Exploring all that this Louisville whiskey bar has to offer
Written by Maggie Kimberl
Karla Green is the creative director of Louisville’s Watch Hill Proper, one of the largest whiskey bars in the United States. There are more than 1,700 American whiskeys on the menu, so I wouldn’t recommend trying to order a white wine spritzer or a gin and tonic. There’s a whiskey, or a whiskey cocktail, for everyone, and food and cocktail menus there rotate seasonally. We recently caught up with Green to understand how she develops these continually rotating cocktail menus.
Maggie Kimberl (MK): How does designing a cocktail menu for a whiskey bar differ from designing a cocktail menu for a general bar?
Karla Green (KG): The difference with Watch Hill is just the magnitude of offerings that we have. Only being American whiskey, since that is our primary focus, we don’t celebrate other spirits in that way… I learn quite a bit from using American whiskey as the canvas. I think it’s intriguing for guests to come in knowing that while their fallback might be a vodka or gin-based cocktail, there is something that they can enjoy there with similar flavor profiles that might open them up to whiskey.
MK: How often do you rotate the menu?
KG: We’re doing it about every three months right now. I’m working on the spring menu, and that should be released probably in March.
MK: Are there any cocktails that are always on the menu, and are there any whiskey cocktails that you find yourself revamping over and over for each season?
KG: That’s a good question. You can take something like a Margarita and continue to add seasonal flavors to it, so that can be something that you can rotate. We’ve noticed a trend after being open for almost nine months now, there are cocktails that are definitely keeping their place on the menu, which makes it hard because as we get more data on which cocktails are more popular, it’s hard to make way for new ones. It’s a good problem for us to have, but you also have to take into consideration things like menu fatigue or having too many choices. Our whiskey menu selection is over 1,700 right now, so between 30 cocktails and 1,700 whiskeys, and rotating food menus, people are, I think, in awe in the best way. But they also can be overwhelmed by not knowing what to choose. You can easily make variations of the same cocktail, whether it’s a different type of sugar or adding a unique liqueur or modifier to it, to bring out some of that seasonal flavor. That’s the fun part of revamping the drinks.
MK: What do patrons of an upscale whiskey bar expect in a cocktail?
KG: That’s such a personal question. I think they expect value, they expect everything to have a great presentation, to be flavor balanced, and the experience of watching it being made. All of those things are readily accessible for any guest in the restaurant. There’s no bad seat in the house. You can always see the bartenders at work making them, which is amazing. I have an amazing team. I have to give props to them because they’re the ones to consistently churn out these drinks at a high volume, and it’s one of the most beloved aspects of the venue.
MK: What’s one of your favorite cocktails to make?
KG: I tell people my favorite cocktail to make is the one I haven’t created yet. I don’t have a go-to. I’m drawn to sour-based cocktails like Margaritas and Daiquiris and tiki-style flavors that remind me of summer or spring.
MK: Where do you find inspiration for your cocktail menu?
KG: I like to consider myself more of a cocktail editor in that I’ll find a recipe. It could be a classic recipe with classic specs pulled out of a cocktail book from 1896, it can be very vague because back then, even in New York or even Chicago, trying to find fresh citrus in the middle of winter was probably a luxury. I’ll make that very basic recipe, and I’ll discover that it’s unbalanced or is lacking a certain additional flavor. I also like to scroll Instagram and see all those beautiful photos of other bartenders doing their thing. My cocktails are just unique pieces that are based on a certain drink, but that you won’t find anywhere, or are modifications of cocktail trends. I like to bring some of the trends from larger cities here to Louisville, the cute little garnishes as seen on Instagram that everyone wants to experience. It’s nice to bring those kinds of elements into the cocktails in this market.
MK: What are your thoughts on using a top-shelf whiskey in a cocktail?
KG: Why not? There’s a lot of sacrilege around keeping things pure. Drink what you like! There’s a way to go about it. If you are a serious taster or even if you consider yourself someone who is just kind of dabbling in it, every palate is subjective anyway. Whatever you’re tasting is going to be based on your own unique lived experience. When you start tasting those nuances, then you can start dabbling in making something like an Old Fashioned, which is simple. A lot of top-shelf whiskeys can be high-proof, and that’s not everyone’s favorite flavor palate or they don’t like their palate shocked in that way, so if I’m making a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, I’m proofing it down and you’re letting some of the other flavors shine through. Make what you like, drink what you like, there’s no judgment on my end.
MK: What experience do you want a whiskey enthusiast to have when they visit Watch Hill Proper?
KG: The goal is to have them just be absolutely wowed: wowed by the ambience, wowed by the service, wowed by the flavors, and most importantly, having them leave Watch Hill with an unforgettable experience, something that they’ll talk about for the rest of their lives. That’s the most important thing – we are working hard to become a destination and to cater to tourism. We love our everyday guests, too, and that’s why they come back. Each guest is receiving that kind of experience, so leaving such a long-lasting impression, that’s our number one goal.
