“Hey, I was wondering”, I said to to the gray tee shirt hunched beneath the bar of an old converted fire station on the edge of downtown Louisville. “How long ’til you sell through that bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year?”
It was $85 a pour, after all.
“Oh well, I don’t really know”, the shirt said before standing up. “I’ve only been working here a few months, but the level hasn’t moved much.” He looked over his shoulder at the bottle, spill mats dripping in his hands. “Actually, I don’t really like to see people ordering it. It’s just like a waste of money and bourbon. They don’t have the palette to understand it.”
“Oh, no! Of course not. I’m not a bartender. I’m just the bar-back.”
He shuffled away and I looked down the bar at the actual bartender, sitting and chatting with my editor. We had met him earlier that day at the newly constructed Bulleit Bourbon visitors center, which sits on the legendary Stitzel-Weller grounds, where Pappy barrels used to sit stacked three-high in rusting rick houses.
After he had showed Sung, Ben and me around the grounds, the bartender suggested we come to The Silver Dollar, one of the best whiskey bars in Louisville and where he worked nights. They had five pages of bourbon listed and plenty more that weren’t — anything from Buffalo Trace antiques and a dozen different Four Roses to a bottle of the reduced-proof Maker’s Mark that trickled out before the project was scrapped.
I had ordered a Willet 7 Year Rye, Ben a Parker’s Heritage and Sung a Woodford Reserve Double Oaked (because he’s a Scotch fan, and that’s about as close as you can get to Scotch in Kentucky without getting shot). Sung and I were sitting around waiting for something to happen — because this was Kentucky, and we’d heard if you just play it cool and talk to people you’ll wind up getting into something — when Ben slid over.
“He’s heading out for the night, but he told me about a bar with a thousand beers”, he said. The bartender walked past with a handshake for each of us. This was a Sunday night and it was getting late, so the bar was emptying out.
It was an alcoholic U.N. meeting; we could only make out faint traces of pink or tan or plywood walls in between the shelves of beer glasses, beer signs, coasters and multicolored taps from all over the world.
It was a little ways away, but not far enough for a cab. We closed up and walked out on Frankfort Ave, where headlights were rare this time of night, passed the North End Cafe, its little patio with covered seating waited for Monday’s breakfast, skirted the oil-spotted lots of Turning Wrenches auto repair shop and crossed over the South Fork Beargrass Creek. We slowly climbed back uphill toward Story Ave and turned the wrong way down a one-way street.
On the corner stood a tavern, mid-renovation, its skeleton interior lit up, bare studs and windows casting shadows like ribs across the street. Directly next to it was a small storefront, light spilling onto the barstool propping open the door, front windows completely obscured by flags from Iceland, Spain, Brazil. The neon sign above the red awning — always turned off, we learned — still said “Fusion Restaurant”, even five years after that place had closed and its current owner moved in with a dozen or so refrigerators. This was Sergio’s World Beers.
Walking in felt like entering a hoarder’s house that had suddenly been opened to the public without much sprucing up. It was an alcoholic U.N. meeting; we could only make out faint traces of pink or tan or plywood walls in between the shelves of beer glasses, beer signs, coasters and multicolored taps from all over the world. There was a map in the back that showed the fifty or so countries Sergio had traveled. The bartender referred to Sergio as a bit of an eccentric, probably because he had to cover for him whenever he went overseas to try and buy new beers.
Rumor had it the place stocked over 1,000 beers, but the bartender said it’s around 1,600. Without exception, each beer operates on the honor system: you choose, you drink, you pay later. A balding man walked up and got out his wallet, scratching at what hair he had left and pointing to one of the taps as he tried to recall what he had drank. Most of the beer is high ABV.
“You ever been here, dude?” asked the bartender. “You gotta bring your bottles up too.”
As the man retreated back to collect his empties, the bartender looked down at his phone. He had synced it via Chromecast to the television, which was meandering through Weird Al Yankovich’s work from 1990s. When we walked in it was “Amish Paradise”, followed by “Smells Like Nirvana”. After making another selection, he looked up and told me about his first time at Sergio’s.
“When I first walked in I didn’t know how to order. I waited and watched and eventually someone grabbed a bottle and brought it up and Sergio poured it for him. ‘Ohhhhhh, okay.'”
Besides the taps — which change so often they just leave the old ones on and tape slips of paper with the new names over them — there are a dozen commercial fridges full of bottles, along with one home fridge next to the bathroom with a sign tacked on reading “There’s Awesome Beer Inside!” above the smiling face of a regular who had passed away a few years prior.
Back at the bar Sung was craned over, getting shots of the taps and the bartender, who didn’t pay him much mind. Sergio has nothing to hide. This is a local spot, but not in an exclusive way; when you don’t advertise or even put up a sign, even some of the neighbors don’t know you exist. But they’re happy to show anyone what they do.
It was getting late, but it wasn’t quite there yet — that time of night where you can decide to turn in or turn on. Ben asked the bartender what our next stop should be, and he said that he’d tag along and show us if we let him close up. He moved quickly, turning off the TV, unplugging the fridges — and almost overlooking a couple in the back, who were possibly having an affair.
“You sure you don’t mind showing us around?” Ben asked after the ‘tender walked back to the front, store keys in hand. We were headed to the Nachbar in Germantown.
“Well, I was going to head there anyway. This way, if you like it you stay. If you don’t, you leave. And I got a free ride. No big deal.” This kind of warm bluntness is present everywhere in Kentucky. It’s not Southern hospitality, or learned politeness. It’s just the desire to get something out of an interaction with another person, mixed with the silent confidence of loving your state and knowing its backroads well.
“Well, I was going to head there anyway. This way, if you like it you stay. If you don’t, you leave. And I got a free ride. No big deal.”
We jumped into a minivan right out front with our new friend and started chatting up the driver, a nurse who moonlighted as an Uber driver. After about a 15-minute drive and 10-minute encounter with a traffic cop, we arrived at our final bar.
Inside was more of what we had come to expect in Louisville. Everyone was content in their own conversation, never looking over their shoulder for something better or closing themselves off to anyone else. I struck up a conversation in the line for the bathroom and Ben talked to a man about his pug, which was staring wide eyed at everyone who walked in, like he had just woken from a particularly confusing dream. Sung was seated at the bar next to a cat that people warned him “not to fuck with”.
We got beers and our new friend from Sergio’s bought us a round of bourbon, and we walked out of the range of the jukebox to the backyard, where we could sit on the patio and talk while looking out at 20- and 30-somethings spilling beer on wooden benches and playing cornhole. We talked about New York, about who had a new case of Ebola; he talked about Kentucky, about a man named Buddy Stumps who was running for Sheriff of Spencer County. But mostly we just sat and enjoyed what would be one of the last warm nights of the year.
It was pushing 1:30 a.m. by this time and we knew we had a few long days in front of us with some real work, so we decided to grab a car back to our hotel. With tentative plans to drop by if we were ever back in town, we said goodbye to our new friend, knowing that we could never leave him totally alone in a Kentucky bar.