I don’t know what I expected as a Kentuckian traveling in bourbon country, but I liked what I found in Chef Newman Miller, the co-owner and partner at the Harrison-Smith House restaurant in Bardstown, Kentucky and Maker’s Mark’s chef-in-residence at the Star Hill Provisions restaurant on the distillery’s property.
Miller grew up in Washington County, Kentucky—about 20 miles from Maker’s in Loretto and 25 miles from Bardstown. He went to culinary school in Kentucky, and his first job after graduation was working at The Brown Hotel in Louisville, where the Kentucky-famous dish, hot brown—an open faced sandwich which involves bechamel sauce, bacon, turkey, and cheese on white bread—was created. “I made thousands of hot browns,” Miller says.
After a short stint in Scotland, Miller took up residence for eight years in Chicago working in research and development before he and his wife Rachel moved back to Kentucky to open up the Harrison-Smith House in August 2014. Two years ago, he started working with Maker’s at The Toll Gate Cafe, which was remodeled and reopened in March 2017 as Star Hill Provisions, this time including a full bar.
Keeping it Kentucky
The fast-casual menu at Star Hill is full of Kentucky fare. There’s a hot brown, of course, that Miller keeps pretty close to the original at Brown’s, only replacing bacon with country ham to make it Lexington-style. There’s chicken salad with a fruit chutney twist and a comforting meatloaf sandwich on ciabatta with garlic aioli and crispy cornmeal onions.
But what struck me the most during my recent visit were Star Hill’s cocktails, and specifically, the House Cocktail or Star Hill Highball: Maker’s Mark, eight dashes of Angostura bitters, fresh lemon juice, and Ale-8-One—a Kentucky-made ginger and citrus soft drink that is now available across the South in Kroger, Harris Teeter, and Fresh Market stores.
“The reason we have it on menu is my great aunt would watch ‘The Price is Right’ at 11 o’clock every day, and she would make herself a highball. That was her ritual. Bob Barker was on, and she would make her version of the House Cocktail, just a classic highball—bourbon and a mixer.”
My millenial spirit sang, “Yaaaasss!” when I first heard this story. Ale-8 and bourbon was the first cocktail I learned how to make, and who doesn’t have memories of at least watching “The Price is Right” with their great aunt or grandma in the middle of the day? It brought me joy to see a cocktail others might classify as “too hillbilly to put on a menu” celebrated for tourists to enjoy.
‘Thinking’ and ‘drinking’ cocktails
But, beyond bringing in an authentic Kentucky element, it makes sense for Star Hill—mainly open only from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday—to serve such a drink as the House Cocktail.
“Basically, our philosophy comes down to two things: drinking and thinking,” Miller says of his approach to building the cocktail list. “We know that people are going to four distilleries in a day and drinking the Cask Strength Old Fashioned might not make sense.” So, he put easy-drinking cocktails like the House Cocktail, which was actually first served at his other restaurant the Harrison-Smith House, and a Maker’s and Ale-8-One Slushie on the menu for sip-friendly, low-ABV options.
“The House Cocktail is for when it’s 11:30 a.m., and I’m on vacation and would really like a drink,” Miller says.
There are “thinking” cocktails with higher ABVs on the menu, too, like the Old Fashioned using Cask Strength Maker’s Mark or the Manhattan with the more nuanced Maker’s 46 bourbon.
Authentically bourbon country
One of the driving forces bringing Miller back to Kentucky from Chicago was his desire to share good food with a sense of place with the tourists coming to Kentucky as part of the Bourbon Trail. “I was just getting upset that all my friends in the bar industry were coming down to Kentucky and doing private barrel picks.” They were coming back with not-so-great reviews of the food and beverage options in the bigger Kentucky cities and on the Trail. “That was the thing that was missing. I was angry that people could visit where I’m from and a place that I know has a sense of self and not come away with any of it,” he says.
So, Miller started up the Harrison-Smith House, a restaurant in downtown Bardstown positioned in a house built in the 1780s that has, from the start, striven to be the most “of the place restaurant as possible.”
With Star Hill Provisions added to his platform, Miller can introduce more tourists—he estimates more than 75% of Star Hill’s customers are from out of state—to the place he’s from.
In the beverage menu, he does so with the stories attached to the cocktails, like the House Cocktail, but also in his use of locally loved ingredients like Ale-8 and other inventive ingredients that are unique to this location like the bourbon barrel bungs that he steeps tea in to make the Loretto Sweet Tea cocktail.
“That’s the sort of thing that you couldn’t have anywhere else, because there’s nowhere else that you could have thousands of barrel bungs hanging out,” he says. “Finding stuff like that, that isn’t necessarily replicable, is key,” he says, for developing an authentic beverage lineup. Miller suggests others looking to root their menus in a sense of place should do research on local ingredients and dig up history, all to create an experience that is unlike any other.
“When you’re drinking Riesling in Alsace, there’s no chance it could be better,” Miller says. “There’s no way it tastes the same. Just like that Ale-8, bourbon, and country ham in Kentucky should do the exact same thing to somebody here. They can say, ‘Man, I’ve had this before, but this isn’t what it was like. I didn’t feel it.’ That’s what we’re going for. I want people to leave with an elevated understanding of the state.”