When we walked up to the plain, brick-fronted building on a residential stretch of Goss Avenue in Louisville’s Germantown, we were dubious that we’d come to the right spot. But sure enough, a tiny brass plaque announced the structure as “Mr. Lee’s.”
We opened the door and stepped through the portal of a time machine. As our vision slowly returned in the all-enveloping darkness, we found ourselves in a film-noir world. We half expected to see Nick and Nora of The Thin Man trading snappy bon mots between sips in the corner booth. The brightest spot in the place was the center of the horseshoe-shaped bar. The brass and glass and steel gleamed. The bartender’s white shirt seemed to glow. Welcome to Mr. Lee’s Lounge (935 Goss Ave., Louisville, 502-450-5368, mrleeslounge.com). The Coen brothers couldn’t have staged it better.
Every bar and every lounge is peddling a fantasy narrative—whether it’s the good-ol’-boy, shot-and-a-beer watering hole or a snazzy lounge with velvet drapes and leather banquettes. But Mr. Lee’s is the only place we know in Louisville that aims for and hits the mark of “sophisticated with just a whiff of danger.” It has a speakeasy vibe that feels like just the place where a guy might loosen his tie, unbutton his collar, roll up his sleeves and contemplate the state of the universe. That would be over a house-smoked Old Fashioned made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, smoked black tea, and bitters. It’s not all retro, though—many drinks use spirits from Copper & Kings. (See previous post.)
Be sure to visit after dark. Otherwise, it hurts your eyes to come out into the sunlight.
A cocktail to chew on
Across the Ohio, Brooklyn and the Butcher (148 East Market St., New Albany, IN, 812-590-2646, brooklynandthebutcher.com) emphasizes small plates, big steaks, and a cocktail program that stays in touch with the urban trends. A relative newcomer (it opened in early 2016), the restaurant has become New Albany’s go-to spot for steak and tony spirits. The dining room is bright and breezy, and so is the upstairs lounge by the big windows on Market Street.
The photo here shows that upstairs lounge, where we stopped for drinks because the steakhouse restaurant side had not yet opened for dinner. The basement also contains a hideaway known as the Lantern Bar. It shares some of the speakeasy vibe of Mr. Lee’s, but plays on its cellar location with exposed brick walls, candles on the tables, and jazz on the weekends. Brooklyn and the Butcher maintains a good wine and beer list to complement its spirits, but cocktails are the focus of the beverage program.
Given the name of the place, we had to order a drink called The Butcher. (That’s it above the subhead.) Fat-washed cocktails are all the rage—or have been since the first bartender figured out how to infuse bacon into bourbon. The Butcher is a pretty sophisticated take on the science-experiment approach to cocktails. It combines fat-washed Old Forester bourbon, Malmsey Madeira, Demerara sugar, and Angostura bitters. The bar staff prepares the bourbon by infusing it with beef marrow fat for several days before chilling to separate booze and ooze. It’s a round, smooth drink with a full but not greasy mouth-feel and a sweetness quotient somewhere just north of a Manhattan. Or maybe that should be southeast, where Brooklyn is just over the bridge.