The Golden Ratio: History, Heaven, and Hedonism at The Seelbach Hotel

by Emily Bell
Caroline Hatchett
January 2014

Restaurant

In a rather interesting blog post (we'll get to that later), Mixologist Eron Plevan refers to The Golden Ratio, "the art of mixing a cocktail with the proper proportions of spirits and syrup/juice to create a well-balanced, smooth, and enjoyable libation." But as a one-time divinity student turned bartender at The Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, where the clientele has historically included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone, and George "King of the Bootleggers" Remus, Plevan knows the Golden Ratio applies to more than just liquid proportions in a coupe glass. It can refer to the balance, or imbalance, of any part or person in the whole sparkling scheme of nightlife.

After all, that's the pleasure and danger of cocktail culture. It's the line we all tread whether we're mixing behind the bar or drinking in front of (or dancing on top of) it. Finding that golden ratio between light and dark—usually somewhere in a dim glow—and tugging ever-so-carefully at social threads, lest the genteel become gilded, or the civil staid. There's nowhere better to play with that ratio, as bartender or patron, than the Seelbach—Beaux Arts baroque monolith, turn-of-the-20th-century temple to excess, boozy Prohibition-era conduit for bootleggers, and haunted by ghosts.

Bourbon Street Sour: Old Forrester Signature 100 Proof Bourbon, Creole Shrub, Lemon, Simple Syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters, and Orange Twist

Bourbon Street Sour: Old Forrester Signature 100 Proof Bourbon, Creole Shrub, Lemon, Simple Syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters, and Orange Twist

Bourbon Street Sour: Old Forrester Signature 100 Proof Bourbon, Creole Shrub, Lemon, Simple Syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters, and Orange Twist

Bourbon Street Sour: Old Forrester Signature 100 Proof Bourbon, Creole Shrub, Lemon, Simple Syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters, and Orange Twist

The Al Capone Old Fashioned Getaway: Booker’s Barrel Strength Bourbon, Saint Elizabeth All Spice Dram, Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-aged Bitters, and Flamed Lemon Flag

The Al Capone Old Fashioned Getaway: Booker’s Barrel Strength Bourbon, Saint Elizabeth All Spice Dram, Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-aged Bitters, and Flamed Lemon Flag

The Lady in Blue: Beefeater Gin, Lemon Juice, Simple Syrup, Orange Blossom Water, House Falernum, Crème de Violet, and Blue Curacao

The Lady in Blue: Beefeater Gin, Lemon Juice, Simple Syrup, Orange Blossom Water, House Falernum, Crème de Violet, and Blue Curacao

The Seelbach Cocktail: Old Forrester Bourbon, Cointreau, Angostura Bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters, Gerard Bertrand Vermont de Limoux Champagne, and Orange Peel Flag

The Seelbach Cocktail: Old Forrester Bourbon, Cointreau, Angostura Bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters, Gerard Bertrand Vermont de Limoux Champagne, and Orange Peel Flag

The Seelbach Cocktail: Old Forrester Bourbon, Cointreau, Angostura Bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters, Gerard Bertrand Vermont de Limoux Champagne, and Orange Peel Flag

The Seelbach Cocktail: Old Forrester Bourbon, Cointreau, Angostura Bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters, Gerard Bertrand Vermont de Limoux Champagne, and Orange Peel Flag

Mixologist Eron Plevan of The Oak Room – Louisville, KY

Mixologist Eron Plevan of The Oak Room – Louisville, KY

"The Seelbach had a rich cocktail legacy before Prohibition, including the invention of The Seelbach cocktail," says Plevan, who moved from assistant server to mixologist at The Oakroom, and has since contributed a craft cocktail program to its legacy. No doubt motivated by watching non-wine drinkers "order vodka and cranberry or a Cosmo," and bolstered by previous experience at the Butchertown speakeasy Meat, Plevan knew The Oakroom was ready for something more sophisticated, more contemporary, even if it were all to be well-steeped in history. "So I went to work and gathered ingredients, compiled recipes, created syrups, ordered a wide range of bitters, and replaced the Martini glasses with Champagne coupes."

The idea wasn't total modernization—a paradox in mixology—but sophistication. In Plevan's eyes, The Oakroom, one of the Seelbach's several recreational venues, would become a craft cocktail haven playing into the larger hotel culture. "The Oakroom is about creating an experience for Seelbach guests more than anything. The food, the drinks, and the orchestrated presentation of our restaurant all function to transport diners back to a classic era," says Plevan. "Everyone is on the same page, from the front desk, to my bar."

Which is why drinks like The Seelbach and The Lady in Blue are so essential to Plevan's list. With the latter, Plevan pays homage to an unexpectedly long-term guest of The Seelbach—the infamous Lady in Blue, an apparition with long brown hair and a blue dress, who supposedly threw herself down one of the hotel's elevator shafts so many years ago. "There are a lot of circumstances and curious details surrounding her death, but as the story goes, she apparently still roams about the hotel," Plevan says. He may or may not believe in the ghost, but either way, he pays due respect with his Lady in Blue. It's a take on the White Lady, with orange flower water and simple syrup to make it "more lady-like." And then there's that final, ghoulish dose of blue curacao in place of the Cointreau, settling like a falling cloud on the bottom of the glass. "The blue curacao eventually 'haunts' the rest of the drink."

Equally historic but comparatively less terrifying, The Seelbach, as mentioned, isn't Plevan's drink; it's more like an inheritance. Like many phenomena of the hotel (Capone's secret passageways), rare Rookwood Pottery, it has a bit of history. "There are a few stories about the origin," says Plevan. "My personal favorite—the one that seems most fun—is that in 1917, a guest in the Old Seelbach Bar was enjoying a Manhattan when a bottle of Champagne was accidentally toppled over. In order to catch the spill, the guest's Manhattan was used as the safety net." The modern iteration steers faithfully close to its origins, not quite a Manhattan but flush with the richness of Old Forrester bourbon and Cointreau, with a finishing dose of Champagne for the seven respective dashes of Peychaud's and Angostura bitters to play upon. Clearly a violation of the Golden Ratio that makes every carefully prepared Manhattan, perfection, and proof positive that even where the perfect ratio is achieved and the perfect night under way, there is room for happy accidents.