When I moved here from Los Angeles in 1994, I expected to find real mint juleps in every bar, and I assumed that dinner parties would drip with elaborate Southern gentility.
Maybe I fell in with the wrong — or, in my opinion, the right — crowd, but my preconceived notions could not have been further from the truth.
The few mint juleps that I found in bars were made with a mix reminiscent of cough syrup. They were served on the rocks with no sprig or garnish. I also don't recall the traditional silver cup, moist with condensation and icy cold.
In private homes, the cocktail hour was more like a cocktail party, lasting until dinner — usually around 10 — by which time everybody was well "liquored up," a term new to me. Fortunately, I was a quick study with a high tolerance, years of misspent youth having prepared me well.
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Over time, however, I have come to realize that the Horse Capital of the World might not be a naughty, hard-drinking town, but its residents, when motivated, can certainly hold their own. This is evident everywhere, in a scene that is committed to enjoyment and occasional excess without taking itself too seriously.
Lexington runs the economic, cultural and sociopolitical gamut; thus its bars and restaurant-based watering holes are a quirky cocktail of tradition and trendiness — think bourbon classics and bizarre martinis — and conformity and its opposite, ranging from exclusive country clubs (sorry, I can't help you there) to internationally recognized gay bars. You can drink in a penthouse piano bar, hang out at a music club of any genre, watch a movie with a cabernet or go below street level with beer belters.
Although good dives exist, drinking here is not a lonely endeavor.
Lexington bars provide community, which some might call cliquishness, but the "see and be seen" crowd bonds, too. Friendships, even the kind that last only for a few drinks, are easy to make.
There is always someone to talk to and laugh with. Your bar-stool buddy might recommend a fabulous appetizer or an even better bar. The potential for spicy local gossip is unlimited. A certain icon in a high-end ZIP code welcomes a horse and his rider at the bar on the Fourth of July; I've never heard what the horse orders. It's pointless to go drinking if you're indifferent to the humorous, the outlandish or the just plain odd.
Barhopping follows the seasons and the academic calendar. The moment the weather turns warm, the al fresco scene heats up. Patios are packed from May through August, compensating for the shortfall of student business during summer months.
Clearly, I have caught up since my arrival, but so has Lexington drinking. Fifteen years ago, the slightest hint that there was room for change was usually met with offended silence. And until 2007, Sunday alcohol sales were illegal and even drinking in restaurants was severely limited.
But change is a constant, and now there is greater choice and variety, reflecting Lexington's rich diversity.
The most obvious marker, in my opinion, has been the rise in boutique drinking.
Self-confidence, care and enthusiasm have gone into applying for — and receiving — Wine Spectator awards. Now about seven Lexington restaurants boast them. The number of local wineries with tasting rooms has exploded. Retail, previously shabby, is today one of the most beautiful and erudite expressions of wine tasting in town. Beer drinking has gone from having only one great bier stube, or beer hall, to numerous choices, with flights of ale and lager and knowledgeable staff with many brews on tap. Several spots pour dozens of bourbons, with one recently named among the top three bourbon bars in the world.
And at long last, my own personal quest has finally been put to rest. I have found a place, the Seahorse Lounge at the Julep Cup, where the bartender will muddle some mint, crush some ice, bring out fresh simple syrup and make me a genuine, and phenomenally delicious, mint julep.