It seems as though that glorious amber nectar of life we call bourbon has eclipsed the modern cocktail and mixology troop here in Derby City. So, who in Louisville is behind the bar doing the next big thing? Is the new novel idea simply a modern spin on a classic cocktail, or is there a magical potion being concocted atop an oak bar in Germantown as I write? I went to the experts in town — the creme de la creme of barkeeps — to find out what they know and what they’re drinking. From a good old fashioned boilermaker or Michelada to new age beer syrups and bitters, turns out everyone’s favorite cocktail ingredient is one we already know and love: beer.
On a sunny Louisville Sunday, I sat down with a clearly talented and a little less than humble Joe Riggs at El Camino to chat about cocktails over a few Jet Pilot’s (Wray & Nephew Overproof, Blackwell, Lemon Hart 151, cinnamon, falernum, absinthe, bitters, grapefruit, lime — yep, do it). Riggs has been around the bar block, beginning his career at Bluegrass Brewing Company 10 years ago, where he crafted their “Beertails” menu (cocktails incorporating a splash of various house brews). Designing bar menus for Louisville staples such as Eddie Merlot’s, Vincenzo’s, Against the Grain, Joy Luck and now a brand ambassador for Redemption Rye Whiskey, Riggs travels the country to talk to bartenders about spirits, and has always felt that beer can be an integral ingredient in a well-crafted cocktail. “There are over 1,100 discernible flavors in beer, and only 400 in wine,” says Riggs, which leaves much room for bartenders and bar menu curators to be wildly creative.
While Riggs has been playing with the marriage of beer and liquor in one glass for a while, his presence at Joy Luck brought about some top notch ideas in libation-land. Beer “shrubs” — infusing vinegar with beer and flavors to put in a cocktail — takes out the bubbly carbonation of beer, replacing it with sugar. He’s used beer with the likes of apple and pumpkin, creating almost an entirely new ingredient just as drinking vinegar has become quite the health trend. While they don’t currently have a “shrub” cocktail on the menu, right now you can check out the Buxom Tart at Joy Luck (house limoncello, Angostura bitter, West 6th Lemongrass, San Pelligrino Blood Orange, Citrus), which uses a local wheat beer in this crispy glass of summer.
Next, over in NuLu, I popped in for a chat with another front runner of the designer cocktail realm: Doug Petry, the beverage director at Rye, who feels a similar affinity for the brewski as an ingredient in a mixed drink. Currently his ever-changing menu boasts the DK Jungle, made with rum, banana, lime and Stillwater Classique. Petry, who has used beer instead of soda water or grapefruit in his rendition of classic cocktails, claims he is “inspired by food — I like to fuck around and see if anything works out,” which makes sense in 2015, when food and beer dinner pairings are almost a staple in local restaurants with an emphasis on beer. Petry is part owner of Galaxie, a bar opening in early August in the Green Building (the former home of La Coop Bistro a Vins), which will be a “more affordable option on Market Street,” and he’s currently curating a “Boilermaker Menu” that will host carefully crafted beer and shot pairings. Petry’s favorite? Coors Banquet and a shot of Old Granddad. Riggs seconds this notion, and claims that a shot and beer pairing is the best thing to happen to whiskey suppliers, “It allows the bartender who is in as a guest to not burden the bartender but still have a good time.” Clearly, a concept that’s important to all of us in the industry.
Other ingredients for cocktails and food derived from beer are popping up in the Louisville scene, like Russ Meredith’s Beer Syrup Company. Meredith has spent hours at his stove mixing his milieu with bourbon barrel beers, porters, pecan nut browns and more. “You get the flavoring agent without the carbonation,” he says, and claims his beer syrups can be used in anything from a Manhattan to “pour(ing) over pancakes.”
Delightfully, when I inquired separately to each one of these darlings where their current favorite cocktail in Louisville might be from, they all had the same answer: Meta. Meandering down to the former strip club turned playful and contemporary craft cocktail bar, imagine my elation when I find this on the menu: The Settle Up, with a shot of Old Forester, Jack Daniels and an Old Style (beer) for $12, the menu claims this must be your last drink and you must have a ride. Be it beertails or boilermakers or something of the like, the beer and liquor collision seems like a movement that’s here to stay in Louisville, and I don’t mind one bit.