There is more to a Bourbon Bar than simply having a lot of bourbons on the back-bar. Anyone can order all of the bourbons they can from the distributor but that does not make them a “Bourbon Bar”. I have a personal criteria for what I think makes a “Bourbon Bar” versus a bar with a good selection of bourbon. Don’t get me wrong, I do like bars with good selections of bourbon and prefer them to a bar without many bourbons. I just don’t consider them “Bourbon Bars”.
The first thing I look for is the selection of bourbon. A Bourbon Bar has a separate section for their bourbons on their menu. A really good bourbon Bar will have a separate menu for their bourbons. They will not have Canadian whiskey, Tennessee whiskey or rye whiskey mixed in their bourbon Selections. Above all, they will not have the flavored crap mixed in with their bourbons. They will relegate that choice to a separate area in the kiddy section. The menu will offer flights of bourbon with several suggested flights based upon styles of bourbon such as bonded, single barrel, high-rye or wheated bourbons. If I see this on the menu, then I start taking the place seriously.
If the bar is part of a restaurant, then I look to see if the menu includes bourbon in the recipes. There are many great ways to cook with bourbon and it does work well with more than just chocolate desserts. If they have some interesting dishes that incorporate bourbon, that is another plus for me moving it closer to me calling it a “Bourbon Bar”.
The next and most important criteria is staff training and education. If I ask about what bourbons they recommend and Crown Royal is part of the suggestions, that definitely cost them points in my book. The staff should know what a bourbon is and why it is different from Canadian, Tennessee or rye whiskeys. The staff should be able to make recommendations based upon what the customer normally drinks, whether that is bourbon, wine, beer or cocktails. The staff should be able to tell the customer what Bottled-in-Bond bourbon is and why it is different from other bourbons. The same should hold true for other styles such as single barrel, small batch, wheated or high-rye bourbons. They should know which distillery made the bourbon being poured into the glass or if it is a product from an independent bottler. The staff should be versed in such terms as “Neat” or “On the rocks” as well as to what comprises the standard bourbon cocktails such as the Old Fashioned or Manhattan.
If the bar passes all of these criteria, then I will happily consider them a true “Bourbon Bar”. There are many places I have experienced that earn my respect as Bourbon Bars, whereas others that I consider bars with great bourbon selections. Over the next few months I will visit and review some establishments and let you know where they stand in my judgement.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl