Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a neighborhood bar that loves cheap, domestic beer and expensive, foreign whiskey.
NAME: Barrel Proof
LOCATION: Lower Garden District, New Orleans
ON THE JUKEBOX: The Black Angels, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Justified
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Old Fashioned: Old Grand-Dad bonded bourbon, demerara sugar, Angostura bitters and an orange peel
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy and some Old Grand-Dad on the rocks
WHY WE LOVE IT: When people who work in the service industry get off of work, the last thing they want to drink is a complicated cocktail. They want a beer and a shot of whiskey. So when New Orleans bartender Liam Deegan and his restaurant vet partner opened their own spot, Barrel Proof, that’s what they stocked the bar with. “We had been doing cocktails for a while and we wanted a place that was a little bit more reflective of how we drank,” Deegan says. “Boilermakers and really solid Old Fashioneds.”
Deegan’s rustic watering hole—which is co-owned with Sylvain’s Robert LeBlanc—has one of the longest bars in the city, at 40 feet. The space is unusually large, giving Deegan plenty of shelves to store his extensive whiskey collection and drinkers plenty of room to spread out their beer cans and shot glasses. They can even order up a “party pack” for their tables: a six-pack of Miller High Life ponies and a half pint of Old Grand-Dad Bonded bourbon ($20).
Barrel Proof offers dozens of American canned beer and six beers on tap, five of which are rotating Louisiana craft brews and the other of which is always Rolling Rock. (“It was the first beer I ever drank. It always reminded me of what beer should taste like,” Deegan says.) And of course a long list of beer-and-shot duos such as the classic Bols Genever and a Bud Heavy. “People can get their nerdy beer elsewhere, but they come to us for expensive whiskey and cheap beer,” he says.
Deegan has 280+ bottles of whiskey behind the bar—including some unusual ones from Spain and Taiwan—and chooses Old Grand-Dad for the one in the well. He says people usually turn their noses up at that brand, but he loves it. “People are buying bottles of booze based on a story, whether it’s true or not, and how cool the bottle looks,” he says. “They’re not necessarily basing it on what’s inside. I want people to have a conversation about that.”
One way he’s getting people talking is how he organizes the menu. It includes the usual sections that list bottles by country of origin, type and distillery. And then the menu has a spot reserved for non-distilling producers, the brands that actually source their whiskey from larger distilleries such as Four Roses. Those bottles are listed with their production facilities underneath. High West American Prairie Reserve out of Utah, for example, is a blend of six-year and 10-year straight bourbon from the Midwest Grain Products Ingredients distillery in Indiana.
“We only carry the kind of stuff that we trust and the ones that are a little more transparent about where they’re sourcing from,” Deegan says. “We want people to know where exactly they’re buying from. A lot of times people will say, I like this brand but not this brand, without realizing that those brands are buying their rye from the same distillery in Indiana.”
The whiskey business has changed drastically even in just the few years that Barrel Proof has been open. Back then, in 2014, Deegan stocked the shelves with a dozen kinds of Japanese whiskey. But soon after, Yamazaki Single Malt was named the best in the world and demand spiked. “Now everyone knows the secret and we can only get our hands on six bottles if we’re lucky,” he says. Serious collectors have to get their bottles from secondary markets like online forums, but bar owners are not legally allowed to sell those to the public. That’s OK to Deegan, who would rather the focus be on quality rather than having “the oldest or coolest or most expensive bottle.” Besides, there’s plenty of Old Grand-Dad to go around.
Barrel Proof is currently collecting and transporting food donations to those affected by the flooding in nearby Baton Rouge. To find out how you can contribute, please visit the bar’s frequently updated Instagram page, @barrelproofNOLA, or call the bar directly at 504-299-1888.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep