Louisville is awash in mint juleps during the first weekend in May, but the rest of the year the city sports one of the most under-the-radar cocktail scenes in the country. When your palate fatigues of Derby fare, head to these spots for innovative concoctions and perfectly executed classics.
Hell or High Water Bar
Open for a little over a month, the owners wanted to create a place that was “accessible and modern, and on par with some of the better cocktail bars in the country,” says beverage director Adam Staniszeski. The atmosphere is a nod to speakeasy luminaries such as New York City’s PDT and Death and Company; decorum prevails and standing is not allowed. Many ingredients are made in-house, “so those grapefruit peels that go into that garnish of the cocktail, we save all of those spent grapefruits and juice them the next day for another one of our cocktails,” says Stanszeski.
Try the signature drink, the aptly named Calling Card, which combines Old Forester bourbon, red vermouth, Braulio amaro, orange liqueur, and a house-made raw sugar syrup.
This chef-driven restaurant aims to gently push limits and broaden guests’ experiences, according to beverage director Kelsay Hofmann, but her beverage list is also engaging patrons in new ways. The current menu – with cocktails such as “Don’t Call Me Jezebel” and “Domesticate Me Not” – aims to spark discussion around female empowerment.
The “La Loba” – a reference to a mythological woman who gathers wolf bones and brings the creature back to life – has aquavit, green chartreuse, green snap peas, matcha tea, coconut milk and a little bit of sugar. “It’s very light, refreshing, vegetal,” says Hofmann. “The menu’s purpose is to hopefully continue conversation with the guests about women’s issues” while enjoying the cocktails, she says.
Mr. Lee’s Lounge
Cocktails and culinary techniques collide at this year-and-a-half old spot. “We do a lot of in-house infusions, we cook stocks, we extract flavors in ways that a chef would do in a kitchen,” says Jordan Cahill, operating partner, general manager, and beverage director. Guests are greeted with an amuse-bouche cocktail to set them off on their drinking journey. In an inverse of roles, cocktails are getting the chef treatment while desserts are at the helm of bartenders.
Alcoholic ice cream — which clocks in at an impressive 13% ABV, equivalent to a glass of wine — has guests getting their sweet tooth and after-dinner drink fix in one go. Flavors rotate monthly. “Hell of a Caucasian, Jackie,” an ode to a White Russian, is on current offer, with Negroni ice cream on the horizon.
The rustic, honkey-tonk vibe of the Silver Dollar is the perfect setting for the bar’s detail-driven, modernized classic cocktails. The venue’s identity is rooted in a musical movement called the Bakersfield Sound, which is an amalgamation of music from cultures and ethnic groups that emigrated to Bakersfield, CA in the 1930s. The vinyl-only sound system spins artists such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and the soulful food has a Mexican influence – a nod to the Mexican population that resided in Bakersfield.
The Gold Rush is one of the bar’s signature tipples. “It is a modern classic cocktail, meaning it wasn’t amended until the early 2000s,” says Susie Hoyt, beverage director and president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild – Kentucky Chapter. “You can pretty much order it anywhere around the country and if you go to a cocktail bar they’re going to know what you’re talking about. It’s a whiskey sour variation, with bourbon and lemon and honey. We serve it on the rocks here at the Silver Dollar, on a nice, big cold draft ice cube.”
The sleek bar and restaurant on the eight floor of the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown opens to an expansive patio rooftop with a more relaxed energy. Drinks run the gamut from simple patio quaffers to creative cocktails.
The bar is best known for its classic Manhattan, which uses a Wathen’s private barrel selection bourbon – made exclusively for the venue – as its base spirit. “The blend we’re using has a nice subtly to it, a little bit of wood, a little bit of spice, but really smooth,” says general manager Ryan Anderson.
Sometimes, you want your bôite to be as uncomplicated as friends, a beer and a shot. The Pearl’s got you covered; the upscale dive bar prides itself on its jukebox and vinyl collection (it’s owned by the same people as Silver Dollar) and offers an unpretentious place to just hang. It’s meant to feel fun and laid back, and is a perfect respite from Derby Day refinery.