A collection of Northside residents and art lovers are taking a stab at creating Cincinnati’s first bourbon bar and restaurant, the neighborhood’s soon-to-open The Littlefield.
Cincinnati Art Museum adjunct curator Matt Distel had never worked in the food and beverage industry, yet he knew he wanted to open a bar. As a Northsider, Distel felt there was not only a dearth of bourbon bars in the neighborhood but also in Cincinnati. So he joined forces with friends Chad Scholten and Mike Berry and enlisted former Mayday bar manager and artist John Ford to create The Littlefield on the up-and-coming south block of Northside’s Spring Grove Avenue.
Four years ago, Distel visited Chicago’s Michelin star-winning bourbon bar/restaurant/hotel Longman & Eagle and returned to Cincy with an epiphany. “It was like, ‘Why isn’t there a bourbon bar in Cincinnati — or even Northern Kentucky?’ ” he says.
Even though craft bourbon bars and general whiskey imbibing was on the rise, it took until 2012 for the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar (OKBB) and the speakeasy-styled Wiseguy Lounge — both Covington, Ky., bars for bourbon aficionados — to open.
“It was always the weird old-man drink for a long time,” Distel says about the spirit’s popularity. “I tend to be kind of sentimental about it; it’s not dressed up. I think there’s an authenticity to it, because it’s pretty quintessentially American. It feels like it’s maybe connected to that ‘buy local’ idea, in that there’s such a long history to it.”
You’ll find The Littlefield — and its bourbon — housed inside a historical building, which was built by the Littlefield family in the 1880s.
Scholten and Berry own a development company and started seriously rehabbing the building in the fall. Now the first floor is laid with hardwood and features a bar made from reclaimed oak, dark wood tables, pendant lights hanging from the high and open ceiling and a steel staircase railing, which leads to more seating upstairs and outside to a sprawling party deck. Below the deck is a patio coupled with a pergola that butts against event space Pallet 23.
Because the guys all have some sort of artistic background, they’ve furnished the place with work by local artists like Guy Michael Davis and Katie Parker, whose clever and bizarre porcelain animals (in this instance, snarling wolf heads with flowers in their eye sockets and mouths) and carved wood panels are situated above the first floor dining area. Another local artist, Manny Love, designed a text-based installation in the bathroom.
Art may be a major theme at The Littlefield, but so is the bourbon. The guys are passionate about the spirit, and they’ve done a lot of research and development to pick out the right brands. Distel currently enjoys Johnny Drum bourbon, and Ford likes James E. Pepper 1776 — both small-batch Kentucky bourbons.
“In terms of bourbon, I like going to OKBB just because I feel like I get a full bourbon experience, like, I really satiated my bourbon needs, which is something I’d like to be able to produce here also for people,” Ford says.
The bar will have about 50 to 60 different bottles of bourbon, which is quite a bit more than the usual six or seven brands bars in the area carry. (To compare, OKBB has about 300.) Ford will experiment with a barrel-aged Manhattan and bourbon-based cocktails mixed with homemade bitters and homemade simple syrups. For those who prefer to stay away from the hard stuff, beer drinkers will have eight local beer options on draft and in bottles and cans to choose from.
“We’re trying not to serve Budweiser, if we can hold out,” Distel jokes.
Besides the booze, there will be food, much of it made with bourbon. Former Northside restaurant Honey owner and chef Shoshannah Hafner will run the kitchen and plan the menu of smallish plates, most $12 and under. So far she has savory pot pies, bourbon pecan pie, a BLP sandwich (bitter lettuce with peaches soaked in browned bourbon butter) and lamb meatballs on the menu.
The gang hopes to have the joint open for the Fourth of July, a huge holiday in Northside featuring a parade and weekend Rock festival, and they’ve already passed all their inspections.
“The goal wasn’t to just turn a profit, it was, ‘Let’s be a part of the community,’” Ford says.
“We want to be really knowledgeable about our products so people want to come and learn a little, but we’re also not gonna be dicks,” Distel says. “We’re gonna be super nice about it. ... We want to make sure that’s the experience people have.”
THE LITTLEFIELD is located at 3934 Spring Grove Ave., Northside. Expected hours: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily. More info here.