The wait has been long but Tracy Clayton has finally graced us with a new Louisville restaurant review. This time she visited the brand new Down One Bourbon Bar.
My friends and I like to celebrate things. Promotions, good hair days, good news. Days that end with the letter Y. And it was one of those days-that-end-in-Y celebration that landed us at Down One Bourbon Bar last week. We were tired of our regular haunts and were in the mood for something new.
It was a Thursday, I think–I can’t be sure since there are quite a few days that end in the letter Y to confuse–and Down One Bourbon had recently opened. And by “recently opened,” I mean that it was just celebrating its fourth or fifth day on earth. The umbilical cord was still attached and everything. The place is nestled away among the trees at the corner of 3rd and West Main downtown on historic Whiskey Row, which is quite an appropriate location for a bourbon bar, for obvious reasons. I wouldn’t trust a tequila bar on a place called Whiskey Row. Or a bourbon bar on Tequila Row. I wouldn’t trust ANYTHING on Tequila Row, because Tequila Row sounds like where good decisions and respectability go to die.
The Down One Bourbon Bar experience begins as soon as you step under the awning. Beneath it, you find a set of understated aluminum steps made fancier with a string of lights beneath each one. Waiting for you at the bottom of the steps is a glass wall full of bourbon. This is foreshadowing of the most awesome kind–if all this bourbon is in your face before you even reach the doorknob, just imagine what’s waiting for your face inside.
And what’s waiting for you inside is amazing décor, tasty food, interesting cocktails, a hundred billion different bourbons, and one of the best wait staffs I’ve experienced in Louisville in quite some time.
The Down One décor is crisp, clean and pristine; everything looks like it was spit shined and buffed to a high sheen by the toothbrushes of a thousand army recruits who couldn’t pull their weight in PT. With its rich mahogany tables and shelving, amber lighting, and that floor-to-ceiling glass wall, it feels kind of like you’re inside an actual bottle of bourbon. Finally! After years of wishing that I could just slip inside a bottle of Woodford and backstroke my cares away, I can sort of kind of do that!
I walked in and, not seeing a hostess station, asked one of the passing waitresses if I should just go ahead and grab a table. She said that if I liked, she could grab me a seat in their speakeasy, and who on earth is prepared to turn down an invitation into a speakeasy?? Not me, that’s who. She led me to a small, intimate, really fool dining room inside a telephone booth.
You’re reading that right. A telephone booth. It was inside a telephone booth.
Okay it wasn’t actually inside a telephone booth, but you have to walk through a façade of a vintage, old timey telephone booth to get into the speakeasy. As cool as the room was–the shelves, books, and décor give the feel of being in someone’s den in the kind of house that the board game Clue was set in–I asked for a table out in the general population; there was another couple inside the speakeasy room and the level of intimacy in there is such that I felt like we were all on a date. I didn’t even know those folks’ last names. It was just a little too soon. I don’t like to rush into things.
She led me out of the telephone booth and into the caring arms of Ryan, our server for the evening. Ryan was great. He took the time to answer all my questions and was very tolerant of my terrible jokes. He was as professional as he was friendly, and that is what makes Down One Bourbon Bar work for me: it is a delightful, perfectly balanced mix of fancy pantsness and down-home dining. The drama of the glass wall and sterling mahogany bar is tempered by the paper-lined bowls and baskets holding your food and the plastic silverware kept on the tables (not the kind that your Aunt Alberta brings to your family reunion, though–the nice ones). And it works. Yes, it’s snazzier than your local dive, but it’s still familiar. Down One Bourbon Bar strikes me as a place you can go to let your hair down, drink a little too much, and still be the classiest person in your family (depending on your family, this may or may not be a great feat, but hopefully you know what I mean).
