Four days before Valentine’s Day, Lucie Slone Meyers held court at a table in her nearly opened restaurant, The Red Light Kitchen & Lounge (780 N. Limestone).

Lucie Slone Meyers. | Photo by Bill Straus, Business Lexington

Between directing staffers on where to place tables, décor and bottles behind the bar, the grande dame of the Lexington restaurant scene talked shop with some of her peers: Debbie Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short; and Larry Dean, general manager at Chatham’s, among them. Each wanted to know if Slone Meyers, their 66-year-old friend, was ready to open the sixth, and likely final, restaurant of her storied, four-decade career.

Long stood while Meyers stayed seated, and the pair discussed the usual: other restaurants opening, the challenges of finding good help, whether a Valentine’s Day opening for Red Light was a good idea.

“Oh, they’ve all been wandering in,” says Slone Meyers, watching Long head out the door to her own restaurant. “We all do that to each other: check in and see what everybody’s doing.”

Slone Meyer’s phone rings and she takes the call, while employees wait to ask her more questions. The call ends, and without hesitation, she gives instructions, confident she knows what she wants done.

“Oh, opening on Valentine’s: I’ve lost my mind, haven’t I?” she says, her coarse laugh sliding into a cough. “I’ve always opened on a holiday; Halloween once. But Valentine’s: red heart, Red Light. It works.”

Suddenly, the discussion shifts.

“I have lung cancer. You know that, right?” She says it as casually as you might mention the unseasonably warm weather. Last year, one tumor was discovered in her left lung, and another behind her sternum. She’s endured rounds of radiation and chemotherapy to battle it and responded well. Recently, however, doctors have grown concerned about another tumor on her pancreas.

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SHELBYVILLE, Ky.—If Tom Bulleit didn’t buy a lottery ticket on March 14, he should have. As the founder of Bulleit Distilling Co. welcomed a crowd of about 200 to the ultra-modern, Diageo-backed distillery that day, he mentioned that Tuesday was not only his birthday, but his 30th wedding anniversary. 2017 also just happens to mark 30 years since the longtime lawyer revived his family’s whiskey business.

If the next Powerball number is 30, credit Bulleit with your share of the win.

Tom Bulleit, founder, Bulleit Distilling Co. | Photo by Steve Coomes
Tom Bulleit, founder, Bulleit Distilling Co. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Heaven knows he was busy crediting everyone else for the success of his Bulleit Frontier Whiskeys: family and friends who supported him, the spirits giant that bought the brand and gave it international wings, architects, engineers and construction workers who designed and built the $115 million facility, bartenders who turned drinkers onto said whiskeys—even lowly spirits journalists who wrote about Bulleit booze. He is, if anything, a gracious and friendly guy.

“As you can imagine, this is somewhat surreal for me,” Bulleit said. Recalling the first time he glimpsed the distillery’s fully constructed buildings from a distance, the ex-Marine and colon-cancer survivor said he asked himself, “How did this happen? This is absolutely incredible.”

The answer, of course, is drinkers like his liquor. In 2016, year-over-year sales of Bulleit whiskeys rose 29 percent, pushing six-bottle case sales past the 1 million mark for the first time. By comparison, it took Maker’s Mark 40 years to reach that case number.

The column still at Bulleit Distilling Co. | Photo courtesy of Bulleit Distilling Co.
The column still at Bulleit Distilling Co. | Photo courtesy of Bulleit Distilling Co.

Deirdre Mahlan, president of Diageo North America, said that despite the new modular distillery’s 1.8 million proof-gallon capacity, “we are already exploring expansion opportunities. Based on increased sales of Bulleit, we are looking at doing this sooner than later.”

Set on 300 acres of Shelby County countryside, the new distillery’s modern structures are brand-new, hospital clean and detailed with the precision of an amusement park. Expanding here would pose no problems, especially if, as Mahlan said, Diageo adds visitors’ experience in Shelbyville to complement its existing tour at the historic Stitzel-Weller campus in Shively.

During a brief tour, reporters weren’t allowed to photograph the distillery’s control room, which is fully computerized. No dials, knobs or switches here, just an array of flat-screen monitors detailing the grinding, fermenting, distillation and bottling the 15 to 20 million bushels of Shelby County grain delivered here annually. For now, only bourbon is in production, and no timeline was given for rye.

