The Reach of Philly's Dining Experience: Part 1

Louisville, Ky., is an up-and-coming cocktail town, thanks to a few Philly experts.

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 5, 2012

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Everything about the moment was perfect: The Manhattan, with its impeccably calibrated balance between Rittenhouse rye, Angostura bitters, Carpano Antica, and gently diluting water from the ice it was born alongside. The light filtering in from the massive windows, casting the 3,000-square-foot space in an almost dreamlike glow. The marble bar, custom-made for the spot and cool against my elbows despite the heat outside. It was as urbane a place for a late-afternoon drink as any I could imagine.

And it was in Louisville, Ky.

I was in town last week to taste bourbon and check out what I’d heard from a number of people was one of the more exciting up-and-coming food and drink scenes in the country. Not only were the rumors true, but—and here’s why you’re reading about it in PW—this bar and restaurant, St. Charles Exchange, has a deep, intimate Philly connection.

The general manager, Rich Ruth, came down to Louisville from Philly’s Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. His colleague Colin Shearn, one of the most important figures in Philly’s evolution into the serious cocktail town it’s become, also left the Franklin for St. Charles, where he’s now the bar manager. Mitch Prensky, of Supper and Lemon Hill, is the consulting executive chef; he’s still based in Philadelphia. And Mike Welsh, also of the Franklin, is part of the team running St. Charles.

So when I recently spoke with Shearn on the phone after having spent an afternoon at St. Charles, tasting bourbon and taking in the scene before that wonderful Manhattan, my first question was simple: Why move from Philly to Louisville?

“There’s a lot of factors in that decision, some of them professional, some of them personal,” he told me. “On a professional level, it’s exciting to come down to a place that’s not where Philadelphia is yet, that’s emerging. It kind of feels like it’s on the cusp of something big. So if I could come down and not only be a part of it, but [also] hopefully move that progression forward, would be amazing ... And on a personal level, you know, it’s a very different way of life down here, and that sounded nice after a while. My wife and I have 8-month-old twins, and you think about [raising] your children, and where you want to do that, it seems more in tune with where we wanted to do that.”

It’s a bold move, of course, to leave a city where you’re among the most respected in your field, and attempt to have a similarly profound impact in a place that may or may not be receptive to what you have to offer.

But it takes precious little time in Louisville to see that it’s a city on the verge of something big, just like Shearn said. Great restaurants and bars are opening up all over town, and the groundwork is there for the team behind St. Charles Exchange, and the passionate locals they work alongside, to really have an impact.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Shearn has simply been able to take the playbook from Philly and transplant it. All cities have their own character, their own drinking preferences, and Louisville is no different.

“There’s less of the cocktail geekery [in Louisville],” he said, “but I don’t think that’s a bad thing, personally. You know, that’s become its own kind of weird train-spotting, vicious circle of like, nerdiness that’s not actually fun for anyone.

“I think [that] happens everywhere, and I think it’s necessary,” he added. “I mean, once you realize how many possibilities there are, you owe it to yourself—or I think you do anyway—to explore as many of them as possible.”

While he’s been exploring them, and seeing which ones work and which don’t in his new city, there have, of course, been some surprises, like a local taste that tends to be less fond of bitter than we are in Philadelphia. But the similarities, at least when it comes to the most important things—his customers’ willingness to trust him and his team, and to taste what they have to offer, for example—Philly and Louisville share more than a few strands of drinking DNA. And it’s there that Shearn and the rest of the St. Charles family have begun to make their mark in Kentucky.

“There’s no [drinks] orthodoxy, there’s no canon yet, or not 100 percent anyway,” he said. “Especially in a smaller city where, even with the Internet, you’re still probably one of five people that are doing this. So you just do everything you can, and then eventually you realize, ‘Oh, that’s right, I’m doing all of this at a bar, and people come here to have a good time and have good drinks. Let’s get back to that.”

Which is exactly what he’s doing at St. Charles Exchange, a deeply comforting, beautiful and exciting place for guests, visiting journalists, and the newly transplanted team that’s helping to define the next era of cocktail enjoyment in Louisville.

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