Best Lexington, Ky bourbon bars for cocktails, rare bottles
LexGo Drink: Tips on how to find, enjoy bourbon, Kentucky’s signature drink
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So it feels fitting that we’ve got so many great bourbon bars in Central Kentucky.
So whether you’re looking for a place to find special pours or craft cocktails, you have options.
Here are a baker’s dozen of the best bourbon bars in and around Lexington to try the next time you’re thirsty for great pour.
Downtown Lexington bourbon bars:
Henry Clay Public House
112 North Upper St.; 859-368-7754; henryclayspublichouse.com
Never say Henry Clay didn’t appreciate a good bourbon. During his time in Washington, he introduced the Mint Julep to his colleagues across both aisles during a gentlemanly drinking session at the Willard Hotel. The hotel still uses Clay’s recipe today.
So, it’s only fitting that such a distinguished imbiber has a drinking house named in his honor. Actually, his proclivities may have had less to do with the name than the fact that the 1805 building was once his townhouse and office. But I digress.
Today, it has a tavern atmosphere, live music, free popcorn, and one of Lexington’s largest selections of premium bourbons (yes, that means Pappy), and has received kudos from both the Food Network and Conde Nast Traveler.
115 Cheapside; 859-279-2017
They take their bourbons very seriously here, with more than 900 to choose from. So, you should take your bourbon just as seriously. While the knowledgeable barkeeps will smile and oblige if you ask for coke mixed with your bourbon, they will know you are a pretender.
Having one of the largest collections in the United States (mainly from Kentucky), they stock what you can’t find most places — George T. Stagg or Four Roses Limited Single Barrel, anyone? And if you think a shot of Pappy 20-year-old is expensive, ask for a pour of original White Label Bulleit, but only if you have $400 in your wallet.
If there is hallowed ground for the bourbon lover, this is it.
Chevy Chase Inn
No list of places to bend an elbow would be complete without the Chevy Chase Inn, the oldest bar in Lexington, having opened in 1933.
At the city’s much-loved dive bar, you won’t find tres chic furnishings or cool lighting fixtures. What you will find — other than bourbon and other spirits — is a cast of characters that in its heyday included a horse and a gent who robbed a local bank before coming here to order a post-heist drink.
In her book, “Chevy Chase Inn: Tall Tales and Cold Ales from Lexington’s Oldest Bar,” author Sarah Razor described the venerable bar’s continued appeal:
“The Chevy Chase Inn is a nice mix of Lexington, providing a watering hole for the refined and the inelegant, the lawful and the lawless.”
How many bars can say that?
As bourbon pedigrees go, this one is at the top of the list, located in what was the original barreling warehouse of the James E. Pepper Distillery founded in 1780.
The rustic hunting lodge décor of wood-burning fireplace, copper top bar and comfy leather couches make for a good place to listen to live music on weekends and to follow the Cats on their TVs.
Oh, and for drinking bourbon or one of their other spirits such as Pure Blue Vodka or Devil John Moonshine.
108 Church St.
You could be forgiven for overlooking this tiny bar tucked away on Church Street. At least you could have before Esquire Magazine named it one of the 21 best bars in America (yes, America.)
Ona still keeps a low profile with its dimly lit, Art Deco-style interior — the kind of bar found in a ’40s film noir flick with Bogart as a hard-boiled, bourbon-loving detective.
Make like Bogey and order one of the Classics — a Negroni, Manhattan or Old-Fashioned. Or for the hipsters in the crowd, one of the Modern Classics — perhaps a Naked & Famous or the Corpse Reviver #2.
Belle’s Cocktail House
156 Market Street; 859-389-6777; bellesbar.com
A short walk from Ona will bring you to Belle’s Cocktail House, a local hangout since its opening in 2013. The bar’s crystal chandeliers, antique mirrors and cozy fireplace would have no doubt appealed to its namesake, legendary Lexington madam Belle Brezing.
