When the Urban Bourbon Trail was created in Louisville, Ky., in 2008, member bars were required to list at least 50 bourbons. Is it me or does 50 bourbons in 2021 sound like too few to have at a dedicated bourbon bar?
Agree with me or not, what’s the ideal number? And how much variety is required given age, brands, types, regions, distilleries and more? Here’s another: Must it have proper glassware? And what about ice … and staff knowledge … even food choices?
Agreeing on answers to those questions may never happen, so let’s just start with what I think are at least 13 basic requirements for a dedicated bourbon bar.
1. It has at least 150 selections
Anything less is just, well, a bar. Far as that number … I like round numbers for marketing purposes. But I also like that count to include a broad range of brands, distilleries and even geography. And here are the operational facts: 75 will sell regularly, and the other half more slowly due to higher prices or customer dislike. Those slower sellers give owners an opportunity to freshen the list.
And speaking of freshening the list, great bourbon bars update theirs frequently, i.e. removing the names of depleted stock. Customers hate hearing, “I’m sorry, but we’re out of that,” in the digital age.
2. Its staffers are knowledgeable and acquainted with everything on the shelf.
3. A true bourbon bar has an easily navigable whiskey menu.
4. A great bourbon bar has rational pricing.
What’s rational in 2021, when bourbon pricing is crazy irrational? I loosely define it as “not shockingly beyond what consumers pay at retail in their specific market.” (In other words, rationally high prices in New York will be irrational in Lexington.) For example, any bourbon I’d pay $25 +/- a bottle for off the shelf should cost $6-$9 for a 2 oz. pour. Do the math to see that that’s a gross margin ranging from 300-450%. Pretty sweet. What about a $100 bottle at retail? Apply the same 3x to 4.5x markups to get $25-$37 per 2 oz. pour. Seems “rational,” right?
And speaking of price, market pricing is ridiculous and screams “the owner’s whim.” I went to a bourbon bar once that boasted 350 offerings and was excited about all those choices until I saw there were no prices beside them on the menu. Buh-bye. That windsock of an owner cares more about secondary market movements than providing fair value to customers.
5. Any proper bourbon bar uses correct glassware.
6. A great bourbon bar serves a small range of foods that complement bourbon.
7. Any great bourbon bar has a Bottled-in-Bond category!
8. A dedicated bourbon bar serves flights.
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9. A proper bourbon bar has a basic 10-item cocktail list, at least.
10. And to make great cocktails, a great bourbon bar must have great ice.
11. A great bourbon bar’s staff pours with jiggers.
12. A great bourbon bar has its own vibe.
13. Lastly, a great bourbon bar has comfortable furniture.
Steve Coomes is editor of BourbonBanter.com. A Louisville restaurant industry veteran turned award-winning food writer, he has edited and written for dozens of national trade and consumer publications including Pizza Today, Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living over his 31-year journalism career. As a spirits writer, Steve's work can be found in Bourbon Plus, Bourbon Review, Bourbon & Banter, WhiskeyWash.com and other publications. In 2014, he authored the book, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and has authored other titles as a private ghostwriter.
Read Steve's full profile.