Doc Crow's Southern Smokehouse and Raw Bar, located on historic Whiskey Row in Louisville, features one of the largest selections of bourbon and whiskey in the city, with more than 250 selections from around the world.
When I stopped by to talk with head bartender Keri Smith, it was 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon before the Kentucky Derby. Outside the windows facing Main Street, a man in a rubber horse mask and a "Feel the Bern" T-shirt peeks inside. It's unclear whether he is a tourist in for the races, waiting for the Bernie Sanders rally down the street, or neither; this time of year ("decadent and depraved," as Hunter S. Thompson would say) you can't really tell.
MUNCHIES: On that note, Keri, how would you describe the typical clientele at Doc Crow's? Keri Smith: We have everybody. There are businessmen just looking for a place to eat and drink. We have our bourbon people in town, like bourbon tourists, who are here because they are going to head out to the distilleries; and then we personally have a really great bourbon collection, so we have people come in for that.
Sometimes I'll hold "bourbon schools," where I'll pick out three or four flights and we'll do that, and talk about them if we're not too slammed.
And then, being next to the YUM! Center, we get the concert crowd—anyone from the Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber crowd, to the people going to go see Stevie Wonder, to the basketball fans. It really just depends. Some nights it's a big beer night; other nights we are all cocktails. Then, of course, this time of year we are all mint juleps and bourbon.
So with such a variety of people coming in, can you still spot a tourist? Oh, heck yeah.
What are some of the indicators? First off, the Urban Bourbon notebook always gives it away. On that note, I'll have people who will say, "I'm not from here, I'm not really a bourbon drinker—what should I do? Should I just get it straight?" And my first question is, "Do you like bourbon?" Sometimes people will say, 'I'm not really sure if I do like bourbon," at which point I'll typically suggest a cocktail, which is an easier way to go in than just bourbon in your face, you know?
Is it typical for locals to order mint juleps? [Grimaces] No. Just no.
So you'd probably identify someone as a tourist if they order a mint julep in, say, February? Yeah, yeah. Usually if someone orders a mint julep anytime—but especially in February—I'll ask, "Where are you from?" Because they aren't from here.
What do you actually think of the traditional mint julep? As a bartender, is it your favorite? No. Basically what a traditional mint julep is made of is bourbon, mint, and sugar. I'm not a big mint fan anyways—it's like brushing my teeth. I do like how we make them here; we don't let the mint get in there and fly all around. So on our regular mint juleps we will take the glass and rub the mint around the rim to just get the oils in, so it's not mint-heavy.
And then you have variations here at Doc Crow's? We have two variations that are actually on the menu. The first one I make is called a Mint Julep Lemonade. You take the glass, put the mint in there, and then shake bourbon, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Put that over ice. And it sells—it flies off the shelf. I actually have a hard time keeping the bourbon that's in there because we sell so much of it.
What kind of bourbon is that? For the lemonade, I use the Henry McKenna Single Barrel. Then for the second variation, the Near Eastern Julep, we juice ginger and make a syrup, then add Becherovka, bourbon, and rub basil leaves on the inside. Basil and bourbon go so well together. All that is then served over ice. I like it because it's not as sweet.
Then for a third variation—this one is not on the menu, but people can ask for it—I take bourbon, of course, a sprig of mint, orgeat, and then we actually use violet liqueur. It turns a really fun purple color. For competitions and stuff, I've been using edible flowers and mint as a garnish; but here it's hard to keep those fresh, so I'll just use mint. So that one is not on the menu, but I've been talking about it a lot…
Food-wise, what would you pair with a mint julep? Well, definitely not dessert. That would be too sweet. I would pair it with something with a little spice, maybe our pulled pork tacos or our gumbo. Or even something basic like Doc's Chicken.
Are you from Louisville? How did you get into bartending, and how did you end up here? I am originally from Cleveland, Ohio. I lived there for 20-something years, and then moved to Columbus to finish up school and started bartending there. I worked in an Irish pub, and I worked at one in particular for about ten years. Then I ended up getting a "normal job," but I still bartended on the weekends. There I was slinging beers, slinging shots, and that was about it. Four years ago, my husband and I moved here for his job, and I wasn't sure what I was going to do.
I thought, Well, I know how to bartend. So I helped open Mellow Mushroom off of Blankenbaker. So I was out there, and just before we got ready to open to the public, the boss brought in these badass bartenders from Vegas to train us in craft cocktails. It blew my mind. So I took everything that I learned in those lessons and practiced on my own time, and then ran with it.
After going through a few other bars, I turned in my resume here at Doc Crow's and had a job the next day. So in my time here, I've learned to love bourbon—I didn't like bourbon before—and have gotten even more into craft cocktailing, into developing menus.
You had mentioned that cocktails are one way to get into bourbon if you are just starting to learn to like it, but do you have a recommendation on an easy brand to try if you are a bourbon newbie? Angel's Envy is always a good one—it's like the smoothest bourbon I know. Plus, they are moving just down the street, so why not? Basil Hayden is a good one, and even Old Forester 86. All of those are nice and easy, and lower proof that won't scald the throat.
Got it. Thanks for speaking with me, Keri.