Shaken Up and Stirred
In addition to being the official start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Louisville is home to a number of cocktail bars that are putting an imaginative spin on the region’s well-known spirit.
“Oh!” Brent Elliott exclaims, his eyes lighting up after he takes a sip of the Double Sided Tape, a bourbon and scotch cocktail served at Proof on Main (proofonmain.com) in Louisville. “I should have ordered that.”
When it comes to cocktails that feature Kentucky’s flagship spirit, Elliott—like many master distillers along the bourbon trail—is a traditionalist. The master distiller and director of quality at Four Roses Bourbon typically orders an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, even when more inventive and decidedly modernist bourbon libations grace the menu. Elliott isn’t opposed to creative cocktails, but on the topic of wildly inventive concoctions where bourbon is just one of many ingredients, the longtime whiskey-maker is a skeptic. He simply believes a bourbon cocktail should taste like bourbon.
In Elliott’s estimation, the Double Sided Tape succeeds, even though it also features a sherry-finished blended scotch and an aromatic liqueur made from sweet and bitter orange peels. As he acknowledges, bourbon isn’t the most dominant flavor in the cocktail, but it’s an integral part of the drink’s structure.
That bourbon can serve as the nucleus of a creative cocktail is no surprise to Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve Distillery, who talks of bartenders as artists and positions bourbon as the spirit that provides them with the broadest palate of colors with which to paint.
“A good bourbon,” he says, “will have spice notes—if it includes rye in its recipe—fruit character from the fermentation, sweet aromatics from the wood barrel, oaky notes from a barrel’s char, and grain character. It is the most versatile of all spirits.”
For creative takes on bourbon—shaken or stirred—Morris recommends a visit to Hell or High Water (hellorhighwaterbar.com), a speakeasy on Whiskey Row in downtown Louisville. “In this area there are a lot of [bars that serve] straightforward cocktails that highlight bourbon,” says Sean Gardner, Hell or High Water’s general manager. “We strive to see how bourbon fits in with other traditions.”
Case in point: the Fast Track, a Hell or High Water best-seller that marries bourbon with Islay Scotch, amaretto, pear liqueur, a peppercorn reduction, and Corazón bitters. It’s served on the rocks with a lemon twist, but the cocktail begins with a glass that’s smoked at the bar using oak chips. “It gives it a great, smoky aroma that highlights what’s going on with the scotch and also brings out the toasted notes from the bourbon barrel,” Gardner explains. “It’s also a distinct experience. When you see something being lit on fire at the bar, it definitely grabs your attention.”
For creative bourbon cocktails not served at his own establishment, Gardner walks 20 minutes east to Rye on Market (ryeonmarket.com), where Beverage Director Kelsey Hofmann doesn’t shy away from unexpected flavor combinations. As proof, Hofmann shakes up a wheated-bourbon-and-banana-liqueur concoction appropriately named B-a-n-a-n-a-s.
It’s a cocktail that also incorporates a rich jasmine green tea syrup, overproof Jamaican rum, and lime juice. “I wanted to make a whiskey cocktail that was fun and friendly for whiskey drinkers and non-whiskey drinkers,” Hofmann says. “The bourbon is the base spirit, but this is just a different perspective on a bourbon cocktail. Instead of focusing on [traditional] caramel and orange notes, this focuses on the lighter tropical notes, like banana and coconut, which you’ll find when you taste something that has aged in a barrel.”