The late 19th century building that houses Bourbons Bistro in Clifton was most likely a tavern or roadhouse in its initial incarnation, owner Jason Brauner says.
“It was one of the first buildings on Frankfort Avenue,” he said. “Just up the road was the toll house where you would pay the toll to go on up Frankfort Avenue.”
The tolls are history, but Bourbons Bistro still serves as a popular stop for thirsty travelers on the Urban Bourbon Trail. It was, in fact, one of the seven charter members. But when Brauner and John Morrison opened the Bistro in the circa 1877 building at 2255 Frankfort Ave. in 2005, the huge wave of interest in Bourbon that continues to build today wasn’t even a ripple. What made them think a place touting 130-plus Bourbons would succeed?
“I was a big fan of bourbon. I kind of grew up around it. My great-aunts and -uncles would drink bourbon while they played cards and what have you,” Brauner said. “I thought it was under-marketed. I did some research and found that all of the world’s Bourbon came from within 50 miles of Louisville, and I thought, what a great concept: How can you go wrong when you have the backdrop of this great Kentucky product? It was a way to showcase our state. A lot of people think we may be barefoot with overalls on, but I think Bourbon is more sophisticated even than Scotch. You just have to get into it and learn about it.”
Fittingly, the front of the restaurant is dominated by the handsome dark-wood bar, which holds an impressive inventory of Bourbons. The main dining room is simple and elegant, with vintage photos of distilleries dressing the exposed-brick walls. A patio with a fireplace allows seasonal outdoor dining, and the restaurant recently took over the entire building, which created space for two new event rooms, one with a seating capacity of 60 and the other, 30.
Joining the Urban Bourbon Trail when it launched in 2008 was an easy decision, Brauner said; the Trail was a natural fit for a restaurant intent on spreading the word about Bourbon. “One of our first slogans was, ‘Bringing bourbon back a sip at a time.’ The Urban Bourbon Trail gave us the power of new guests – not just locals, but tourists who would come in and seek it out. We were out to educate the world about bourbon, and what better way to do it than with the Urban Bourbon Trail?”
Bourbons Bistro’s servers are as well-versed in Bourbon as a good sommelier is in wine and can recommend the perfect brand to accompany your dinner, or suggest a flight tailored to your flavor preferences.
Over the years, Brauner has seen his customer base grow and change. “A ton of people are getting into Bourbon every day. I think the face of Bourbon is growing, and it’s growing younger. A lot more people are interested in it.”
While Bourbons Bistro has continued to maintain a list of at least 130 brands, Brauner laments the current obsession with how many Bourbons a bar has as some sort of measuring stick of quality. “When we opened, we wanted every Bourbon we could get our hands on; I mean, that was the name: Bourbons Bistro. But now, people are too hung up on ‘How many do you have?’ It ebbs and flows, because we actually open them and sell them. When we get limited-edition Bourbons in, we don’t just keep them on the shelf.”
The Bourbons Bistro food menu has recently been revised by new Head Chef Jeff Bridges, formerly of Hillbilly Tea and Jack Fry’s, who has been at Bourbons Bistro for just about a year. He replaced Chef Michael Crouch, who left to open Bistro 1860 in January.
New dishes include the grilled beets ($18), with dinosaur kale, glazed carrots, Catalan picada sauce and tobacco onions; the Maple Leaf Farms duck burger ($16; add pork belly or a fried egg for an up charge), served on brioche with herb goat cheese, caramelized onion, truffle aioli and house-cut fries tossed with herbs and garlic; and a lobster bruschetta appetizer ($13) with Maine lobster, shallots, roasted tomato, pepperoncini, capers, garlic aioli, parmesan, basil and grilled French bread.
Items featuring Bourbon include the house-cured Berkshire pork belly with Bourbon glaze ($10 appetizer portion, $18 entrée) and the Bourbon bread pudding ($8) with toasted meringue, cherries and a Bourbon caramel sauce.
The Bistro held regular multi-course Bourbon dinners featuring a rotating roster of brands for years. Brauner estimates they did at least 75 of them. That concept has been put on hiatus for now while the owners figure out how to reinvent them.
In the meantime, on Sept. 28 Bourbons Bistro began serving a Bourbon-flavored brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, featuring dishes such as Bourbon French toast ($11) on brioche, with toasted pecans, apple-smoked bacon and Bourbon maple syrup. If the first one was any indication, they will be successful. “One of our first tables was a 20-top, and they ordered 15 flights,” Brauner said. “It was a good brunch morning!”
There’s no doubt that Bourbon is hot. The Urban Bourbon Trail has almost four times as many stops as it did in 2008, and even places not on the trail are touting the fact that they have “more than 50 Bourbons!” Asked whether he worries that it’s a craze that will fade, Bourbon pioneer Brauner said he’s confident the spirit is here to stay.
“I think people just needed to realize what they had in front of them. I don’t think people realized what a great, wonderful product it is. It is one of Kentucky’s earliest and ‘greenest’ products.”
Distilleries have traditionally sold the stillage — the grain left after distillation — to local farmers as feed for hogs and cattle, for example. By law, the charred, white oak barrels can be used only once to age Bourbon, but they are reused in many other ways: to age Scotch, beer, even coffee beans; to make planters and furniture; and, when ground into chips, to smoke meat.
Bourbon “is a sustainable industry,” Brauner said. “I don’t think it’s going to go away.”
Number of Bourbons: Minimum of 130.
Most popular Bourbons: Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark. “A lot of people branch out with the education we give them on the brands you don’t see very often, hidden jewels like Ancient Age, Old Granddad 114 and Rare Breed 108,” Brauner said.
Priciest shots: Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece ($250 per shot). “It’s not the best whiskey in the house; it’s just that it’s so limited. You can’t find it anymore.”
Bourbon flights: Several set flights are offered ($10 to $20 for three 1-ounce pours); the Single Barrel (Elmer T. Lee, Four Roses and Evan Williams) is one of the most popular. Customers can also build their own flights (prices vary).
Signature Bourbon cocktails: Kentucky Champagne; Maple Bacon Old Fashioned (recipes below)
- 2 oz. Maker’s Mark
- ½ oz. Triple Sec
Fill rest of glass with apple cider, add a splash of soda and garnish with an apple slice.
Maple Bacon Old Fashioned
Muddle orange and cherry in the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass.
Fill glass with ice and add:
- 1 tsp. maple syrup
- 2 ounces bacon-infused Bourbon
- 2 dashes of black walnut bitters
- A splash of water.
Stir and serve.