There’s a new corner bar in Frankfort, but it’s far from being stereotypical. The House of Commons, which opened in July of this year, doesn’t look like any corner bar in the Bluegrass…more like one found on a corner in San Francisco or New York.
The sleek sophistication of the bar at the intersection of West Main Street and St. Clair is a welcome departure from the usual sports bar where inexpensive beer is the favorite libation, and the main design feature is the array of large screen TVs with a different game on each one.
The bar’s proprietor, Dave Sandlin—a man whose roots in bourbon can be traced back through generations in Frankfort, including the birth of his great-grandmother, Martha Thomas Tandy, at the O. F. C. Distillery infirmary in 1901 (now known as Buffalo Trace Distillery)—wants it to become a must-stop bourbon destination for those who relish a curated bourbon flight or a well-put-together cocktail.
“Our goal is to offer a once in a lifetime pour, as well as old favorites,” says Sandlin.
With more than 250 bourbons and ryes to select from, Sandlin likes to say the House of Commons is more than a bourbon bar – it’s a bourbon library. Just choose a bottle from the shelf and prepare to receive an education.
Will it be an 18-year-old Elijah Craig single barrel? Or maybe a 1957 bottled in bond James E. Pepper aged for six years?
“Many of our customers are navigating the Bourbon Trail and are very knowledgeable about what they are drinking,” says Sandlin. “We offer them pours of historical relevance as well as more contemporary pours.”
He stresses that another goal is to have at least one bourbon from every Kentucky distillery. But while he wants quantity in the number of bourbons available, that is not the case with the carefully curated seasonal cocktail menu.
The cocktails on the menu are unique and locally sourced, and they all pack a punch.
The Mudslinger Martini is made with Castle & Key gin, dry vermouth, olive brine and garnished with an olive.
A Cosmopolitan uses Wheatley Vodka from Buffalo Trace; the Old-Fashioned starts with Woodford Reserve bourbon, and the Manhattan has Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon as its base.
An aptly named cocktail called the Filibuster is made with Glenn’s Creek OCD #5 bourbon, blackberry syrup, lime, Aperol, Peychaud’s bitters and prosecco.
“We thought about rotating the Filibuster off and then decided to keep it for the winter,” says Sandlin, adding that while the menu will change, he will never have more than 10 cocktails at any one time.
“We plan to keep our menu small because we want to be the best at the cocktails we do have,” he says.
Skill at crafting a cocktail is only part of what elevates a good bar into a great one. Ambiance factors into the equation as well, and the House of Commons has ambiance to spare.
The building’s owner, Ben Hardin, who opened two elegant AirBnBs on the second floor above the bar, made sure of that.
The doors are solid mahogany; the petal-pink bar top is translucent stone; the chairs are velvet, and the cobalt blue walls are intricately textured.
But as Hardin explains, there needed to be a centerpiece “which holds the room together.”
That centerpiece came in the form of the enormous chandelier suspended from the ceiling and resembling an upside-down octopus whose tentacles are studded with glass globes.
The light fixture was shipped in 30 pieces and took two master electricians a full week to put together. It was well worth the effort, as it never fails to elicit a “Wow” from those seeing it for the first time, says Hardin.
Background music provides a 1920s speakeasy vibe and is piped in so softly that it makes conversation a pleasure rather than a challenge.
“The music is an homage to the past,” says Sandlin, noting that 15 percent of the bar’s bourbons and ryes – while not exactly aging during the Roaring 20s – do go back at least 20 years and a few even further.
Adding to the ambiance is the bar’s intimacy, with accommodations limited to only 33 patrons.
And oh yes, the name…where does that come from?
“Since Frankfort is Kentucky’s capital, we wanted something involving a government structure – familiar, but not too familiar,” says Sandlin. “We settled on naming it for the British parliament’s House of Commons.
Despite its name, there is nothing remotely common about this House of Commons. It checks all the boxes – a specially curated bourbon experience, serious cocktails made with Kentucky’s favorite beverage, a big city ambiance in a small town, and a host who got his hospitality chops from working at the acclaimed Inn at Blackberry Farm outside of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Yes, the House of Commons is something new for Frankfort, but that doesn’t intimidate Sandlin.
“I love it when someone goes down a trail he or she didn’t expect to find.”
Images by Visit Frankfort