’s best college football teams and a social scene that spawned a world class record store called Ear-Xtasy and a plethora of wonderful casual bars and diners.

Fourth Street Live, though, is an attempt to sanitise any form of individuality and spirit. It is sited just a few metres from the legendary Seelbach Hotel and at night it is a garish hell hole of multi-million dollar theme outlets such as the Chicago Rock Café on an artificial, covered street policed by security folk with a set of rules that includes the instruction that it is not acceptable to wear your baseball cap the wrong way round or wear excessively baggy clothing.

Now I wonder who exactly this might be aimed at?

The concept is aimed fully at the tourist, visitors to the city who prefer to wander out of their city centre hotels and have their social life handed to them on a plate. Trouble is, only those companies with mammoth budgets can run venues here, so it’s populated by global giants.

And as it’s a magnet for the casual visitor, it’s sucking life out of the suburbs where smaller, more individualistic bars and restaurants are struggling to survive. So great is the threat to the personality of Louisville that they launched a ‘keep Louisville weird’ campaign.

So has Louisville lost its heart and soul? Is it just another American city serving flat Bud and Jack Daniel’s?

Hell no. Amazingly, quite the reverse. In fact Louisville seems to be evolving in to a majestic city for fine dining.

Take Rivue (geddit?), a revolving restaurant high above one of the more stylish downtown hotels overlooking the river.

I’m told that a few years back it was a disaster; its decor consisted of very expensive naval and maritime tat gaudily assembled behind the back of the taste police.

It revolved so fast that people got sea-sick and had to get off.The food was incidental.

Now it’s a study in polite charm, a gentle, stylish and thoroughly ambient exercise in fine dining. That said, though, the waitresses seemed to drop trays at an alarmingly frequent rate.

And if that’s all too upmarket for you, then stroll down to the Ohio, past the old Kentucky Belle steam boat and up to Joe’s Crab Shack, an creaking end of pier diner with MTV on the myriad of television screens, and a nice line in firey shrimps and crabs.

The tourist authorities would not approve, but sitting on a table overlooking the Ohio watching the freight boats passing by is as good a way to spend lunch as any.

So perhaps the travel tip should be to avoid Fourth Street Live altogether, eat lunch at Joe’s and pick one of Louisville’s finer restaurants in the evening.

Not quite. Because Fourth Street does have one sparkling crown of a venue at its heart – the Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and Lounge.

The venue is modern, minimalist and with light wood and stylish furniture.You enter past a spectacular backlit bottle wall containing Maker’s bottles, and the centre piece of the venue is a bar more than 15 metres long and boasting a selection of more than 100 bourbons.

Curtains allow privacy, and candles provide some of the atmospheric lighting, each placed in a vase dipped in the famous Maker’s red wax.

The lounge is a study in style, but at the same time there is nothing elitist about it. It specialises in catering for an eclectic mix of people, is deliberately friendly and informal, and it boasts a menu to suit all palates and budgets.

The food has been put together by celebrated chefs Anthony Lusiak and Al Paris, who made their name at Zanzibar Blue in Philadelphia, and it’s as good a representation of how to balance food with whiskey as you’ll find anywhere – and the pair always try to use some of the fine Kentucky spirit in their cooking to spectacular effect.

Nearly every dish cries its Kentucky roots but the meals are cosmopolitan and diverse enough to appeal to any sort of palate, American or otherwise.

It’s a tribute to its creators and it provides hope that even while cover bands are thrashing out versions of Alice Cooper and Kiss songs at the bar next door you can experience a taste of bluegrass Kentucky in the very heart of town.

And drink some of the world’s finest spirits in the place where they were created without feeling like an outcast.

So effective is it that when you venture back on to the street, it takes you a second to remember you’re on the main drag.

‘Keep Louisville weird’?

Amen to that. Thankfully, Maker’s is still doing its bit.

Sample dinner menu

Low country fried oysters

Cornmeal crusted, bourbon creamed corn with red pepper remoulade

Maker's shrimp cocktail

Spiced boiled shrimp,Maker’s cocktail and lime spice cream

Pan roasted breast of chicken

Bourbon brined, oyster stuffing, haricot verts with roasted shallots and bourbon cider reduction

Grilled salmon

Fresh Atlantic salmon, blackberry bourbon barbecue sauce, baby vegetables, celeriac puree

Hand-cut New York strip steak

All natural beef corn-fed, hand-cut 10 oz strip, mashed Yukon Gold potatoes,Kentucky blue cheese, bourbon demi-glace

18 oz bone in 'cowboy' ribeye

All natural corn-fed beef, served with home-made Maker’s Mark steak sauce, steak fries

Maker's Mark chocolate pecan pie

Chocolate Crust, surrounding an indulgent mixture of Maker’s Mark and pecans

Maker's Mark bourbon balls

Bourbon-spiked ganache, coated in dark chocolate, topped with a pecan


Maker’s Mark Bourbon House and Lounge
446 S Fourth St Louisville, Kentucky
Telephone: (01) 502 568 9009