Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Visit to the Seelbach Bar

The Seelbach Bar, located just to the right of the soaring lobby in Louisville's grand old downtown Seelbach Hotel, has two claims to fame that make it a worthy visit for the tavern collector. One: F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly frequented it before he found fame. He found enough favor with the bar that he gave the hotel a solitary mention in "The Great Gatsby." (In the novel, it's where Tom and Daisy Buchanan got married.) The owners of the Seelbach play up this slim connection to literary notoriety shamelessly. There's even a suite named after Fitzgerald.

The Fitzgerald link may be true, but the problem is the Seelbach Bar of today looks nothing like the Seelbach Bar Fitzgerald knew. His bar was opulent and grand, with a lot of white marble along and behind the bar. The marble was all removed during prohibition. Today's Seelbach Bar is a homey, wood-laden cove; welcoming, certainly, and with a curious bi-level charm, some tables placed on a wraparound mezzanine that looks down a mere six feet on the tables in the center. It has a vaguely maritime feel to it. I don't know if I'd call it one of "The 50 Best Bars in the World," as the Independent of London did, but it's appealing enough. Certainly a step or two above most hotel bars.

The Seelbach Bar's second claim to fame is the Seelbach Cocktail, a drink invented in 1917, just before the clock struck midnight and Prohibition began. According to Ted Haigh's book "Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails" (recently rereleased), the libation would be lost today if not for the exertions of cocktail historian Gary Regan. In 1995, the hotel's restaurant director Adam Seger found the recipe for the forgotten drink, and decided to start making it again. Seger intended to keep the formula a secret (always a blueprint for disaster; note all the work Jeff Berry had to go through to discover all the secret recipes to the great tiki drinks of old), but Regan convinced him to let him published it in his 1997 book "New Classic Cocktails."

A Seelbach is made of bourbon, Cointreau, Angostura and Peychaud's bitters, and five whopping ounces of Champagne. I did not order a Seelbach Cocktail, perhaps foolishly, though I did taste one. My fellow journalist Liza Weisstuch was drinking one and gave me a sip. I was rather unimpressed, finding it a bit insipid and weak. I suspect the Champagne was of low quality.

I decided, instead, to spend my money on straight bourbon. Like most of the top bars in Louisville, the Seelbach touts its bourbon selection. And it is a lengthy and impressively list. Proof, another bar down the road, had an even more impressive list. But I was perpetually frustrated upon visiting Louisville bars. When I travel, I like to search out the drink, the liquor, the dish that I can't get anywhere else. I'm obsessed with the regional delicacy, the local poison. But, try as I might, I could not find a bourbon in Louisville that I could not easily get (not just by the bottle, but by the glass) in New York. The bartender at Proof suggested Noah's Mill as a whisky unobtainable in Gotham. No. I could think of three places in my neighborhood alone where I could order a dram. He offered a couple other idea. No, and no. Every name was familiar to me.

Getting past my irritation, I settled on Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and was pleased.

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