Spirits at The Miller House isn’t a bar that grabs national headlines, but it should be on every whiskey lover’s bucket list. The low-lit, relaxed, and clubby room practically begs you to say and sip—and probably longer than you should. Were another World War to break out, it would be my preferred bunker.
That it’s located in Owensboro, Kentucky, doesn’t help its exposure. The city of about 60,000 lacks a direct connection to a major interstate, though it’s still easy to get there. And it’s well-worth the drive from Louisville or Indianapolis, both of which are roughly two hours away. Its downtown riverfront recreation and convention area has undergone a $160 million transformation that even caught the attention of the New York Times a few years back. The transformative new look for the historic Ohio River town was dramatic and welcomed, managed carefully, leaving plenty of history for visitors to enjoy.
The Miller House is one such spot. The 115-year-old house was transformed into a restaurant whose Southern cuisine balances tradition with modern sensibilities. Yet its amazing bar is my favorite part. Built in its spacious basement, the walls are lined with brick, wood and whiskey. Lots of it. Just the bourbon count alone is “somewhere around 450 bottles. I need to check that and update the list. We just keep getting them in so fast that it’s easy to lose count,” says co-owner Larry Kirk.
That’s a heck of a whiskey wall (image via Spirits at The Miller House)
On this afternoon he’s on his knees, head halfway into an under-counter cabinet in search of room to store some backup bottles of booze.
“I can’t put everything out on the shelves for everyone can see right now, but there’s more room coming,” says Kirk. He points to a section of brick wall he says will feature more lighted cabinets for the rest of his whiskeys. “I wish you’d come in a couple of weeks when it’ll go around that wall there. Then maybe I can count these things.”
Before becoming a restaurateur with his wife and daughter, Kirk taught school and coached soccer. He admits he’s not “really a whiskey drinker per se, but I got swept up in this whole bourbon craze, just like everybody else.” As bottles started accumulating on Spirits’ shelves, the watering hole got a reputation for hard to find brown liquor.
It took a New Jersey native named Vince Carida to create the Owensboro Bourbon Society and really increase supplies. With about 175 members, it’s Kentucky’s largest bourbon society, and it meets regularly at Spirits.
Admiring the beautifully crafted shelves, Kirk affirms, “good bourbon isn’t for looking at, it’s for drinking.” He points to a Michter’s 20-year-old bourbon and a nearby bottle of hard-to-find Kentucky Owl. A series of Four Roses single barrel expressions rest nearby, and of course, there’s a full line of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. “We have this large a selection so we can introduce people to a bourbon experience.”
Spirits regularly hosts bourbon royalty like Bill Samuels (Maker’s Mark), Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey), Fred Noe III (Jim Beam) and Joe Magliocco (Michter’s). It’s not unusual that such whiskey greats wind up admiring his collection.
“Mr. Russell came in with his wife for his 60th anniversary at the distillery, and he brought the Diamond Anniversary bottle with him,” Kirk says. “But I had a 14-year of his picked out for the occasion. He said, ‘Where did you get this?’ and ‘Do you have any more?’”
The bottle was not only a treasured favorite of Russell’s, but Kirk’s too.
“So I was cringing and said, ‘Umm, nooo,’” says Kirk, acknowledging his deceit. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m lying to a god,’ and so I told him I had more. … Later my wife said, ‘You just couldn’t say no, could you?’ And I told her I couldn’t. It was Jimmy Russell!”
A visit from Samuels saw the two men share an entire bottle of Maker’s Cask Strength and tell stories for hours. “He’s just a happy guy, and he just loves everything about Kentucky,” Kirk says.
Magliocco was so grateful for the invitation to speak to the bourbon society that he presented Kirk a bottle of his finest and rarest. “He was so personal and friendly, and when he sent me a bottle of (Michter’s) 20-year bourbon, I thought, ‘I love him,’” Kirk says, laughing. “As a matter of fact, we tasted some of that last night. It’s just amazing.”
Bourbon fans can spend a little or a lot at Spirits. Kirk says a recent private bottling of Henry McKenna 10-year old “flew off the shelves because we were selling it for $7 a pour. … But we have ‘cowboys’ coming in here throwing down $100 shots of Pappy, too.”
Regardless of their status, Kirk says the goal is to make everyone comfortable and to help create their own bourbon experience. “We want people to be comfortable,” says Kirk, regarding the flexible dress code. He then adds with a grin and a wink, “But we’re not offended if they dress up either.”
is an award-winning journalist and book author specializing in whiskey and food. In his 30-year career, he has edited and written for national trade and consumer publications including USA Today, Southern Living, Delta Sky Magazine, Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, Restaurant Business, Bourbon + and American Whiskey magazine. In 2013,...