In the past I’ve usually waited until the following quarterly issue of Food & Dining Magazine to publish the text of my most recent contribution, but these days our articles appear at the web site during the weeks following the magazine’s release.
As such, here’s the link to my profile of Bourbons Bistro, originally published in the Fall 2019 issue.
Profile — The Bourbons Bistro Legacy: Putting the Urban in Bourbon, by Roger Baylor (Food & Dining Magazine)
“Irish Hill is the Louisville neighborhood you find when you’re lost.”
It’s an old-time Louisville saying about a relatively small, richly historic patch of ground shoehorned between Baxter Avenue, Lexington Road and Beargrass Creek, and Eastern and Cave Hill Cemeteries.
On Irish Hill’s northeast side is Breslin Park, formerly the site of Louisville’s fortress-like City Workhouse, where minor offenders were incarcerated while they paid their debt to society through menial labor. Across Payne Street is a collection of imposing old brick warehouses known since the 1980s as Distillery Commons, used nowadays as offices, businesses and creative spaces.
Once this was National Distillers and Chemical Company’s Kentucky Distillery Warehouse & Bottling Plant. The mighty National Distillers owned some of the country’s most venerable bourbon brands, like Old Grand Dad, Old Crow, and Old Taylor, and by the 1940s it controlled 70% of the American market for bourbon and rye.
At its peak National Distillers had a work force of 1,400, most of whom lived within walking distance. Numerous families depended on these jobs, but consumer trends were unkind to the whiskey market and the plant closed in 1975.
“Headliners (a music venue) used to be the lunch hall for National Distillers, which was just down the street from us. I call it the UPS of the time; it was the economic engine for our neighborhood and others nearby, like Phoenix Hill and Clifton, even Butchertown.”
Meet Jason Brauner, who grew up in Irish Hill and was in knee pants when National Distillers was shuttered. Brauner’s great aunt and great uncle both worked there. So did business partner John Morrison’s father and grandmother.
Brauner and Morrison opened Bourbons Bistro in 2005. Call it cosmic, karmic or just a well-turned business plan, but their Frankfort Avenue refuge became an instant classic, primarily because Brauner and Morrison scanned the cluttered landscape of gimmicky bar and restaurant concepts, settling on a unifying principle so incredibly obvious as to be invisible: Bourbon.