Mind of a Chef star Edward Lee is getting ready to open the newest addition to his growing Louisville, Kentucky restaurant portfolio, and his latest isn’t like his celebrated Southern restaurants Milkwood and 610 Magnolia. It’s Lee’s first bar: When Whiskey Dry opens early next month, there will be food, but as the name implies, the point is whiskey.
Lee is something of a whiskey nerd. “Ever since I moved to Louisville 15 years ago now, I’ve gotten so into whiskey in ways I never would have imagined as a chef,” he told Eater. Whiskey Dry, an 80-seat space with a patio, represents the full expression of this interest. The bar will serve 200 different bottles of whiskey ranging in origin from America to Scotland to Japan. In amassing this collection, Lee had help from Stacie Stewart, the bar manager at Milkwood and bar director at Whiskey Dry, and drinks writer and whiskey expert Noah Rothbaum.
According to Stewart, the extensive drink menu will have something for everyone: whiskey obsessives, novices, and even people who might not love whiskey. “The biggest focus for me has been getting things that are unique and really cool, but also very palatable,” she says. “We have a lot of crazy, out-there whiskies, but for people who genuinely want to learn to appreciate it, one of the focuses has been having a lot of different types and having a lot of information available too.”
Whiskey Dry is a bar first, but there will be a full, if concise, food menu, with a particular focus on burgers. “The cheeseburger as of late has become puritanical, a not-to-be touched icon,” Lee says. “I disagree. The fun of a cheeseburger is to go nuts with it.” Lee envisions using different meats, adding global flavors, and making buns from scratch for burgers that rotate seasonally.
Lee has described Whiskey Dry as “not your father’s mahogany and leather whiskey bar,” and in keeping with its progressive spirit, Whiskey Dry has a mission greater than whiskey appreciation. It will serve as the training ground for the chef’s LEE (Let’s Empower Employment) Initiative, a program intended to bring more diversity to the restaurant industry.
A few weeks after opening, Whiskey Dry will begin training young adults who cannot afford culinary training or higher education. Lee recently announced that he and Lindsey Ofcacek, general manager at 610 Magnolia, are launching a mentorship program to advance the careers of female chefs in Kentucky, but Whiskey Dry will continue a youth training program first started at Milkwood and 610 Magnolia: A class of six to eight young people will learn how to work in all parts of the restaurant.
“It’s small but we want to impact their lives in big ways. The whole philosophy of the initiative [means] we’re never going to have hundreds of people,” Lee says. “You don’t change the world with one sweeping initiative, you change it in small ways.”
Lee hopes that the model will spread and that other restaurant groups will adopt similar programs, ultimately creating a better, more diverse restaurant industry. In the meantime, though, Lee is opening a better whiskey bar.