Louisville Barroom Culture

Louisville Barroom Culture Oral History Project Intro Photo

Louisville is awash in bourbon. And beer. It’s a drinking person’s town, due in no small part to the state’s bourbon heritage, the city’s nickname-namesake brewery, Falls City, and that little horse race called the Kentucky Derby. But there’s more to this town than brown liquor, local breweries, and racetracks. This is where, it’s said, the Old-Fashioned was invented. It’s where Al Capone dodged the law during Prohibition, ducking out of the Seelbach Hotel through secret passageways. And it’s where barkeeps plied their customers with rolled oysters and bean soup to keep them coming back. Louisville’s private clubs, hotel bars, and neighborhood taverns are rich with drinking history and lore. But they’re also rife with innovation and talk of the future. In Louisville, there’s always time for another round.

Interviews

Check's Cafe - Bill Tinker - Louisville Barroom

Check’s Cafe

In 1935, just after Prohibition came to an end, Check Sumpter opened up a tavern in Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood and called it Check’s Café. After nine years in business, he sold the place. The new owner, Joe Murrow Sr., ran Check’s for the next thirty-six years, until his death in 1980. In the three decades during which Joe was behind the bar, he gave Check’s the reputation of being a neighborhood joint where anyone was welcome and everyone was a regular. Today Joe Murrow’s grandson, John, operates Check’s. And while there have been some cosmetic alterations to the place over the years, not much else has changed. Not even the neighborhood regulars.

Jack's Lounge - Joy Perrine - Louisville Barroom

Jack’s Lounge

Eventually, Joy found herself mixing drinks at Louisville’s Equus Restaurant. In 2000 Equus’s chef and owner, Dean Corbett, opened Jack’s Lounge next door and gave Joy free reign. Joy gets ideas for new drinks from cookbooks, unusual ingredients, and her own specific memory of a place or a time. Whatever her inspiration, Joy’s passion for her work can be tasted in every sip. But after more than three decades tending bar, Joy is looking to retire. She may hang up her apron, but she’ll never stop making cocktails.

Bristol Bar and Grille - Marian Murphy - Louisville Barroom

Marian Murphy

Marian Murphy has been tending bar at the Bristol Bar & Grille since 1989.

Mazzoni's Cafe - Greg Haner - Louisville Barroom

Mazzoni’s Cafe

In 1884 Phillip Mazzoni opened Mazzoni’s, a tavern on Third and Market streets in downtown Louisville. Along with beer, Phillip sold a few items to augment his business: hot dogs, boiled eggs, and the iconic Louisville bar food, rolled oysters. As far as anyone knows, the Mazzoni family originated the rolled oyster: a trio of a few bivalves rolled in a thick breading and then fried. When Prohibition hit in 1919, beer stopped flowing from the taps, and rolled oysters took center stage. Other items were added, including hot tamales, which first appeared on the menu in 1921.

Pendennis Club - John C. Johnson - Louisville Barroom

Pendennis Club

Johnson is a walking encyclopedia of information about the club and has collected more than a few stories over the years. He also witnessed a groundbreaking moment in the club’s history: its integration. After fifty years at the Pendennis Club, Johnson tried to retire, but he just couldn’t stay away. Today, he serves as director of membership relations and continues to train new employees in the art of good service.

Remembering Max Allen Jr.

Max Allen Jr. came from a family of bartenders. His father, Max “Scoopie” Allen, worked the bar at the legendary Seelbach hotel. Along with a set of bar tools, Max inherited a love of history and a passion for cocktails. For years, he worked at the old Louisville institution Hassenour’s; when it closed, he was recruited to follow in his father’s footsteps, tending bar at the Seelbach. Max was a bartender’s bartender. He knew names, stories and drinks, and made everyone who visited his bar feel like a regular. As he mixed their favorite cocktails, he plied them with tales about Louisville and the history of bourbon. He made an impression on the people he served, as well as on those he worked with behind the bar. Max passed away in 2000, but his memory lives on.

Seelbach Hilton

Opened in 1905, the legendary Seelbach Hilton has hosted gangsters, politicians, and celebrities for generations. Stories of Al Capone evading the law during Prohibition and F. Scott Fitzgerald drinking cocktails from the hotel’s luxurious bar have contributed to the place’s mystique. It’s the perfect environment in which to enjoy a classic cocktail and a taste of the past.

Tommy Lancaster’s Restaurant

Larry started mixing drinks at Tommy Lancaster’s in 1960, when Martinis were sixty-cents, beer was a quarter, and women weren’t allowed to sit at the bar. After forty-three years of making cocktails and pouring beer, Larry finally retired in 2003. But he didn’t stay away for long. In 2007 he was back, selling five-dollar Martinis and three-dollar beers in part of what is today considered the Greater Louisville Metropolitan Area.