Food & Drink
Nine of the South’s Best Whiskey Bars
From vast libraries to a vintage emporium, these recently opened bars keep bourbon front and center
Bourbon’s popularity in recent years has given rise to a new culture of reverence. Once just whiskey, cheap and good, now it’s often expensive and great, with many bourbons exalted and a few essentially deified. You can also find houses of worship, where admirers of the corn gather and reverently taste.
Bars that lean heavily into whiskey in general and bourbon in particular continue to sprout up across the South, welcoming both neophytes and those with deep experience in the whiskey divine to compare notes. And maybe make a new friend. As people used to do at bars. Here’s a guide to nine that have opened since 2020, along with three timeless spots for devotees.
Photo: Karla Green
Walk into Watch Hill Proper, just outside Louisville, and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into some long-forgotten social club. This is both surprising and not. Surprising because it’s in a neighborhood of new buildings in the Norton Commons development, and not because, well, it’s a bourbon club, with requisite leather chairs, a dusky demeanor, and a membership program that confers special perks. But you needn’t be a card-carrying drinker to visit and sample from the 1,900 bottles in the collection, many of which get the spotlight during scheduled whiskey tastings. If perusing the massive inventory leaves you famished, the menu is the cure, with creative offerings like lobster hush puppies and diver scallops with ramps and sunchokes.
Permission attracts not only those who like their bourbon neat—it has close to seven hundred whiskeys available—but especially those who like it crafted into a classic cocktail. Since opening in 2020, the bar has won fans with its tart yet precisely balanced whiskey sour, as well as a showstopping smoked old-fashioned. “We’re like the Café du Monde of whiskey sours and old-fashioneds,” says owner Peter Nolan. “People like to start their evenings with one.” With its coffered tin ceiling and elegant pendant lights, a chandelier imported from New Orleans, and green velvet bar seats, it has the sassy flair of a speakeasy, but with whiskey that far exceeds Prohibition-era expectations.
Delray Beach, Florida
Photo: Felipe Cuevas
Though you might not expect to find this sophisticated, dim (and yes, even a little swanky) cocktail bar amid the beachy glare of Florida, a twenty-minute drive northwest of Boca Raton, Warren takes its whiskey seriously. The extensive shelving showcases more than a thousand bottles, with an obvious fondness for bourbon. “My goal is to make this a legitimate whiskey bar, like Jack Rose in D.C. and the Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland,” says general manager Wayne Pasik. “I want to educate new whiskey drinkers.” Among the choices are more than thirty barrel picks—ask about the rare Blanton’s Gold, or order a “New Kids on the Block” flight, consisting of a lineup of the last four whiskey selections to arrive.
Even in a town that seemingly has a bourbon bar on every corner, Neat swiftly became a destination for enthusiasts when it opened in 2022. Its calling card is vintage bourbon (motto: EXPERIENCE HISTORY BY THE POUR), making it part museum, part shop, and part cozy, understated bar. Around two hundred bottles are open at any given time and available for sampling, the great majority vintage variations. You can also taste pours from Neat’s private barrel selections; if you find a taste that’s your jam, pick up a bottle at the shop and continue your enjoyment from your living room.
This bar in a historic downtown former storefront opened in 2020, a satellite of the now closed Rebellion in Washington, D.C., which had been a well-respected whiskey bar. (A third opened in 2022 in Leesburg, Virginia.) With a name inspired by the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the Fredericksburg spot sits in a nearly two-hundred-year-old building, with a soaring interior rising up to a tangle of ancient rafters. Ask about the barrel picks of Southern-made bourbons, sample the rich, barrel-aged Manhattans and old-fashioneds, and graze from a food menu heavy on pub classics, such as loaded tots with bacon and peppercorn ranch, and a pork belly, ham, and pickle sandwich served on a banh mi bun.
New Orleans comes to Nashville with this brand-new whiskey bar in the city’s Germantown neighborhood. It’s the first outpost of a popular Garden District bar, which has long been a favorite among locals for its casual, roadhouse atmosphere and staff fluency in whiskey. The proprietors have kept the same vibe when moving north—it’s “either an upscale dive bar or an understated cocktail bar,” says Robért LeBlanc, a partner at Barrel Proof. The whiskey list numbers in the hundreds, with a particular emphasis in the new location on Tennessee whiskeys, which are bourbons in all but name.
Photo: Karla Green; Toy Box Studio
Vault & Cellar comes as a pleasant surprise for travelers exploring the northern Shenandoah Valley. Housed in a nineteenth-century bank building (hence the “Vault”), the restaurant focuses on “New Appalachian” cuisine (like Scotch-Irish eggs made with quail eggs breaded in crushed pork rinds). The bar offers more than three hundred whiskeys, mostly bourbon, including many selections seldom found in your average bar, such as Van Winkle 12-year and Michter’s 10-year. The room is more pub than white linen and serves its stock in straight drams or mixed in a Manhattan or old-fashioned.
North Charleston, South Carolina
Photo: Andre Hinds
When Paddock & Whisky opened its second Charleston location just north of the city in Park Circle in 2021, it brought an enticing whiskey bar to a burgeoning century-old neighborhood originally planned as an English garden community. It has the composure of a distinguished library, complete with the de rigueur ladder to retrieve bottles from the higher shelves. The selection may not be overwhelmingly extensive—about 250 different bottles on call—but the knowledgeable bartenders are happy to talk whiskey when traffic is slow or make you one of the locally prized oldfashioneds with a bourbon of your choosing.
Photo: Tommy Johns of Neon Bites
The name of this bar and restaurant actually refers to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and chef Lawrence Weeks’s food reflects that—think boudin balls, gumbo, and shrimp yakamein. But this Louisville hot spot is also a mecca for bourbon lovers, with more than three hundred well-selected whiskeys available in one- or two-ounce pours. When you enter, you’ll be greeted by a backlit wall of amber deliciousness rising behind the bar. Reserve far enough in advance and you can nab one of the unique booths, which are designed to look like oversize versions of charred bourbon casks, and be sure to inquire about the reasonably priced and creative flights.
Three can’t-miss stops for the whiskey faithful
Walking into Jack Rose, with its floor-to-ceiling shelves, feels like arriving at a college library in which someone has mischievously swapped books for whiskey. Open since 2011, the D.C. standard-bearer has long been a revered destination for bourbon lovers, who gravitate to savor some of the more than 2,500 bottles of whiskey, one ounce at a time. The bar can get loud with enthusiastic drinkers and amplified music, but there’s an underlying seriousness to the place—more graduate-level whiskey center than frat house.
New Orleans, Louisiana
The Bourbon House on Bourbon Street holds, not surprisingly, a strong selection of bourbon. The interior evokes the haughty grandeur of a nineteenth-century bank, with tall windows that front one of the well-traveled thoroughfare’s most active corners. That makes it a great spot to partake in world-class people watching while enjoying a dram. It’s also a fine place to discover the affinity between fresh oysters and bourbon—get a dozen and a flight, and while away an hour or two.
Waco probably isn’t on your list of bourbon destinations—nor is a neighborhood stippled with bars catering to university students. So J.S. Barnett’s Whiskey House comes as an unexpected treat in the city’s downtown. Founded in 2010, Barnett’s has compiled an encyclopedic tome of a whiskey menu (more than 1,200 to choose from). “I’m obviously very passionate about whiskey,” says general manager Dezeray King. The vibe is that of a British pub crossed with a college bar, with the balance shifting as the night progresses. Best to come early before the crowds descend.