September in the South means hearing the sounds of marching-band practice drifting on the afternoon wind and getting ready to switch from craving peach cobbler to craving sweet potato pie. It also means bourbon. By law: A 2007 Senate resolution (sponsored by a Kentucky Senator, naturally) officially declared September to be National Bourbon Heritage Month.
In honor of America’s most notable native spirit, we asked a well-connected expert— chef Edward Lee—to name a few of the best bars in the South to enjoy it. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lee fell in love with Louisville on a trip to the Kentucky Derby in 2001 and relocated there soon after. In fifteen years living in River City, Lee’s racked up an impressive record, scoring seven straight James Beard Award nominations for his spot 610 Magnolia, publishing a cookbook (with a second on the way next year), competing on Bravo’s Top Chef, hosting a season of PBS’ The Mind of a Chef, starring in a documentary about fermentation, and opening three other restaurants—MilkWood in Louisville and two Succotash locations near Washington, D.C. This fall, he’s opening a bar of his own in Louisville, which will be called Whiskey Dry.
“When I moved to Louisville,” Lee says, “I got to be friends with a bunch of distillers at a time when bourbon was going from pretty obscure to being the hottest spirit on the planet. I started to drink lots of good bourbon.” Over the years, he also has built up a substantial home bar full of rare and obscure bottlings. (“I don’t have a collection; I have really good bourbons that I drink,” he says.)
Suffice it to say, the man knows his bourbon. Here are four of his favorite places to drink it.
The Bar at Husk
Charleston, South Carolina
Husk might be more famous as a restaurant for celebrity chef Sean Brock’s food, but the adjacent bourbon-focused bar is just as worthy of notice. “The forward-thinking that they have there with their whiskies and their food is amazing,” Lee says. “You get a Husk burger and you sit down with some whiskies and you’re pretty much set for the night. For me, this was the first bourbon bar that did it in a modern way.” It’s a nice contrast, given that bar is set in a beautifully restored century-old building attached to the restaurant, complete with original exposed brick.
Anvil Bar & Refuge
“Anvil makes the best bourbon cocktails of anywhere I’ve been,” says Lee, typically a purist who takes his whiskey neat. “They have the most rigorous, most precise, most intense whiskey training program of any bar I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen the test the bartenders have to go through to work there, and it’s ridiculous. I wouldn’t pass that test!” Open since 2009, Anvil offers a menu featuring a hundred classic drinks, along with an additional rotating seasonal list; you won’t run out of cocktails to try here, ever. (Anvil was spared damage from Hurricane Harvey, but owner Bobby Huegel has recruited dozens of bars nationwide to donate proceeds from Harvey Wallbanger cocktails to relief efforts in the coming weeks; follow #HurricaneHarveyWallbangers on Instagram and Facebook to find one near you.)
Jack Rose Dining Saloon
Three walls of this sizable bar are lined with bottles upon bottles of whiskey, more than 2,600 from all over the world. “It’s the most extensive and exhaustively thorough whiskey bar in the country, if not the world,” Lee says. “The list is smart but also extensively thorough.” In addition to both mainstream and special-edition bottlings from every major bourbon producer, you can also order rare vintage spirits that were distilled as far back as Prohibition.
Yes, the Clermont Lounge is a strip club, and yes, it’s in the basement of a seedy hotel that’s been shut down since 2009. But there’s a reason this spot’s been open for more than fifty years and is a late-night favorite of Atlanta chefs, bartenders, and celebrities. “In the age of rarefied bourbon and luxury bourbon, we forget that it was generally a working man’s drink. You didn’t sit around the table or at the bar and talk about tasting notes; you drank whiskey, you got drunk, and you’d talk about life,” Lee says. “For me, there’s nothing better than sitting at Clermont Lounge, talking to people you’ve never met before and downing Jim Beam White Label. Sometimes we have to take away all that fussiness and remember what bourbon is supposed to be. This is a great place to reconnect with why we drink whiskey in the first place.” The bourbon selection here may not be the world’s most extensive, but any night at the Clermont will definitely be a memorable one.