Speakeasy series goes off the beaten path

Part Two: Taking an insider’s glance at Hell or High Water and Mr. Lee’s



Photo provided by Mr. Lee’s

Last time, I spoke of speakeasies that you can find in hotels around town — Pin + Proof, a fresh, new speakeasy located in the Omni, and the Rathskeller, located in the Seelbach which holds a ton of historical value. This week I am mentioning two speakeasies that are a little more off the beaten path.

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water is located on Whiskey Row and opened up just last month. They had soft openings for about a month and officially opened March 24. The owner thought of the name Hell or High Water because the building had actually caught on fire and flooded twice.

It is unique in the fact that the secrecy of the bar resembles that of a real speakeasy. I walked up and down the street trying to find it, and there weren’t any noticeable signs indicating where it was. I must have passed it six times. When I finally realized where it was located, I walked in and was in a room the size of half-bath that was covered in art. I looked around, confused, and almost walked out until another person assured me I was in the right place.

“Some people walk in and are curious about what this place is, but don’t know about the bar, so I will just give them a spiel about the art on the walls,” Emily Clukey, host of Hell or High Water, said.

Therefore, make sure you mention that you are looking for the bar when you arrive. Only then, will the host open up the “secret door” that leads you down the stairs to this hot, new bar.

“It kind of takes you away from the city,” James Siegel, bartender, said. “it is quiet, and the dim lighting makes you forget about what time of day it is.”

Each room is meant to have its own vibe, from the bar area to the library. Jazz and 1920s music play throughout to really set the mood. Make sure to get up and walk around because there is plenty of detail to take in, and maybe even some hidden rooms… hint hint.

The drink menu is divided into two style of drinks — “Hell” (dark liquors) and “High Water” (light liquors). Siegel recommended “The Calling Card” from the “Hell” side, and “Kingdom Come” from “High Water.”

The Calling Card is similar to their old-fashioned given that it contains bourbon, demerara and bitters, but it is a little sweeter because they also add sweet vermouth, Braulio and dry curacao. The Kingdom Come is made with gin, sparkling grapefruit, vanilla and orange bitters, making it a sweet, yet refreshing drink. What I found most enjoyable was that their cocktails are on average less than $10, making them the cheapest out of the four speakeasies.

“The most interesting thing to me is the theme of the cocktails,” Jon Cherry, an employee, said. “They really are a centerpiece of the bar, if not the main attraction.”

Although the cocktails are cheap, the experience was high dollar. They limit the amount of people they allow in so that every customer has an available seat the entirety of their stay, as well as the ability to provide excellent service.

(Tip: make a reservation!)

Mr. Lee’s

Mr. Lee’s, previously a karaoke bar, opened about a year and a half ago and is located across from the Germantown Mill Lofts in Louisville. I had a much easier time finding Mr. Lee’s than I did Hell or High Water, but it doesn’t stick out as a noticeable bar either. When I walked in it was very dark, probably the darkest of the four, but again that is intentional for the setting.

“You lose track of time with the lights,” Alex Pier, the head bartender, said. “People can come in here at any time, but still enjoy that late-night experience.”

Part owner, Jordan Cahill, is really passionate about creating a memorable experience happening as soon as you walk in the bar. Once seated, each person is given an amuse cocktail and a water. This gives the customers time to settle down and look over the menu. (Amuse cocktails are made in large batches as a complimentary drink to greet the guest, then change approximately every three to four days once it is finished.)

Cahill doesn’t like to label Mr. Lee’s as a speakeasy rather than a cocktail bar because they are more of a mid-century modern bar. He doesn’t have a strict dress code for the employees, like you would find at Pin + Proof for example — the white jackets, dresses, etc.; he likes simple, just something nice and preferably black.

Another aspect that sets them apart from the typical speakeasy are the “pop-up bars” Cahill is wanting to create. Typically Mr. Lee’s is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but they are wanting create to pop-up bars inside Mr. Lee’s that will run during their normal closed hours. Although these pop-up bars will function inside Mr. Lee’s, there will be a different atmosphere with different music and totally different menus based on the theme of the pop-up.

I went on a Sunday and by coincidence was there for their first cocktail competition, which was to kick off their first pop-up bar for the following Monday and Tuesday. The theme for this Amaro pop-up bar was “Cocktail Bar in NY.” No sugar, no syrup and no shaking for any of the drinks. They created a cocktail list specifically for this event and all the cocktails were either Amaro or bitter forward. Cahill has several ideas in mind for pop-up bars in the future, so stay tuned for the next one!

The best thing to me was how zealous Cahill and Pier were about creating a unique experience for their customers, so they get repeat business. They said they are not a pretentious bar and welcome everyone.

Something else I appreciated about Mr. Lee’s is that they strive to be a little to no waste business. They will use their produce in as many ways possible before tossing it for example, as garnish, juices or even cook the produce to obtain the extract and use it to make their own aromatic bitters. They also eliminated straw use. Employees only hand out straws upon request and they are 100% biodegradable paper straws.

They have an interesting cocktail selection that even includes an alcohol ice cream. Cahill recommended to me the “No Jacket Required,” which is Bourbon, Blood Orange and Lapsang-Souchong, and served in a smoke-filled glass. Is it coincidence that all four bars recommended me a bourbon-forward drink? Answer is no — not when you are in the bourbon state!

Fun Fact: 95% of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky!

Sustainability Tip: Individuals can start eliminating one-use plastic by replacing plastic straws with a reusable metal straw.