On the short list of things that you absolutely must do in Louisville, drink bourbon is for sure one; eat a hot brown is another. These will surprise no one. But I'd also argue for another less-expected essential for any visitor, but especially food-lovers: a trip to the 21c Museum Hotel. It might seem weird to put a hotel on the list and it might seem hyperbolic to say that the 21c Museum Hotel is so much more than a hotel! But I will say both things — and I will stand behind them.
The property is not only home to a hundred-odd artful rooms (with rubber duckies in the bathrooms and mint julep cups in the bar), an American South-restaurant showcasing local farmers and artisanal produces in the Ohio River Valley, and my favorite bar in Louisville, but it also houses 9,000 square feet of gallery space, spanning two floors and maybe a dozen rooms. And while it doesn't have the bright lights of 4th Street Live, it does have a giant gold replica of Michelangelo's David out front — plus loads of life-size red plastic penguins that appear at random throughout the property. (One morning I woke to find one standing outside my door.)
The location on the outskirts of downtown is, admittedly, still a little quiet. But that's nothing, says Area Beverage Manager Chea Beckley compared to when it opened in 2006. The property was a harbinger of downtown Louisville's dramatic transformation — one that is ongoing.
We talked to Chea — who was born and raised in Kentucky, did some stints in New York and Naples, Florida, and moved back in 2011 — about how downtown Louisville has changed, the hotel's forward-thinking beverage program, and the bourbons he drinks at home.
Behind the Bar with Proof on Main's Chea Beckley
You grew up in Louisville. How has downtown changed since you were a kid?
Growing up here, nobody went downtown. There was Kentucky Center for the Arts, but that was it. You came for work and then you stayed in your area. Fast forward to 2006 or so — when this hotel opened, it was on the forefront.
We're still on a building stage in terms of what we're doing, but there's a lot more going on. The city is doing a good job bringing things to the center and making Louisville a better place to live with the parks system.
And we have a great independent food scene. There's a lean towards new American and drawing from your roots. I hope we continue to build on these themes.
How does the beverage program at the 21c Museum Hotel fit in?
We take a cue from the hotel. It's a place where you can explore and discover and we take that through every facet of the beverage program. Are you looking to taste some natural wine? We'll take a varietal like Cabernet Franc and show you a different side.
We've also become quite known for our cocktails. They're always forward-thinking. Our cocktails are designed in concert and we as a team whittle them down. There are initials by each one — that's the bartender who invented it — and each of us has a flavor profile, a style.
What ingredients are you most excited about right now?
We're using a lot of sherry, amaro, and vermouth. It's an exciting time because there's so much more becoming available to us on a day-to-day basis. Of course, we're also looking at seasonal availability. The big thing is how to meld all those things together.
Let's talk bourbon. What's your list like?
When you come to this bar and you look at the whiskies on the back bar, you see a lot of high-end whiskies. But the one I've been using because I think it makes a fine cocktail and it's $5 on our list is Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond White Label. It's straight bourbon, it's got enough age, and it won't break the bank.
What's a great bourbon for beginners?
Four Roses Yellow Label is a great gateway bourbon. It's true to bourbon. At that proof (80) and with the smoothness, it's easygoing. Basil Hayden's is a touch spicier and a bit more expensive.
What's your home collection like?
Here's what I have open right now: Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Smooth Amber Old Scout 11 year, and a discontinued Jim Beam Gold Label Bottled-in-Bond.
Where else would you send visitors to eat and drink in Louisville?
If you like beer, the Holy Grale or Gralehaus. Or Monnik is a local brewery. If you want to go visit the Clifton area, go to Red Hog — it's a local charcuterie market and butchery — and get a meat plate. In downtown, for late-night bites and great craft cocktails, go to Meta. In Germantown, there's The Pearl and the NachBar. If you want to explore taquerias, go out Preston highway and, as far as Vietnamese, Vietnam Kitchen is the staple.
Thanks for the visit, Chea. If you're in Louisville, Proof on Main is an absolute must visit. If not, make this berry-ginger gin cocktail at home.