The mark of a great bar isn’t just good drink. It’s a good affordable drink, and good food. Down One has all of this stuff. The menu is eclectic, but accessible, offering quirky spins on your favorite meals, like whiskey chili and a roasted turkey sandwich with granny smith apples and cranberry mayo. As a native Kentuckian, the only thing I like more than bourbon is pork, so there was no question that the Three Little Pigs sandwich–featuring bacon, pulled pork, and roasted pork belly–was for me. And boy, was it ever. Literally. I don’t know who planned the menu, but whoever did it obviously held conference with my taste buds before pulling this one together. It was perfect–the bacon is what really put it over the top for me. It was crispy and flavorful and just chewy enough to linger as your tongue goes skipping around to play with the other kinds of pork on the bun. I ordered braised collard greens as a side, because as a Kentuckian, the only thing I like more than bourbon and pork is collard greens. I’d never had braised collard greens before–I tend to prefer mine cooked near to mush for hours on my grandmother’s stove, slathered in and flavored by various pig parts. The first thing I noticed about Down One’s greens is that they looked like actual, whole leaves. My grandmother would have looked at them and said “them ain’t done yet,” and I worried briefly about what they’d taste like, but one bite in and my fears were eased. They had an amazing texture and a slightly sweet, slightly flavor. What a perfect compliment to a sandwich full of pork.
The whiskey chili and roasted turkey sandwich got equally glowing reviews from my accomplices, by the way, but before we even looked at the food menu, we were diving into the drinks. In addition to over 100 different brands and types of bourbon, Down One also has a collection of specialty cocktails and martinis. The first thing I noticed was the prices. First of all, let me say how refreshing it is that there were actually prices on the menu. My general thought about a menu with no prices listed is that everything is too expensive, but Down One’s prices are exceedingly reasonable–they get more expensive the fancier you get, of course, but for an easy-to-please girl like me, the $6 Bourbon Smash (Jim Beam, mint, lemon, and Madagascar vanilla) was right up my alley. After some trial and error, I decided on that particular drink as my favorite–and boy, was there ever some trial and error.
The first Bourbon Smash I ordered was far too sour for me, so I had to send it back, not to have it made over but to have a bit more vanilla added to it. Next, I decided to try the $9 El Diablo, made with Mezcal, lime, crème de cassis, and ginger beer. Aside from the ginger beer, I had no idea what else was in the drink, but I decided to be adventurous. And when my decision proved to be a bad one (I’ve since learned that Mezcal is not for me), I sent it back and ordered another Bourbon Smash.
Along with the Bourbon Smash came Levi, who introduced himself as the man who invented all the drinks that I apparently hated so much. I vomited a ton of apologies and explained that I just didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Here, Levi kindly walked my friends and I through the drink menu, recommending things that, going forward, I may like and suggesting some things to stay away from. For a bourbon and coke girl like myself, this was much appreciated; it’s not that I’m not a cultured drinker, you understand; it’s just that there’s some really fancy stuff on the menu. In addition to the impromptu Classy Cocktails for Dummies class, Levi also made the table a complimentary drink–he brought us a Bee’s Knees (Bombay Gin, honey, lemon, and egg white) after we all made a collective “eww, gross!” face at the thought of putting an egg white in some liquor and drinking it. And on top of all that, offered to take the El Diablo off my bill, which he completely didn’t have to do; it wasn’t his fault that I had no idea what I was doing. But he did, and I’m certain that his patience and generosity made everything taste better.
So, we loved Down One. Since they’d just opened earlier that week, one of the waitresses explained, they didn’t have any happy hour specials just yet. But once they do, I fully expect Down One to give Eddie Merlot’s happy hour, which is my current favorite, a run for their money. The food is definitely as good, the drinks are as fun, and the atmosphere is bursting with character. And if the prices get any more reasonable, I may just register a change of address at the post office and live there.
If all that wasn’t enough to seduce my allegiance, Levi and Ryan made the entire experience one that I didn’t want to leave. Down One Bourbon Bar is an amazing mix of sass, grit, pizzazz and comfort. Happy birthday, Down One; here’s to many more.
Down One Bourbon Bar
321 W. Main