Wednesday, December 30, 2009

History in the Mixing: The Seelbach

It never hurts to turn back the clock when you can. Just a touch. What better time than New Years when we would break it full stop to hold off another year passing? This year we can raise a glass to the Seelbach, a four-star hotel on the National Historic Register located in Louisville, whose ownership was sold on December 21st, 2009 to a multi-national group of US and Chinese investors (I know, I know).

A quick tutorial on the Seelbach Cocktail follows. Anyone for quick trip to Louisville to grab a cocktail in the new year?

Possibly also some cheese? The Seelbach's Oak Room has been selected one of the ten best locations in the United States to eat cheese. Ranking among such culinary hitters as Charlie Trotters, Picholine, and Joel Robuchon, it has been hailed by Southern Foodways Alliance for its commitment to the exclusive purveyance of southern artisanal cheeses.

The Seelbach Cocktail
as tested by Blushing's one and only cocktail authorities at Cocktail Hacker
Seelbach Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky, and published in Vintage Cocktails and Spirits, 1917

Cocktail Hacker's orgin notes: "Named for, and created at, the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, KY the Seelbach Cocktail sounds like a seriously delicious libation. This drink is an old one, dating from 1917 and had been lost since before Prohibition. As noted in Vintage Cocktails and Spirits (of which there is a new version) this drink was rediscovered in 1995 by the hotel’s restaurant director and was set to be offered in the hotel with the ingredients remaining a secret. At the urging of the Regan’s the recipe was allowed to be printed in their 1997 book New Classic Cocktails."

1 oz Bourbon
1/2 oz Triple Sec
7 Dashes Angostura Bitters*
7 Dashes Peychaud's Bitters*
5 oz Champagne

1) Build in the order given in a champagne flute
2) Garnish with an orange twist

* Just be forewarned: I like champagne cocktails on the bitter side. You might reduce the bitters if you prefer less pucker, as it were.

And now, a quick pictorial review from the time period in which The Seelbach Cocktail was created and the modern circumstance; at a gallop, naturally.

Seelbach Hotel, ca. 1910 - 1917

"The 1907 addition to The Seelbach in Louisville, Kentucky, included a German rathskeller made of Rookwood Pottery created in nearby Cincinnati, Ohio, by workers hired from the Art Academy. Rookwood Pottery was founded by Maria Longworth Nichols (later Mrs. Bellamy Storer Jr.) in 1880.

According to "The Seelbach Hotel, A History of Louisville Tradition" by J. Theriot in August, 1988, "In making this expensive type of pottery, decorations were drawn by hand on the clay before firing, making the design part of the ware. After baking, various glazes were added in subsequent firings. The floors, columns and walls of the eighty-foot square room were made of the pottery. The ceiling is fine-tooled leather."

To complement the room, The Seelbach Realty Company's president, Charles C. Vogt, presented the hotel with a $10,000 gift, a Rookwood-faced clock. Such a collection of Rookwood was very rare and, today, The Rathskeller is one of only two surviving ensembles of this art form.

The Rathskeller (ratskellar, a German word meaning restaurant in the town-hall cellar) was built in Bavarian tradition. The Seelbach's Rathskeller menu offers this description: "As a matter of fact the Rathskeller in every essential, artistic detail, is a reproduction of the underground drinking and council hall of one of the famous castles on the Rhine."

The graceful arches supported by noble columns give a cathedral-like effect. The archway pillars are encircled with Rookwood pelican frescoes, a symbol of good luck, and the ceiling above the bar is covered with hand-painted 24K gold leaf leather detailing the signs of the zodiac.

The Rathskeller achieved immediate popularity. The July 1912 edition of Hotel Monthly describes it as having a "seating capacity from 300 to 400." Not only was it a beautiful nightspot, conveniently located for the after-theater crowds, but it was also one of the first air-conditioned rooms ever built. The Seelbachs vowed to keep the room at least 10 degrees cooler than the outside summer temperatures. To do so required 40 tons of steam-produced refrigeration every 24 hours.

When the hotel was sold to Abraham Liebling, one of the first improvements was for the managers to lease a corner of the first floor to Walgreen Drugs. The Seelbach welcomed this renovation. Since prohibition and the nationwide ban on alcohol sales, the first floor bar had closed and The Rathskeller was little more than an extension of a restaurant. With the drug store on the main floor, the restaurant simply found a home downstairs in the basement.

Several years later after prohibition ended, management moved the restaurant back up to the renovated first floor and closed The Rathskeller for extensive changes. In April 1934, it re-opened with a 56-foot bar staffed by six bartenders. With these renovations, the basement bar moved into a new era. Instead of simply providing a stopping place for late-night theater patrons, The Rathskeller would now offer its own musical and dramatic entertainment featuring local bands and occasional first-run theater.

When Walgreen's lease expired in 1941, management opted to open a new nightclub, tentatively called The Seelbach Café-Bar. The club took away from The Rathskeller and in 1945, when the Legionaries offered to rent the basement, including The Rathskeller, for a members-only club, the managers agreed.

Today, The Seelbach's most treasured heirloom, The Rathskeller, with its dramatic design, lighting, and hand-carved architectural details, is again operated by The Seelbach and is available for private events."

- Katz

Modern photos of the Rathskeller appear below.

* The estimated 4-ton marble bar was removed during The Prohibition.

Seelbach Hilton today


Belle (from Life of a...) said...

WAY back in 1983 when I was a young college student visiting Louisville with a group of college friends, one of the girls said, "My mother said that we need to go over to the Seelbach Hotel for a drink while we're here." So...we larked out and spent a perfectly lovely cocktail hour at the Seelbach. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

An Aesthete's Lament said...

Though the Seelbach's original interiors were over-egged, today's interiors have no character at all, with dreary fabrics and furniture that neither complements nor challenges the original architecture. I'd kill to redecorate the lobby.

Pink Julep said...

I had breakfast there once when I was in middle school! It is a fabulous hotel!!!

JMW said...

Being a native Louisvillian, whose office is a short walk to the Seelbach, I thank you for this post. The Seelbach is a downtown gem and having attended a few dances there (yes, in the Rathskeller, as well as in the ballroom), and a cocktail hour or two, I can attest that it's a lovely place to visit. If you ever travel to Louisville, be sure dine in the English Grill at the Seelbach - delicious! (F. Scott Fitzgerald was a parton of the Seelbach as well. The Seelbach was the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan's wedding reception site in "The Great Gatsby.")

Elle said...

What a stunning hotel... thank you for sharing... I'm just dying to visit Louisville!

Lily Lemontree said...

Absolutely gorgeous images! Now off to plan a trip to Louisville!