Whiskey Dry is Unlike Anything Ed Lee Has Done Before
Whiskey aficionados and burger lovers, rejoice — Edward Lee’s long-awaited Whiskey Dry has opened its doors at the north end of Fourth Street Live.
The establishment boasts massive hamburgers and a selection of 200 whiskeys. The focus is bourbon, but Whiskey Dry serves spirits from as far afield as Japan. Bar-goers can enjoy old favorites or sample a curated flight, but bourbon also finds its way into cocktails created by Stacie Stewart and Mara Brown, boozy milkshakes and many menu items as an ingredient. Lee, Stewart and Brown deliberated over a dizzying array of brands, tasting each one and paring it down to the 200 they could solidly recommend. “We have strong opinions,” Lee says.
Whiskey Dry meets the standards of creativity and attention to detail found at Lee’s other restaurants, but the similarities end there. It is far and away the most casual of his eateries — well-heeled foodies can rent out 610 Magnolia for the night, but Whiskey Dry doesn’t even take reservations. Lee and his team harnessed their creative energy to hybridize a high-end whiskey bar and a good-for-the-soul burger joint, and the fusion of the two is beautifully realized. The menu is a single slick page, like one might find at an all-night diner. A photographic homage to bourbon covers the wall opposite the bar, documenting its journey from cornfield to stillhouse to barrel barn to cocktail shaker. On the table, hot sauce in a glass flask sits beside ketchup in a bright red plastic cylinder, the flavors of which blend so well when mixed and fry-dipped that it’s hard to believe they weren’t selected with this in mind.
The menu reimagines classic regional fare into something unique yet still familiar. Smokey pimento cheese finds a home in crisp fried curds, served with chili slivers in a gochujang romesco sauce delivering a full-bodied kick that doesn’t leave you blowing over your tongue. The flagship cocktail, the Commonwealth, consolidates about as much Kentucky as possible without adding a sprig of tobacco: bourbon, sorghum syrup, Ale-8-One, coffee and peppercorn with a curl of lemon. Nonetheless, the competing notes are expertly blended to create a drink with a deep flavor that rewards contemplative sipping.
The star of the menu is Lee’s signature burger, the Big Ed. It lives up to its name, towering over the plate with two Angus beef patties, a slab of fried green tomato, pickles and a generous heap of shredded lettuce between two sweet buns. Lee tops it off with his own special “Comeback sauce,” a variation on remoulade. The burgers come with fries, naturally. You can taste how recently they were part of a potato — like fries you might find at a festival booth, but without the deluge of grease. Lee may be a culinary innovator, but the nostalgic appeal of fast food is not lost on him. The Big Ed is a McBurger ascended to a higher plane of being, pleasantly salty and acetic and dripping with flavor. The difference is of course in the quality of the ingredients, many of them locally sourced, such as Foxhollow Farm beef, Kenny's Farmhouse cheese, a variety of products from Bourbon Barrel Foods, and the produce of several local farms come Spring — not to mention the bourbon.
Lee hopes to use the restaurant as a vehicle not only to shake up Louisville’s food scene, but also to enrich its citizens. In March, Whiskey Dry will host the Smoke and Soul initiative, which offers young adults interested in the restaurant business but lacking experience a 40-week hands-on mentorship. Lee’s goal is to mentor four young adults per year, who are offered positions at Lee’s restaurants upon completing the program. Application and donation information can be found at leeinitiative.org.
The original announcement of Whiskey Dry’s opening came in February of 2017, but a delay in the opening of another of Lee’s restaurants in Washington, D.C. pushed the date back. Now that both are finally open, he looks forward to opening a new chapter of his career. “There is so much evolution happening in whiskey right now,” Lee says. “We want to be a part of that discussion.”