Photo by Kim Ashford
A Whiskey Doubters menu provides a selection of cocktails in which whiskey takes a back seat, demonstrating that whiskey-drinking does not have to be a testosterone-fueled competition.
Arthur Lauck flashed a grin like the Cheshire Cat as his fiancée and business partner Brandi Tabor bragged about his vast knowledge of whiskey. “They call him the Whisk-a-pedia,” she said, “but I have also heard him referred to as the whiskey savant.” The couple had always talked about opening a bar, and their musings finally became a reality last December when Lauck left a twenty-year career as a photojournalist to pursue his dream of opening a whiskey bar with Tabor. “We spent a lot of time traveling and were exposed to the wonderful world of hand-crafted cocktails,” she said. “With Lock & Key, we wanted to bring a piece of New Orleans cocktail culture to Baton Rouge—a place where adults could listen to piano music and have a nice conversation.”
Lauck even had the name waiting in the wings. As a child, his father and uncle operated a bar in his hometown of Lafayette called The Lock & Key. His mother had named the establishment after a play on words based upon their last name. Lauck thought it would be the perfect name for his new business endeavor; it would also give him an opportunity to honor his mother.
After an extensive location search, the moon and the stars aligned one morning when Lauck was waiting in line with a friend at Garden District Coffee, discussing his plan for opening a bar. A voice piped up behind him and said, “My buddy just closed a bar called Glen’s. Maybe he could help you out.” Within the hour, he had rustled Tabor out of bed and driven her to the College Drive location while she was still wearing her pajamas. They both peered into the windows and were marveling at the antique, dark wooden bar that had stood in the longtime Baton Rouge restaurant Primo’s when they saw Glen Bynum working in the back office. Bynum opened the door, and the negotiations for the property began immediately.
Bynum, a veteran of the Baton Rouge bar scene, had operated more than twenty clubs during his four-decade-long career. He had recently closed the bar that bore his name and was looking for someone to take over ownership. The three forged a partnership. “It has been a win-win for everyone. It fast-tracked our opening,” Lauck said. “He has been a great mentor, but he has let us do our own concept.”
At present, 270 different kinds of whiskey grace the shelves of Lock & Key. The selection of whiskeys, bourbons, and scotches runs the gamut from the outrageously expensive and rare to the affordable, as well as a carefully curated menu of whiskey-based cocktails. “A few weeks ago we got to crack open the A.H. Hirsch twenty-year bourbon, which will set a customer back $450 a glass,” Lauck said. “I wasn’t there. So it made the bartender so nervous.”
All of the usual customer favorites are also available. “When you own a whiskey bar, there are certain whiskeys you have to have like Pappy Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace,” Lauck said. “You also have to have vintage scotches twenty-one to thirty-three years old, but I like to find those true hidden gems from smaller distilleries that are overlooked due to lack of an advertising budget. Jefferson’s Ocean is a small-batch bourbon whiskey aged at sea onboard a research vessel. It has an incredible story, and we are proud to showcase it in our bar.”
Tabor helps round out their whiskey library by picking the more quirky, fun selections and will even admit to making the occasional impulse buy based solely on a pretty label. One of her latest additions that Lauck finds appealing is Pure Kentucky Bourbon. “It is only eight dollars a glass. It’s creamy with a nod of hard candy on the finish—you know, the kind of candy your grandmother offered you out of a ceramic dish on Sundays,” he said. “I get transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen at age nine every time I have a sip.”
Lauck also enjoys educating customers about the diversity of his scotch selection. “Even though scotch is made with only barley, yeast, and water, no two scotches are the same,” he said. “We have a Kilchoman Islay with hues of soft, peated, smoky earth and an amazing hint of citrus. Each scotch really tells the story of where it is from with its flavors. We carry a blended scotch called Fat Trout that hails from the Speyside region of Scotland. The distillery is near the sea. You get a faint taste of the briny water.”
The cocktail menu at Lock & Key is entirely whiskey-based and divided into two distinct sections: Whiskey Lovers and Whiskey Doubters. The Whiskey Lovers selections showcase the bold nature of the spirit and tend to appeal to seasoned whiskey drinkers. Classic favorites such as the Sazerac and the Old Fashioned populate the menu as well as Tabor’s favorite, the Blood and Sand, which combines Monkey Shoulder Scotch, orange juice, and cherry brandy.
Creating the Whiskey Doubters menu was a much harder task. “Whiskey takes a backseat. These cocktails are meant to take the burly-man connotation out of whiskey,” Lauck said. “These cocktails are amazingly creative, and I would put them up against any cocktail list in the region.” One of their most popular offerings is the Sweet-T-Sway, a re-telling of the mint julep. PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, freshly muddled mint, and Sam Houston Whiskey are served over hand-crushed ice. The Red Grouse cocktail features Famous Grouse, Luxardo liqueur, and Frangelico. The result is a subtle, smoky cocktail with a hint of vanilla on the finish. Tabor has also included some Southern staples to the list. The Sir’s Milk Punch is her father’s recipe and features Johnny Drum bourbon, milk, Crème de Cacao, and nutmeg.
Complex cocktails require a well-seasoned staff. Lauck and Tabor wanted bartenders who are friendly and could help patrons experience whiskey. “I wanted a place with great bartenders you go to see—not college kids pouring beer,” Lauck said. “Before the bar opened, I would go down to New Orleans to Tujague’s, and the bartender, Paul Gustings, would ask me questions about my palate and what I liked to eat. Then he would create the perfect cocktail. I wanted to bring that to our bar.”
“We have the best staff in town,” Tabor said. “They can make anything.” The staff routinely sits in on tastings, and Tabor holds frequent contests where the bartenders are challenged to invent new seasonal cocktails. “We made a commitment to them, and we are family,” she said. “We couldn’t be happier with the experience, professionalism, personality, and desire to serve. We never want a guest to feel intimidated by the selection.” The unofficial motto of Lock & Key has become “a dram without the drama.” “We are here to educate,” Tabor said. “No attitude. No drama. We want people to ask questions.”
Tabor was adamant that Lock & Key remain friendly towards non-whiskey drinkers. The bar features a seasonal wine menu with thirty selections by the glass. “We pride ourselves on the fact that the list is ever-changing. We are already adding items that focus on a spring palate,” she said. “We also carry a dynamite craft beer selection. We want there to be something for everyone.” In May, the bar will also begin to serve small plates in order to better serve the happy hour crowd.
Lock & Key is also one of the few establishments in Baton Rouge that offers live music every night of the week. Ross Hoppe, the keyboardist for instrumental funk band Captain Green, plays the piano a few nights a week as well as heading up the Ross Hoppe Jazz Trio on a couple of other evenings. Tabor is a fan of the jazz trio because of the spontaneity it brings to the bar. “You never know what is going to happen,” she said. “Friends sit in on sessions. Sometimes on a Saturday, we end up with an eight-piece band.”
Tabor and Hoppe have also teamed up to create a new Wednesday night concept called Pianoke—a new take on an open mic night. Hoppe can provide accompaniment on the piano for singers; or patrons can take a turn on the ivories. Attendees are also encouraged to bring instruments and participate in impromptu collaborations.
Tabor’s marketing background ensures that there will always be something new on the horizon at Lock & Key. “Right now we are working on a scotch-based margarita for summer,” she said, “but always expect things to be changing. We like to keep things exciting.”
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Lock & Key Whiskey Bar 5110 Corporate Blvd Baton Rouge, La. Hours: Monday–Friday, 4:30 pm until 2 am; Saturday, 6:30 pm until 2 am lockandkeywhiskeybar.com facebook.com/LockAndKeyWhiskeyBar