The bawdy Belle would also have given her approval to signature cocktails such as Better Than Sex (bacon-washed Screwball Whiskey with a chocolate-covered bacon garnish) and Naked in the Garden (cucumber-infused Wheatley Vodka, lemon juice, strawberry kiwi shrub, lemon slices, strawberry halves and cucumber slices.)
Fret not, bourbon lovers. Be the Buffalo (Buffalo Trace barrel pick infused with pecans & cocoa nibs, Averna Amaro, walnut bitters, Rivulet pecan liqueur) is just for you.
Bourbon on Rye
115 W. Main St.; 859-286-5153; bourbononrye.com
One of my friends calls this popular downtown Prohibition-style spot “the best bourbon bar in Lexington.”
When I asked him why, he cited the expansive bourbon list featuring both well-known brands such as Heaven Hill, Bulleit and Larceny and less well-known (at least to me) Bardstown Prisoner, Door Knocker and Smoke Wagon Straight.
Add to that its robust list of ryes and Old World whiskys, and you could spend days just drinking here.
Suburban Lexington bourbon bars:
OBC Kitchen Bourbon
3373 Tates Creek Road; 859-977-2600; obckitchen.com
“Keep your friends close and your bourbon closer” is the slogan at this local watering hole which not only has a truly astronomical list of Kentucky’s finest, but also gives outliers a chance to be tasted.
Go ahead, try Belle Meade BHG 12-year Single Barrel from Tennessee; 13th Southern Colony Bourbon from Georgia; High West American Prairie Reserve from Utah, and Widow Jane from Brooklyn, New York.
3195 Beaumont Centre Circle Suite # 100; 859-368-8325; whiskeybear.com
Another fan favorite since it opened in the now-closed Barn Food Hall at the Summit at Fritz Farm, Whiskey Bear is still packing them in at its current location in Beaumont.
Featuring an extensive selection of bourbons as well as other spirits from around the world, it offers hand-crafted cocktails such as the Brown Derby (Old Forester 100 Bourbon, grapefruit juice and honey); Boulevardier (Old Bardstown Bottled-in-Bond, Aperol, Noilly Prat Vermouth) and Sazerac (Bulleit Rye, absinthe, Peychaud’s Bitters, demerara).
The Bourbon Library
4000 Terminal Drive inside Bluegrass Airport
Okay, you probably weren’t expecting this one as it’s located inside the terminal at Bluegrass Airport. But hey, isn’t it better to drink and fly than to drink and drive?
It’s located on the second level past security. Still, its extensive bourbon menu honors Kentucky’s distilling heritage.
One disadvantage: Last call corresponds to last flight out.
Bourbon bars just outside of Lexington and worth a drive:
Jake’s Cigar Bar and Lounge, Nicholasville
100 Langley Drive, Nicholasville; 859-273-0351; jakescigarbar.com
If you want to try something other than the downtown scene, Jake’s, in the Brannon Crossing Shopping Center, offers some 380 bourbons on the drinks list as well as a humidor featuring an impressive number of fine cigars.
The décor is equally impressive, especially the art installation made of tobacco leaves which changes according to atmospheric conditions.
106 Court St., Versailles; 859-753-1113; amsdenbourbonbar.com
This bar in downtown Versailles could best be described as intimate, meaning you will probably get to know the drinkers on either side of you very well. You will also get to know a selection of more than 100 bourbons, including five different ages of Pappy Van Winkle (hmmm, they must know someone.)
If you are truly looking for a gem of a small bar, you need look no further than the Amsden. Be sure to drink responsibly, however, as it is next to the police station.
Bourbon on Main, Frankfort
103 W. Main St.; 502-352-2720; bourbononmain.com
If you’re willing to make the trip to Frankfort, you’ll find a total commitment to bourbon (and a view of the Kentucky River) at Bourbon on Main.
When I say commitment, I mean it. It’s one of the few restaurants anywhere with a bourbon menu larger than its food menu, coming in at a whopping three pages and 300 bourbons.
They have a certified bourbon steward who will guide you through a curated tasting with a selection of three to six bourbons in any price range.