It’s not every day when you walk into one of Louisville’s premier cocktail bars and find a brand new staff behind the stick. It almost wasn’t evident, upon crossing Meta’s threshold, as the dimly lit ambiance enveloped the bar so all I could see was a slew of hands holding coupe glasses but couldn’t make out the faces. That is, until my friend Megan and I sat down at the bar to order a drink last Tuesday and were greeted by two Irish bartenders. Come to find out that staff from a cocktail bar in New York City, The Spaniard, had traveled all the way to little, old Louisville to do a bar takeover for the evening in celebration of the one-year anniversary of a scotch whisky inspired by their very workplace. (FYI, whisky is scotch, and bourbon is a whiskey). The whisky from Compass Box Whisky, called The Story of the Spaniard, was the gem of the night. So, we settled in, ordered cocktails and channeled our best Ron Burgundy, “I love scotch. Scotchy, scotch, scotch. Here it goes down, down into my belly.”
You get the gist.
We drank a lot of scotch.
The cocktail menu, albeit short, was precise and delicious. The Spaniard Manhattan was right up my alley, boasting The Story of the Spaniard, Averna and orange bitters with a Luxardo cherry. Marc Nicolet, Compass Box vice president and U.S. sales director, said his favorite is the Fast Buck — The Story of the Spaniard, lime, ginger, PX Sherry and The Peat Monster (another of Compass Box’s whiskys). Megan and I sampled both and The Story of the Spaniard on its own and then with ice. A Spaniard and Soda (with Topo Chico) and a beer and a shot special were also on the list of offerings for the takeover, so there was likely something for every palate. We made our way through with some guidance of Nicolet and the Spaniard team.
“As a person who had never really had scotch before, I was pleasantly surprised by the cocktails,” said Megan. “The flavor profile was different in each one, which made it approachable for me.”
It’s true that many folks view scotch as a bit of an old folks’ drink, one that can present with a smoky flavor that isn’t palatable for some. Compass Box’s The Story of the Spaniard seems to have broken the mold with their recipe, inspired by a bespoken whisky for the bar in Greenwich Village. The core components are aged in sherry and Spanish wine casks and then finished in new French oak.
“Tonight is a celebration,” said Nicolet of the bar takeover at Meta. “We launched [this whisky] last fall, so this is our one-year anniversary.”
Nicolet and the Spaniard team are on a road tour of sorts, visiting five cocktail bars across the nation for takeovers promoting The Story of the Spaniard. Penny Quarter in Houston, Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington D.C., Fountainhead in Chicago and The Sylvester in Miami join Meta in Louisville as the list of beautiful bars hosting the celebrations.
“We chose Louisville, because what better venue to celebrate whisky?” said Nicolet. “Jeremy [Johnson, owner of Meta] is a local. It’s an industry bar that gets what we do. It makes sense.”
Michael McFerran is the owner of The Spaniard in New York City, and on this night, he was mingling with the patrons of Meta. An Irishman, as are his bartenders Ciaran and Andrew, McFerran was born in Ireland but grew up in Scotland. “So, I’ve always had an affinity for scotch,” he said, explaining that their bond with the Compass Box brand was born when they used the whisky in one of their most famous cocktails, The Penicillin. McFerran said that his bar’s name comes from two great bars in Ireland, and “it doesn’t give you any preconceived notion about what a bar’s going to be. It’s just a great bar.”
And, clearly, there’s a bit of scotch flowing at The Spaniard.
So, what happens when a slew of Irishmen take over a Kentucky cocktail bar and serve up cocktails showcasing scotch? We drink a lot of whisky, that’s what. The Irish have whisky in their blood, just like Kentuckians. We’re all born and bred with an affinity for that amber colored elixir.
Sure, there are a few rules and finishes that make them different, but in the end, it’s all whisky, and it’s that umbrella that creates a bond that travels across a nation, an ocean and even a clink of a glass.