The tweet came in at 7:33 a.m. on a Saturday morning, prompting my phone to buzz. My eyes could not yet open, much less focus, and I laid there in bed fighting off a mild hangover and wondering who on Earth would be texting or tweeting me before noon on a Saturday.
“Maybe it’s my mom alerting me that Bo Brady is back on ‘Days of Our Lives,'” I thought. “Or maybe it’s Gayle telling me she answered the ‘Jeopardy’ question right.” Both texts have happened — and more than once.
I rolled over and fell back asleep. Hangover: 1. Curiosity: 0. But at about 9:30, I decided to check my phone and see who the sleep bandit was. Well, I’ll be damned … the culprit was our very own Mayor Greg Fischer, responding to my final plea for the key to the city on this very website just a day before.
In that column, I pointed out to him that I helped bring nearly $5,000 to local businesses on one night with my annual pub crawl. But apparently — like trying to please my mother with good grades — that’s not enough. He threw out a challenge that would seal the deal: “Craft a column on the top 5 Old Fashioneds in Louisville. It’s our city’s official cocktail.”
I am quite familiar with the bourbon-centric cocktail — although I prefer Manhattans — and took on the assignment like an eager Girl Scout jonesing for a patch. I could write this column in my sleep, as long as the mayor refrained from early-morning tweets.
First, some background: An Old Fashioned is made with bourbon, bitters and sugar and is usually garnished with an orange peel and/or cherry. Some bartenders muddle the fruit with the sugar and bitters, and some don’t.
Mayor Fischer proclaimed the Old Fashioned our city’s signature drink back in June, and legend has it that it was invented right here in Louisville at the Pendennis Club in the 1880s.
Albert Schmid, a professor and director at Sullivan University, wrote a book on the cocktail, appropriately titled “The Old Fashioned,” in 2013. So I gave him a call to get the rundown of what makes a decent Old Fashioned.
“The big question regarding Old Fashioneds is to muddle or not to muddle,” he says, adding that he prefers his not muddled. He also says the bartender is the key ingredient to a good drink. “If you can find a bartender who can make a classic cocktail well, they are worth their weight in gold.”
Schmid says he tends to like his Old Fashioneds made with high-rye bourbons that are also high in proof — at least 100 proof — and an easy way to make sure you’re getting a quality bourbon is to just ask for one that’s bottled in bond.
So now that I had my cheat sheet, I made a list of places I knew would concoct an incredible Old Fashioned. The mayor asked for five, but my list of possible spots neared a dozen. It’s not cheap drinking high-end cocktails all night long, so I decided to stick as close to the assignment as I could and keep it at five — plus a bonus one for brownie points.
The list below is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to quality Old Fashioneds in Louisville, as you can order the cocktail at any bar with good bourbon and bitters. I tried to spread out the love geographically, which made it hard choosing one or two in the downtown sector. Although they weren’t included this round, I hear Meta, Down One Bourbon Bar, Sidebar, Old Seelbach Bar, Proof on Main, Rye and Haymarket Whiskey Bar all have incredible Old Fashioneds — and I apologize for not getting to them, but my liver simply wouldn’t allow it.
So here, Mr. Mayor, are your Top 5 + 1 Old Fashioneds in Louisville:
1) Bourbons Bistro — 2255 Frankfort Ave. — $10
The guys at Bourbons know exactly how to make a perfect Old Fashioned, and they like to modify the recipe from time to time — without losing its classic taste, of course. Bartender Jeff whipped up their popular Maple Bacon Old Fashioned, which was my favorite by far. It may sound super sweet, but Jeff used a high-proof Knob Creek, and the flavors of maple and bacon were mere whispers of an aftertaste. Like a proper Kentucky lady, I like bourbon to be the first thing I taste in any drink — yes, even margaritas! (FYI: Bourbons is also offering a Pumpkin Pie Old Fashioned that was delicious, and I tend not to like anything pumpkin.)
2) Silver Dollar — 1761 Frankfort Ave. — $9
If John Wayne ordered cocktails, you’d find him perched at the Silver Dollar bar. Their drinks are simple yet classic. No need to muddle the Old Fashioneds here, because they don’t even use fruit. Bartender Meagan crafted a mighty fine version with W.L. Weller Antique, also a high-proof bourbon. And they get bonus points for having the best ice.
3) Fontleroy’s — 2011 Grinstead Drive — $7.50
This new bar and restaurant has an exquisite cocktail program, and it’s worth checking out even if you just want to grab a drink and an order of deviled eggs. Named after James Fontleroy Grinstead — who was mayor of Louisville from 1907-1909 and would most definitely have given me the key back then — the gastropub did some major renovations to the space that once housed Uncle Maddio’s Pizza in the Highlands. Bartender Jimmy went right to work whipping up a fashionable Old Forester Old Fashioned, and his spin on the cocktail uses brown sugar instead of the traditional white. He muddled his ingredients — including Amarena cherries marinated in bourbon — and served the drink in a square glass. Cool!
4) Jack’s Lounge/Equus — 122 Sears Ave. — $8
This swanky little joint always offers up fine cocktails, and they didn’t disappoint with the mayor’s challenge. Bartender Richard let me pick the bourbon, so I chose the 100-proof Old Forester Signature, one of my favorites, and it made for a nice, classic, bourbon-forward Old Fashioned.
5) Decca — 812 E. Market St. — $10
Decca’s cellar bar offers a nice, hip place to chill out. When life’s surface issues start to churn your chi, it’s best to retreat underground — at least that’s what they thought in the ’50s when they built all those bomb shelters. Laura mixed up a solid Old Fashioned with Michter’s Small Batch (91 proof), muddling the fruit with the bitters and sugar. She then topped it with soda, which I didn’t quite care for but might make these bourbon-y drinks easier on the palate for someone from, say, Ohio. It was delectable nonetheless, and I sucked it down in about 10 minutes.
6) Jockey Silks — 140 N. Fourth St. (inside the Galt House) — $8
Jockey Silks is one of my favorite bourbon bars in all of Louisville, mainly because I consider it my own private sanctuary. Bartender Lucas said Old Fashioneds are one of his favorite drinks, and he immediately started muddling away when I placed my order. He made a minor mistake in thinking I like my drinks sweet, so he chose Maker’s Mark as the bourbon. Old Fashioneds are sweet by nature, so by choosing one of the sweetest bourbons on the shelf (Maker’s is a wheat-heavy bourbon), my drink was a dentist’s nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, I love Maker’s Mark. But perhaps the Maker’s Cask Strength would have been a better choice. Of course I still finished it.
So now, Mr. Mayor, let me know when and where you’d like to present me with the key. I wouldn’t mind a ticker-tape parade, or a day named in my honor, or maybe Dawne Gee can pass me the cash in key form. You can find me on Thursdays at the Back Door (5-6:30 p.m.), and now that Insider has moved further downtown, we’re practically neighbors! Wanna borrow some sugar?