Glass: Nick & Nora
• .75 oz egg white
• .75 oz raspberry syrup*
• .75 oz lemon juice
• .25 oz Vigo Amaro
• .25 oz Crème de Cassis
• 1.25 oz 100-proof bourbon
Fresh raspberry and limoncello spritz to garnish.
Add all ingredients into a cocktail tin, seal, and dry shake for 10 seconds. Add ice and shake again for another 10 seconds. Strain contents into the empty half of the tin, discard ice, and give another dry shake. Double strain into a Nick & Nora glass and garnish with a fresh raspberry and a spray of limoncello. The extra dry shake at the end makes a world of difference if you love meringue-like egg white cocktails.
*Raspberry syrup: Add one pint of rinsed organic raspberries to 3 cups of water and set on medium heat, allowing the raspberries to break apart, approximately 20 minutes or so. You can also use the back of a spoon and gently press some of the raspberries apart while in the water. Next, add 3 cups of white sugar and stir to dissolve. Reduce heat and simmer low and slow until the desired raspberry flavor is achieved. Strain off the berries and add 1.5 oz
of fresh lemon juice, strained, to brighten the flavor.
• .25 oz no-sugar added cranberry juice
(R.W. Knudsen is my go-to brand)
• .5 oz lavender syrup
• 1 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
• .25 oz whipped cream flavored vodka
• .5 oz pomegranate liqueur
• 1.25 oz 90–100 proof rye
Top with dry sparkling white wine or club soda (optional), butterfly pea flower water, miracle “snozzberry” to garnish.
Add all liquids and plenty of ice into a cocktail tin, seal, and shake vigorously for 5–8 seconds. Strain into a Collins or highball glass (10–12 oz in size) over fresh ice. Top with a splash of dry sparkling white wine or club soda. Float butterfly pea flower water. Garnish with fresh edible flower and a dehydrated miracle berry*.
*WARNING* Miracle “snozzberries” are all-natural berries that are known to make anything and everything taste sweet. This magical lavender sour-inspired cocktail leans sour for this reason. Don’t get salty; the melting ice eventually tames the tartness but after eating the berry you’d hardly realize it was ever sour at all. One berry can alter taste buds for up to 90 minutes.
Strange & Unusual
Glass: Nick & Nora or shallow coupe
• 2 drops Bittermens Hellfire Shrub
• .17 oz Bittermens Burlesque bitters
• .5 oz hibiscus syrup*
• .75 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
• .5 oz Sorel liqueur
• .75 oz Ancho Reyes Poblano liqueur
• 1.5 oz beet-infused single-barrel bourbon (95–105 proof)
Persian lime and edible glitter-infused olive oil to garnish.
Add all ingredients into a cocktail tin, seal, and shake until the tin gets frosty. Double strain using a fine-mesh tea strainer and Hawthorne strainer. Garnish with Persian lime oil drops.
*Hibiscus syrup: Add 2 cups of water to a saucepan and bring to a low boil. Add 20g of dried hibiscus flower and simmer for 15 minutes. Add 2 cups of white sugar and stir until dissolved. Strain off the dried flower.
Apple Butter & Sorghum Mint Julep
Glass: Julep Tin
• 1 heaping bar spoon apple butter
• 10–12 large mint leaves
• .5 oz St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
• .5 oz sorghum syrup (equal parts sorghum
and water to create simple syrup)
• 1 oz 100-proof bourbon
• 1 oz 100-proof rye
Tart, crisp apples and mint to garnish.
Add apple butter, mint leaves, and syrup to the bottom of a julep tin. Gently press with muddler, mixing often. Next, add the whiskies and a scoop of crushed ice. Swizzle to integrate the flavors. Top with a mound of ice and garnish with a bouquet of fresh mint and a few crisp apple slices.
Glass: Rocks/Old Fashioned
• 3 dashes Black Walnut bitters
• .5 oz salted-maple chestnut and vanilla root beer syrup*
• .33 oz Nixta Licor de Elote
• .5 oz 100-proof corn whiskey
• .75 oz 95-proof high-rye rye
• 1 oz American malt whiskey
Popcorn cone to garnish.
Add bitters, syrup, and spirits in a mixing pitcher and stir until well chilled. Pour over large ice cube and garnish with a mini-cone of popcorn. Try “Chicago-style” popcorn: cheese, butter, and caramel corn all in one.
*Salted-maple chestnut and vanilla root beer syrup: Reduce (2) 12 oz bottles of organic, all-natural root beer down to approximately 8 oz. In a separate medium-sized saucepan, add 2 cups of water, 1 vanilla bean pod split lengthwise, and 5 oz of finely chopped roasted and peeled chestnuts and bring to a low boil. Add 1 cup of demerara sugar, 1 cup of cane sugar, ¼ teaspoon of coarse sea salt, and ¼ cup of Grade A dark maple syrup, and reduce heat. Stir until dissolved. Add in root beer soda reduction and stir. Strain off chestnuts and vanilla pod once the ideal flavor is reached.
Photos courtesy of Watch Hill Proper