It’s believed that Mark Twain once said, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Kentucky, because it’s always 20 years behind the times.” Ordinarily, I’d say, touché and agree that such a quote is sadly and mostly true… except for when it comes to the world of spirits. From the first farmers of bourbon country that fermented that caramel-colored potion within the white oak walls of a charred barrel, all the way to today, there’s been a trend — the creatives of our community are at the cutting edge of concocting nuanced libations from quality ingredients. It’s no surprise that Louisville houses some of the most incredible cocktails in the nation – after all, our ancestors wrote the recipe for bourbon. Derby City is one of those towns just asking for a themed bar crawl, and I’ve spent many a night sampling innovating creations at Louisville’s most coveted cocktail bars — a Cocktail Quest, if you will. I am always on the hunt for the delicious and weird, that new trend, liqueur or riff on a classic sliding down a marble bar in a corner of town unbeknownst to me. The cocktails that smoke… that come in a bowling ball… that may even have a living plant growing out of their highball glass. Here are my favorite, most interesting cocktails in Louisville. I hope you’re thirsty.
Big in Bangkok
The delicious, cavern-like eatery below Actor’s Theatre of Louisville is often coveted for the cuisine, as Milkwood is owned by renowned chef, author and Louisville legend, Edward Lee. And he has had spirits aficionado, Stacie Stewart, as his right-hand woman for several years, spearheading his bar programs and establishing each locale as a cocktail powerhouse. I’ve told Stewart before that Milkwood’s “Big in Bangkok” is one of my favorite libations of all time, thus I must have one each time I pop in for dim sum.
With Old Fitzgerald bourbon, peanut butter, lime and Thai bitters, served up in a coup glass, The Big in Bangkok marries seemingly incongruous flavors with bourbon to create the perfect potion, punching the taste buds with familiar Thai food markers — spicy, sweet, sour and even salty. It almost rejects simplicity, as Thai food does, eagerly pushing forward the big flavor of each ingredient. When I was lucky enough to dine at Milkwood with comrades during a filming of Andrew Zimmern’s new Food Network show, we ordered a round of Big in Bangkok, and my friend Bridget asked what to expect. “Imagine the liquid version of a Pad Thai dish, with bourbon,” I replied. She took a long pull from the glass and smiled in agreement.
Limbo Tiki Bar
Limbo Tiki Bar is one of my favorite watering holes in town for a myriad of reasons. From owner, Olivia Griffin’s quirky South Pacific curations adorning the bar, to the plethora of entertainment offered practically every night of the week (DJ’s, surf rock, burlesque and more!), to the both classic and innovative tiki cocktails, The Limbo is unlike any cantina in town. That’s why I always suggest to both tourists and locals alike to meander down to Fourth and Chestnut streets to share a Scorpion Bowl with three friends. That, and one might walk into a bikini party in an inflatable pool on the patio and end up having a very weird, sticky and awesome night. Hypothetically, of course.
The Limbo’s Scorpion Bowl consists of Bombay Sapphire Gin, Bacardi Dark, El Dorado 151, Bacardi Silver, Goose Vodka, orange and pineapple. Prepare for a ceramic bowl swirling deep with booze, it’s center a bright flame encircled by four eco-friendly straws. So, what’s the perfect item for discussion while you and your friends suck that beauty down? Whether to do the famous coconut-rimmed Painkiller or the bright, frozen Blue Hawaiian next, of course. I recommend both.
Hell or High Water Bar
Turn Your Back to the Bay and the Sun Holds Your Hand
Hell or High Water Bar (not to be confused with Hull or Highwater, the New Albany seafood restaurant) may be new to the Louisville cocktail scene, but what it lacks in longevity, it makes up for 10-fold with incredible ambiance and innovation. Reservations are highly encouraged, as it clearly intends to create a seated, intricate cocktail experience for each guest. And, speaking from a recent birthday celebration for my partner, an experience it truly is.
At my first (and only, thus far) visit to Hell or High Water Bar, my friends and I were treated to a dimly lit, private room with decadent, velvet curtains and, little did we know, a tiny, hidden cocktail door. There’s also a coveted library room, adorned with leather chairs, antique-looking furniture and bookshelves holding what must be leather-bound classics. Our favorite cocktail of the experience was an off-the-book special slid through that little wooden door surprisingly by a friend, and, much to our delight, it’s served aflame. The Turn Your Back to the Bay and the Sun Holds Your Hand boasts Clement Rhum Agricole Blanc, Plantation 5 Year Rum, lime juice, pineapple juice, simple syrup, Smith & Cross Rum and a pinch of pink Himalayan salt. Chris, the bartender/creator of the cocktail, rinsed the glass with the Smith & Cross, set that aflame, and then extinguished it with the remaining ingredients — “shaken until it burns your hand,” he says. I’ve no doubt that any of the cocktails on Hell or High Water’s menu will dazzle most, but fire somehow always seems to do the trick.
River House Restaurant and Raw Bar
Booker’s Smoked Old Fashioned
River House, the gorgeous, young creation of one of Louisville’s favorite chef/proprietors, John Varanese, sits at the shore of the Ohio and features a sprawling waterfront deck, floor-to-ceiling windows and fresh daily seafood. Pro-tip, though — come for the scallops, stay for the smoked bourbon. The Booker’s Smoked Old Fashioned is a cocktail experience, as it’s served in the actual iconic Booker’s box, and the after the cocktail is made, the bartender proceeds to slide the cover of the box over it, encasing the highball glass, and then pipes smoke directly into the container. When I ordered the foggy concoction, the bartender handed the box over the bar as she was sliding the lid off, and instructed me to pull the glass out as hazy billows wafted into the restaurant. With Booker’s bourbon, demerara syrup, angostura bitters and an orange rind, it’s a classic recipe, and while the smoke seems to all but fill the immediate air, it’s actually quite subtle on the tongue. A perfect, interesting riff with an exciting presentation of a classic.
This Butchertown eatery is one of my favorite spots to grab a funky drink, partially because it is one of the only places slinging uniquely healthy boozy bevvies, and mostly because they’re delicious. From a vodka cocktail I had a few months back served in a delightful, logo-encrusted coconut, to a floral pisco sour with lavender and rose “crystals,” there’s always something innovative and seasonal to sample at Naïve. One of the most distinctive and divine creations on the Summer 2018 Sips menu is the “Padma!” Perhaps an homage to the “Top Chef” goddess who was recently flitting around NuLu during the newest season of filming in Louisville, The Padma! is a healthy riff on a Paloma, with some spice. Frida Kahlo tequila, fresh pressed watermelon juice, and watermelon jalapeno kombucha make up this acidic, piquant, and lightly sweet hybrid of fermented tea, tequila and everyone’s favorite summertime fruit.
Tasting the Padma! reminded me of the first moment my partner’s Mexican mother gave me a piece of watermelon coated in Tajin seasoning (a chili and lime salt that’s extremely popular on fruit in Mexico). I felt both confused and dazzled in the same bite. And, truly, isn’t that what cutting edge cocktails are supposed to do? Aren’t bartenders and creators justly doing their job if the consumer truly has to think for a moment about what they just put into their mouth? Feeling something different, or recalling a memory, or trying to understand the nuances and flavors we’re partaking in is all about a creative cocktail experience. That’s what makes marrying new flavors — fermenting or barrel aging ingredients, fat washing spirits or even lighting something on fire — such an exceptional moment for the patron. So, sure, Kentucky may be behind the times when it comes to a myriad of things. But, cocktails? Nah. We’ve got it covered. Your cocktail quest starts today.