Travel

The bar in the Bluegrass

Ken Hoskins visits Lousiville's Seelbach Hilton Hotel, where Al Capone gambled away his ill-gotten gains, F.Scott Fitzgerald became so drunk he was physically ejected and Max Allen Jr., Kentucky's legendary bartender, held court.
By Ken Hoskins
Whiskey, especially Kentucky’s bourbon whiskey, lost a true champion earlier this year with the passing of Max Allen Jr. The legendary bartender held court at Louisville’s venerable Seelbach Hilton Hotel touching the lives of many thousands of whiskey lovers throughout his 40-year career. Yet his spirit lives on in the mahogany, brass and glass grandeur of the darkly warm and inviting Old Seelbach Bar.The marble laden Seelbach was built by two German immigrant brothers, Louis and Otto Seelbach. It opened to a huge local fanfare in 1905 having cost, at that time, the ludicrously large sum of $950,000. It wasn’t long, however, before it began attracting the first of many national and international figures. Among them was F. Scott Fitzgerald, a young World War I soldier whose physical
ejection from the Seelbach for overimbibing didn’t stop him from using it as a locale in The Great Gatsby, his classic American novel of the roaring twenties.Another was Chicago mobster Al Capone who frequented Kentucky during the rough and tumble Prohibition era to maintain his supply of illegal whiskey. Today, Seelbach guests can dine where Capone gambled in ‘The Card Room’ just off the five diamond-rated Oakroom restaurant on the mezzanine.Max, who also had his own Dutch-door personal bar just outside the Oakroom, delighted in showing visitors to the Card Room and revealing that two of the corner mahogany panels were once doors that led to secret get away staircases, “just in case Mr. Capone needed to leave in a hurry.” Max also revelled in his Fitzgerald and Capone stories because his father Max ‘Scoopie’ Allen served both men during his tenure as bartender in the Seelbach’s ornate basement Rathskeller from 1918 to 1922.Max’s grandfather was also a bartender, running his own pub in Louisville’s old Germantown neighbourhood. Small wonder the affable Max wound up wearing the apron too, mixing drinks all over the world before returning to Louisville and serving 33 years as head bartender at Hasenour’s, another fabled Louisville watering hole now long gone. He came to the Seelbach in 1996 as Seelbach Bartender Emeritus and immediately became an institution, a wonderful storyteller sought out by visiting journalists and whiskey-industry people alike. But even as he talked and talked, his concentration on making perfect drinks never strayed.Max hand squeezed his own fruit juices and would use nothing but the prized sterling silver bar tools his father left him. He even grew his own mint for Kentucky’s unique Mint Julep. Max said he stopped short of his Dad's meticulous standards in only one thing – Max Sr. insisted on chipping his own ice from a solid block. Max also had his own recipes for some classic whiskey cocktails, including the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and the Whiskey Sour. Fortunately, Max’s dedication to the art of bartending and his love of the Seelbach were widely recognised before his untimely death last March at just 61 years old.He was 1997 International Bartender of the Year and he had been featured in Food & Wine Magazine, Bon Appetit, Food Arts, Bartender Magazine, Drinks International, Nation’s Restaurant News and Wine, and Spirits Magazine. In addition, scores of foreign journalists
visiting Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries wrote their own Max Allen tales after a bourbon-filled evening at the Seelbach.“Max had a dream to leave a legacy,” said Seelbach General Manager Larry Hollingsworth. “He fulfilled this dream before he left us. Max was a world-class intellect. He knew more about his business than anyone else, ever.”For those lucky enough to have known Max and for all those who missed out, the Seelbach continues to present a unique whiskey experience. Adam Seger, Director of Restaurants, has initiated The Society of Seelbach Bourbon Connoisseurs “for those seeking to be enlightened, enriched and delighted by sipping the finest Kentucky bourbon, America's native spirit.”Certified members will have sampled each of the Seelbach’s 44 bourbons, each personally selected by Max and Adam in
consultation with drinks writers Gary and Mardee Haiden Regan. The 44 choices range from the simple pleasures of Four Roses, Jim Beam 4-year-old and Old Forester to the more exotic single-barrel offerings from Blanton’s and Evan Williams, as well as the 20 and 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve.Although Seger wants the Old Seelbach “to be the best bourbon bar anywhere,” he also wants to ensure that it pays more than lip service to the other whiskies of the world. Consequently, the bar currently features 23 Scotches, 3 Irish and 8 other U.S. and Canadian blended whiskies.
The Scotches run the gamut from Dewar’s White Label and Cutty Sark to Chivas Regal 12-year-old, Oban 14-year-old and Laphroaig 15-year-old and on to Glenmorangie Vintage 1971, Knockando 21-year-old and The Macallan 25-year-old Anniversary. Old Bushmills, Jameson and Black Bush Blended Irish Malt are the only Emerald Isle offerings.Seger's efforts, just like Max’s, seem to be paying dividends for this stately old Hilton hotel. The British newspaper, The Independent, named the Old Seelbach Bar one of “The 50 Best Bars in The World”earlier this year and Food & Wine Magazine has called it “one of the finest stretches of mahogany in the country.” When passing through the Bluegrass, it certainly is a must stop for those of us who enjoy our corn, barley, rye or wheat in liquid form.