The new distillery fills about 720 charred oak barrels each day, about half the volume produced at Jim Beam’s Clermont plant. Instead of using ricks, barrels are palette stacked 25-feet high in four, single-story warehouses holding 55,000 barrels each. If you’re not a bourbon nerd, just know that that’s a lot. Most warehouses at major distilleries hold about 20,000 barrels. Last year, Heaven Hill opened a 56,000-barrel house in Cox’s Creek, where others of the same size are under construction.

A full warehouse at Bulleit. | Photo courtesy of Bulleit Distilling Co.
A full warehouse at Bulleit. | Photo courtesy of Bulleit Distilling Co.

Bourbon is a boomin’, ain’t she!

In its effort to operate with minimal environmental impact, the spent mash is sent to a 50,000-gallon centrifuge that separates the spent grain from the backset. Backset is used in future fermentations and the grain is dried for livestock feed supplement. The site also employs the first industrial solar panel array in Shelby County, which collects enough energy to run all on-site mobile equipment.

Yep, we were impressed. Hopefully visitors will soon be allowed to see what we saw.

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AQUATIC BARREL AGING GIVES NEW MEANING TO “WHISKEY AND WATER”

March 14, 2017
AQUATIC BARREL AGING GIVES NEW MEANING TO “WHISKEY AND WATER”

When two barrels of Jefferson’s Bourbon—caged to the back of a 24-foot runabout—set off down the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky, last June, Walter Tharpe kicked himself. Symbolically, at least. “I said, ‘Dadgumit! I knew somebody was going to do it,’” said Tharpe, owner of Cane Land Distilling Co. in Baton Rouge, La. “I’d thought […]

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The Restaurateur in the Arena

April 8, 2016
The Restaurateur in the Arena

Influenced by Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote. It is not the restaurant critic who counts; not the man or woman whose poison pen points out how the restaurateur stumbled, where the chef could have seasoned the food better or the bartender stirred the Old Fashioned colder. The people who count are those actually in […]

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Restaurant soft openings are practice runs, so don’t complain!

April 1, 2016
Restaurant soft openings are practice runs, so don’t complain!

I love restaurant soft openings, but not for the food or even the drink. I like seeing the excitement in the eyes of owners who’ve worked their brains loose trying to get their vision from blueprint to fruition. I appreciate the risks required to move from a well-capitalized business to modestly liquid before a paying […]

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Here’s a must buy bourbon: Westport Whiskey & Wine’s Maker’s 46 Private Select

March 25, 2016
Here’s a must buy bourbon: Westport Whiskey & Wine’s Maker’s 46 Private Select

I’m like most folks whose liquor shelf is lined with bourbon bottles costing between $10 to $50. There are a few moderately higher priced goodies thrown in, but I don’t generally recommend spending $75 or more on liquid—until today. Go to Westport Whiskey & Wine and get a bottle of Maker’s Mark Private Select Single […]

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After 3 years, Lynn’s Paradise Café sold to mystery buyer

March 24, 2016
After 3 years, Lynn’s Paradise Café sold to mystery buyer

It took more than three years to sell one of Louisville’s (formerly) busiest restaurants, but according to WDRB.com, Lynn’s Paradise Café has been sold. To whom, I don’t know. The story mentions a restaurant group that “will reveal itself in a couple of months,” but in the meantime, even my best restaurant real estate sources […]

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It’s a good deed to watch hoops in a Louisville bar this weekend

March 23, 2016
It's a good deed to watch hoops in a Louisville bar this weekend

It was bad news for local bars when the University of Louisville announced it would self-penalize its men’s basketball team by sitting out the post-season in the wake of a salacious recruiting scandal. Without a reason to head to one’s favorite drinkin’ haunt to cheer on the Cards, it was predicted local watering holes would […]

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Ignore restaurant critics and eat where you like

March 21, 2016
Ignore restaurant critics and eat where you like

During a recent restaurant meal, I saw the kitchen door swing wide to reveal pictures of two restaurant critics taped to its backside. Printed on separate 8 ½ x 11 sheets were the visages of The Courier-Journal’s Nancy Miller and Louisville HotByte’s Robin Garr, Louisville’s lone remaining restaurant critics. Clearly they were posted there to […]

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No Louisville food and drink fest until at least 2017

March 15, 2016
No Louisville food and drink fest until at least 2017

In a recent article I wrote for Insider Louisville, I mentioned that Louisville’s food and drink festival isn’t any nearer to happening than it was two-and-a-half years ago when a committee was convened to make it happen. Seems a lot of problems abound, not the least of which is too many voices in the room, […]

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