A pet theory of mine is that Lexington tends to be a town of many hidden treasures. In contrast with cities that flaunt their riches, ”The Horse Capital of the World“ modestly sequesters some of its coolest destinations.
I offer, as evidence, a bar: The Horse & Barrel.
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From the curb, one sees a cute watering hole that's part of the more prominent deSha's Restaurant and Bar. Inside, the first level is a walk-through with a long bar on one side, high tables and stools on the other. A couple of steps down lead to a large, cozy lounge with low tables and chairs, a working fireplace, and an atmosphere that makes you want to put on a tweed jacket.
Given the proximity of large hotels and event venues, The Horse & Barrel serves guaranteed crowds of visitors and out-of-towners, as well as regulars and locals of the young professional persuasion, drawn by good beer, the full bar and pub grub.
Beyond that, you will discover that this pub, this bar, has an alter-ego equivalent of the enotecas, or wine libraries, of Italy.
In Kentucky-speak, I will call it a bourbon library.
This collection consists of a magnificent stock of more than 70 labels of bourbon.
”We have the largest number of specialty bourbons in Lexington,“ said Crystal Mount, a knowledgeable bartender and adviser to beginners. Indeed, late last month, the prestigious Whisky Magazine gave deSha's and The Horse & Barrel its coveted Icon of Whisky award as one of the three best bars in the world.
Given such possibilities, one could become an expert here. From the factoid-filled spirits list citing the 1964 Senate resolution that declared bourbon ”the distinctive spirit of the United States,“ to the illuminated shelves showcasing bottles like a museum display, The Horse & Barrel makes learning fun. As part of the process, devotees and novices can join the BBC, or Bluegrass Bourbon Club, which upon completion of 53 tastings gets your name engraved on a plaque at the entrance. Current membership totals about 250.
I took a short course, creating my own bourbon sampler (usually three 1-ounce pours for $13.95, excluding a couple of ultra-high-end Pappy Van Winkle's). At the cheap end was the well (Ancient Age for $4.25) and mid-range was Crystal's favorite, Basil Hayden for $6.25. The third ounce was the Horse & Barrel's most expensive and rare, Pappy Van Winkle's 23-year-old Reserve ($32). Picture the world's finest crème brûlée with dabs of caramel sauce and a headbanger jolt of alcohol, and you will begin to capture the experience.
Lest this all sounds too pure and reverential, the special-events coordinator, Tony Atwood, and staff have created a light-hearted batch of signature mixed drinks.
”Some of our cocktails were developed to commemorate events at Rupp,“ he said, ”like the Yellow Brick Road for Elton John's concert, or Dark Lady, in honor of Cher. Our two most popular, however, are probably the Trace of Manhattan, using Buffalo Trace, and the Kentucky Margarita.“
Finally, weekend music attracts the twenty-something crowd and fans who follow their bands hundreds of miles. General manager Misty Carlisle recalled a recent visit from the Celtic rock band Seven Nations.
”They made a detour from a Cincinnati gig,“ she said. ”I wasn't familiar with the group, but almost immediately after the booking was announced, the phone started ringing off the hook. People drove up from as far away as Nashville.“
So, who knows what's behind closed doors? To belabor my library analogy one last time, The Horse & Barrel is proof that you can't judge a book by its cover.