Favorite Lil' Speakeasies: Louisville, Kentucky

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A small, gold-lettered plaque stands out from a non-descript wall. A white globe illuminates a small room crammed with antiques. A neon sign stands at the entrance of what used to be a strip club. These are the markings of Louisville's speakeasies, a set of cocktail-focused bars that provide a whimsical element to the city's already legendary culinary landscape.

 Hell or High Water

The experience at Hell or High Water is fully “roaring 20s”—dark and moody with red velvet booth seats at the entrance and cushy leather chairs in the library area with exposed wooden beams. Upstairs there are lush velvet draped-off rooms and intimate nooks. Located behind Duluth Trading Co. on Whiskey Row, there is no street signage for the speakeasy. To find Hell or High Water, you first have to find Hello Curio, a “curated gallery” marking the entrance to the speakeasy. A white globe illuminates the entrance, and inside the tiny gallery is filled with vintage artifacts from local antique shops. A host will lead you to the speakeasy entrance. The place can get fairly crowded and reservations are suggested. Inside, the staff is dressed up in period finery. The drink menu is fantastic, unique, and creative. If you aren't sure what to order, just tell them what you like, and you will receive a magical creation that you’re sure to love. The venue apparently has some interesting history (including surviving both fire and flooding disasters), so ask a bartender for a little history lesson! They also offer small bites and charcuterie plates, with many items sourced locally. Even the restrooms are on theme, and if you look closely, you’ll notice some cheeky wallpaper.

Jimmy Can’t Dance

If you don’t think you like jazz, you’ve probably never heard it live. Jimmy Can’t Dance is the jazz club in Louisville. Found in the basement of Another Place Sandwich Shop, the small room with exposed brick and dim lighting has a cellar-like feel to it. It’s intimate, and tables fill up quick. The menu is simple but full of jazz age-inspired cocktails and a selection of bourbon and rotating beers. The smells wafting down from the sandwich shop are tantalizing, and on select nights the shop stays open to late-night guests. Influenced by jazz halls in New Orleans and Manhattan, weekly lineups include beloved professional musicians and up-and-coming young talent carving their place in the music world. Part-owner Brian Goodwin (who also owns the sandwich shop upstairs) named the place as homage to his father, Jim Goodwin, who was responsible for bringing musicians into the sandwich shop during the boom of the jazz music scene in the mid-1990s. “Jim loved music, but he most certainly couldn’t dance.”  

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Mr. Lee’s

Nestled in up-and-coming Germantown, the outside of Mr. Lee’s is so understated you might miss it. The only thing marking the entrance is an elegant but small gold and black plaque reading “Mr. Lee’s.” Once inside, the bar is long and narrow and very dimly lit, with small candles as the primary light source. This creates an ambience of a more classic speakeasy, where some others are too loud, too bright, and too festive. The soft, cozy candlelight and mid-century digs transport you to another time, and you’ll find yourself not wanting to leave and go back out to the bright and noisy outside world. Forget waiting to catch a server's eye; patrons can pull a discreet tab on the wall, which alerts the bartenders that another libation is needed. This allows you to actually enjoy the company you’re with and the drinks you’re having without fighting a crowd. (Hallelujah!) Cocktails and culinary techniques collide at Mr. Lee’s—they make their own syrups and in-house infusions, among other mixers, which extract flavors in a way similar to what a chef would do in a kitchen. Here, much more importance is placed on flavor profile rather than base spirit, and we think you’ll taste the difference!

Meta

Owner Jeremy Johnson believes the cocktail movement is as meta as it gets—bartending about bartending. Meta is one of the best cocktail bars in the city, and they’ve been making bespoke craft cocktails since before it was trendy. All of the drinks are grounded in tradition but remade with a unique twist. Meta is dedicated to being innovative and is constantly changing up its menu so it feels fresh. They are even willing to remove a bestselling cocktail so that they don’t fall into the trap of relying on one or two popular cocktails that they can’t take off the menu. For owner Jeremy, the point is to not get so comfortable that he’s not challenged to create something new. While the real hero of Meta is the drinks, the off-the-beaten-path bar is beautifully decked in white marble, and the floor is covered in copper pennies. The lights are kept low in classic speakeasy fashion, and on weekends a DJ spins an eclectic playlist that fits right in with the mood of Meta.