Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Visit to the Pendennis Club

They're still lying at the Pendennis Club.

Walking into the 128-year-old private club in downtown Louisville last week, I didn't last two minutes before somebody told me the Old Fashioned cocktail was invented on the premises. By now, they should know better. Several historians have eyed the claim with suspicion for some time. And in David Wondrich's book "Imbibe!" he digs up a reference to the drink in a 1880 issue of The Chicago Tribune—one year before the Pendennis was founded in 1881. Moreover, the Old Fashioned is just the old Whiskey Cocktail that people had been drinking for decades prior to then, just living under a different name.

Still, in the hazy world of cocktail history, even persistent myth-mongers have a place in the pantheon. So I determined to order an Old Fashioned at the Pendennis bar. I am not a member, of course. I was in the club to attend a bourbon tasting. But at some point toward the end, I snuck away and bellied up to the sparsely populated bar. My status was immediately questioned (probably because I was wearing tennis shoes—a dress code no-no). I admitted I was an outsider, but played up to the manager's vanity by saying I very much wanted to try the historic house specialty. He gallantly instructed the bartender to give me one on the house.

Sorry to say that the Pendennis Old Fashioned is of the muddled sort, with a maraschino cherry, orange slice and the lot. It was fine for what it was, but nothing to hold your head up and crow about. And if they're going to pretend to ownership of the cocktail, shouldn't they purvey the old, fruit-free version?

"I sometimes wish they had invented the Gin & Tonic here," groused the bartender. I commented that the Old Fashioned was an easy enough drink to make. "Yeah," he said, "but when a group comes in and orders a dozen of them at once, you might change your mind."

Aside from the newish spin on the Old Fashioned, Pendennis is charmingly antique in character. The bathrooms look a century old. There's an in-house barber shop, and a row of private phone booths. In the gift cases up front near the lobby, bottles testify to the fact that Pendennis used to bottle its own whiskey.

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