A quick recap, because although it is a highlight of my life, it might not be one of yours: In the fall of 2015, our fine mayor, Greg Fischer, tweeted me a mission I chose to accept. “Craft a column on the top five Old Fashioneds in Louisville,” he wrote. “It’s our city’s official cocktail.”
My reward for such a grueling challenge was a key to the city, which I had been begging for long before he stepped into the role of mayor. I assembled a special team of bourbon drinkers who boasted sophisticated palates, and off we went, unearthing the Top 5 Old Fashioneds in Louisville (plus a bonus one).
If you recall, my list included Bourbons Bistro, Silver Dollar, the now defunct Fontleroy’s, Jack’s Lounge/Equus, Decca and Jockey Silks. And almost immediately, you fine yet picky people of Louisville kindly let me know of all the places I missed. While I received some sincere compliments and the key to the city, mind you, many questioned my picks and called me names.
The mayor was grateful, but even he wanted more. Last time I ran into him, at the Whisky Live event this summer, he demanded, “When are you going to update your list? We’d like to know of more places with great Old Fashioneds. Bourbonism.”
Who knew this assignment was ongoing?
I took my time with this new list, and while your favorites still might not be included, please know I plan on updating it at least once a year. These also do not replace the first Top 5 — some were better, some not so much — but are merely more suggestions of places to enjoy the city’s official cocktail.
So here, Mr. Mayor, just in time for Christmas, is another list of the Top 5 Old Fashioneds in Louisville (plus a bonus one). Think of it as a Top 5 Part 2.
1) Haymarket Whiskey Bar — 331 E. Market St.
Of course one of the city’s top bourbon bars is going to have a great Old Fashioned, especially when owner Matthew Landan puts down his dinner to handcraft the perfect blend of sugar, bitters and bourbon. I’m betting he could make this drink in his sleep, yet the attention to detail every step of the way made me feel like he was concocting a masterpiece just for me.
Landan believes balance is everything with an Old Fashioned, and his method involved muddling oranges, cherries and sugar cubes — with a spritz of soda to help break down the sugar — before adding the 90-proof Buffalo Trace bourbon. Haymarket marinates its cherries in rye whiskey, which only adds to the delectable drinking experience. At an affordable $8, this was one of my favorites on this list.
2) Proof on Main — 702 W. Main St.
When I asked Proof’s beverage director, Chea Beckley, what makes a perfect Old Fashioned, he looked at me as if Kentucky had just beaten Louisville in football. “You will find a lot of different answers to this question depending upon who you ask — even at the same bar,” he said.
And I have found that to be true throughout this mayoral assignment.
Proof’s version is simpler and cleaner, with no muddling or floating debris. Since they make their own simple syrup, they use that instead of actual sugar cubes, and the only garnish they add is a small orange peel. One way is not better than the other — they’re just two ways of making the same drink.
Bartender Dane Durane also believes it’s all about the balance. “I want to taste all the things,” he said. “The bourbon or whiskey should be around 100 proof to stand up against sugar and bitters.”
Durane chose Henry McKenna Single Barrel 10-Year, one of the oldest Bottled-in-Bond bourbons out there. At 100 proof, the bourbon definitely found its spotlight and was the star of this talent show in a glass.
As an added bonus — and to kill a little time away from the office — Beckley also made me a rye-heavy Old Fashioned for comparison, using Michter’s Single Barrel Rye Whiskey. It was definitely more robust and had a complex Riverdance of flavors going on in my mouth. The spice was nice and the sweet came with some heat. I’d recommend it to anyone who thinks cocktails are only for ladies.
3) Mr. Lee’s — 935 Goss Ave.
I have a feeling they keep it so dark in Mr. Lee’s, the new cocktail bar in Germantown, so you can focus on other senses — mainly taste. Their House Smoked Old Fashioned was beautiful, a blend of Lapsang Souchong (black tea), Angostura bitters and Buffalo Trace bourbon.
With just a touch of smoke, this drink was one of the most unique I’ve encountered.
Bartender Casey Kraft certainly knows his craft, and his take on the city’s cocktail should be served at every Zoning Board of Appeals meeting.
4) Sidebar at Whiskey Row — 129 N. Second St.
Sidebar’s Old Fashioneds are somewhat different and even more flavorful because of their barrel-aged program. The bar takes various bourbons and whiskies and puts them into baby oak barrels, which infuses even more flavors into the spirit, like vanilla, caramel and oak.
My drink was made with Old Forester Signature, a 100 proof everyday bourbon I always have on my bar at home. It was absolutely delicious — the bourbon mingled with the sugar and bitters as if it was a second date.
It made me wish that I, too, could make it to a second date some day and take that bourbon-loving person to Sidebar.
5) Marketplace Restaurant at Theater Square — 651 S. Fourth St.
For your standard Old Fashioned — if there is such a thing — you can’t go wrong at Marketplace. Made with regular Old Forester, at 86 proof, simple syrup, bitters and an orange peel, it didn’t knock me off my bar stool, but yet I still savored every drop.
The ambiance at Marketplace is cool and sophisticated, and I felt those sensations bubbling to the surface as I held court at the bar. I felt like a flapper girl sans the feathered headband and long cigarette, if flapper girls wore jeans and a black Lauren Conrad jacket from Kohl’s.
6) Volare Ristorante — 2300 Frankfort Ave.
Volare is the quintessential first-date restaurant because it’s dark, chic, swanky — and sometimes there are sexy tunes sung by Robbie “Mustang Sally” Bartlett. So I guess that’s why it’s never on my radar.
The bartenders are there to whip up cocktails that drown nerves and spark conversation. And their version of the Old Fashioned was spot-on the night I swung by to get my Urban Bourbon Trail passport stamped.
I believe it was made with Benchmark bourbon, an affordable offering out of Buffalo Trace Distillery, and it was pretty standard and tasty.