A Brown Spirits Education with the Owner of Louisville’s Best Bourbon Bar

updated Dec 17, 2019
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(Image credit: Tara Donne)
(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Haymarket Whiskey Bar is my kind of bar. It’s the kind of dive bar that’s got character in spades — witness pinball and skeeball machines, a giant moose head, and a neon blue bar — but it’s not so grungey that you feel like you don’t want to put your hands on the fluorescent-lit bar (or if you do, you’d have to whip out your bottle of Purell). It also has the best collection of bourbon in Louisville.

Now, “best” is a word that’s thrown around quite a lot, and there are, unquestionably, a lot of great bourbon bars in Louisville. But we stand by it when it comes to Haymarket. With nearly 400 whiskies, roughly 300 of which are bourbon, you can find basically anything you’re looking for and some bottles you never even thought to look for. What’s more, there’s zero pretense here. Bartenders are just as happy to serve you a beer and a shot — or a $200 1 1/2-ounce pour of Pappy (although they may serve you nicer ice for the latter).

While it feels like the vinyl bar stools have been welcoming brown-spirit aficionados for decades (at least), the bar is actually a relative newcomer; in fact, just five years ago it was a coffee shop. But, as owner Matthew Landon matter-of-factly explains, in this town, bourbon is king.

With his fro, his baby-blue frame glasses, and army fatigues, Landon looks like a young Bob Dylan or an expat living in Berlin or someone who, at one point, took his coffee beans and his beer very seriously indeed. (He has, in fact, been two of those three things). He does not look like what I expect the owner of a bourbon bar to look like, nor is he much of a drinker at home. But this does not mean he doesn’t have a near-encyclopedic knowledge when it comes to the brown stuff (he does).

Behind the Bar with Haymarket’s Matthew Landon

Let’s start with the basics: What’s in your well?

We don’t have one well. We’ll rotate between Heaven Hill 6-year, Old Forrester, and Buffalo Trace. Those are all $5 a glass.

What’s the most expensive bourbon you offer?

The most expensive is Pappy’s 23-Year Family Reserve. That’s $200 for 1 1/2 ounces. You’re paying for quality, age, and Pappy.

It’s an amazing brand, but we’ve also got about 20-odd barrels that we’ve bought exclusively for the bar. These are barrel strength, aged for nine to 12 years, and you can only find them here — for a lot less than $200.

You also have a number of discontinued bourbons on your list. What can you tell us about those?

We know they’re going out of stock and we try to get ahead of the curve. Right now we have Old Charter 10-year, Ezra Brooks 12-year, and a wheated bourbon from Old Fitzgerald, to name a few. The less we have, the higher the price because, well, we can’t restock.

If someone is new to bourbon, what would you suggest?

There’s a lot of bourbon out there that’s not worth drinking if you’re just getting started. If you’re looking for a typical Kentucky bourbon, I’d say Wild Turkey or Maker’s Mark.

I also like Basil Hayden. It’s an 80-proof, easy-drinking bourbon with a high rye mash bill — which means it’s a little less sweet. Angel’s Envy, which is under 90-proof, is another good option. Old Forrester is low in alcohol and tastes like cream and caramel.

What the first thing you look for on a bourbon bottle?

“Distilled and bottled by.” If it doesn’t say this — if it just says “bottled by” — they’re buying their spirit from someone else. All Bottled-in-Bond bourbon will say “distilled and bottled by.”

(Image credit: Tara Donne)

I’ve been seeing a lot of “Bottled-in-Bond” lately. What does it mean?

The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 is basically the first consumer protection law. It set the standard; it’s the original truth in advertising. If your bourbon is bottled-in-bond, it will say very clearly, usually on the front of the label: “Bottled-in-Bond” or “Bonded.” That means it’s at least four years old, from a single distillery and a single season, and it’s 100 proof.

So, that trendy barrel-strength bourbon wouldn’t get the “Bottled-in-Bond” label.

It has to be 100 proof or 50 percent alcohol by volume to be Bottled-in-Bond. Eighty is the minimum in Kentucky; it’s 70 proof in Australia. The highest I’ve ever seen is above 140 proof. Barrel-strength — or direct from the barrel — is very profitable right now, but there’s really no right way.

Any favorite bourbon distilleries to visit?

My advice: Go to the one where you like the juice.

Thanks for the visit, Matthew. If you’re in Louisville, stop by Haymarket Whiskey Bar for a bourbon or two (and if you like it, ask if they have carry it in their bottle shop.)