Admittedly, when I saw the wrought iron filigree-engulfed Taj sign erected just below a screeching gargoyle outside the building of 807 E. Market St., my stomach rumbled, and thoughts of tikka masala and chili cauliflower danced through my head. Could it be that my dreams of an Indian restaurant in NuLu have come to life? Silly me — I wasn’t faintly aware of the history just beyond the antique doors, nor of the plans that its proprietors had for the rebirth of a building that holds Louisville heirlooms within its walls. Taj Louisville opened its doors to patrons this month as a fantastic collision of a saloon, a speakeasy and a package store, boasting the best attributes of each, with none of the pretension. And your favorite barkeep was delighted to belly up (on an up-cycled, antique elevator stool, mind you) and have one of the first sips.
The history of the building that Taj Louisville now inhabits is centuries old, dating back to as early as 1774 when it was part of a 1,000-acre royal land grant given by King George III of England to Col. William Preston of Virginia during his service in the French and Indian War. Later, the subdivisions of this land began during a time when the NuLu, Butchertown and Phoenix Hill neighborhoods were known as “Uptown,” and in 1848, a dude named Christoph Knauss purchased the Taj lot for a whopping $156. The building at 807 E. Market St., which was then known as 361 Market St., was erected, and it housed a myriad of uses including a leather shop, grocery store and multi-family housing during the Civil War. Fast forward to 1999, when the building was deteriorating and even facing demolition threats by the city. Mike Maloney, who works on Mayor Greg Fischer’s special events team, purchased the building, and began renovation — filling every corner with Louisville artifacts, heirlooms and entertainment. There’s something deeply meaningful about preserving the history of a building that grew with our town, with its bones as old as the Possibility City itself, and that’s exactly what Maloney, business owner Todd Moore and operating manager, Ken Blackthorn have created: a reclaimed artifact where you can drink (and purchase) our nation’s native spirit.
Entering Taj Louisville is an experience, as quite literally every surface is reclaimed and up-cycled, down to the floors you’re standing on, and the ceiling is clad with antique window shutters (inspired by one of Blackthorn’s favorite bars in Brooklyn). Blackthorn cultivated the design concepts, while Moore was the craftsman, creating each piece with the concern of a true perfectionist, from the original door that hangs a collection of mason jar lanterns above, to the Old Forester-barreled ceilings in the tasting room and package store — a package store that locals should agree has been a long time coming in downtown, for Louisvillians and tourists alike. While the bar is shotgun style and holds a mere 49 guests, Taj has a substantially larger area for a dog-friendly patio out back, coming soon, which Blackthorn said will hold a stage, bocce ball and more. The trio also recently purchased the neighboring building for a future casual restaurant concept.
Sipping an Elmer T. Lee neat amidst Taj’s reclaimed artifacts one recent Sunday night, I peered around the room and noticed something: Practically everyone around me was a part of the service industry. A group of NuLu servers danced in jubilation as we all did a round of shots. Blackthorn handed the iPad across the bar, and connected to the sound system, because one young lady desperately wanted to search for and hear “No Scrubs.” A group of a few line-cooks waltzed in moments later, and they ordered a round of PBR’s.
“I’m in NuLu, so I will make a Sazerac or a Mint Julep for the tourists, but we’re here for the industry,” explained Blackthorn, who said they won’t have a plethora of craft cocktails, but rather a seasonal menu of “8 for $8,” one of which will be the “Malonio,” in honor of the building’s owner — a triple shot of bourbon. These eight libations will be designed by Blackthorn and his lead bartenders, handpicked from some of the best bars in Derby City. And, guys, they’re open on Sunday! Taj Louisville calls itself a “work in progress,” per their Facebook page, as there are seemingly many projects lined up for this grandfather of a space.
As these ideas evolve and come to light, I can say that, for my first experience, I felt like I was having drinks in a friend’s dad’s intrinsically-rad basement. The skeleton of the building has good vibes, the bar-goers all became fast friends and the pours are stout.