Bourbon is complex. It starts off as any ethanol does, trapped in corn kernels and barley shells. Those grains, the proportions of which are known as a mash bill, are warmed up to release the sugar. While the meal is still warm, the yeast and a little sour mash feast on it in stills made of a variety of materials. The completed wash is then poured into unused, charred white oak barrels, where they take a nap of two years or more. After that long nap, they are usually blended from their 65 percent (130+) proof) or higher barrel strength down to a more drinkable 40 to 50 percent (80 to 100 proof). The aging process at that point it stopped, and it is ready to be enjoyed. According to Travel and Leisure, in Dayton you can enjoy it at one of the best bourbon bars in the country, The Century Bar on Jefferson. Joe Head, the driving force behind that bar, has been patiently guiding it for over a decade to where it stands now. Where it stands now is changing.
The changes started to occur around the end of summer/beginning of fall this year. “It was time to get into the cocktail world,” states Joe. Through the urging of Molly Wellmann, a Cincinnati-based purveyor of bourbons and fine spirits at places like the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar and Japps Since 1879, and his own exploration of craft cocktails, he discovered one he had an affinity for. The venerable whiskey sour rose above the rest. Joe’s reasons are ones that many loves of this cocktail site. “It is light and airy, and the egg white adds some smoothness to it. The ingredients are simple and fresh, so you know where they come from.” This led to the creation of Whiskey Sour Sundays at The Century, as well as a seasonal craft cocktail menu. “The bartenders decide the whiskey sour we are going to feature. It gives anti-sport fans something to look forward to on Sunday,” he states. By the look of some of the images they have posted on their Facebook page, they have some innovative sours. Joe’s favorite sour is the traditional one, but of the ones his staff has created, the Smokehouse Sour stands out most in his head. It features smoked sugar and vanilla, with fresh lemon juice.
The fall season is ending, so it is time for a new seasonal menu! That menu will be introduced after Thanksgiving, and will feature “drinks that make sense for that time of the year.” It will have figs and other popular winter flavors on the menu, as well as spirits other than bourbon. According to Joe, “We use a variety of spirits, but on a limited basis. Summer is going to be for gin. We are going to use spirits that enhance the cocktail, not just using them for the sake of making a cocktail.” You are not going to see any recommended brands, either. What you will see, though, are cocktails with eggs in them. Turning through the pages of any classic cocktail book, you will see many recipes with eggs as an ingredient. The Century makes their sours with egg white in it, to enhance the richness and the mouthfeel of the drink. Their customers enjoy them as well. “You have a better chance of choking on a bar nut than getting sick from eggs,” Joe states with a wide smile. They shake it warm as well, to minimize and possible risk of illness.
The shift to the craft cocktails, among other pursuits, reflects a shift Joe sees in the clientele. “People are drinking differently,” he notes. “They used to drink to get drunk. Now they are drinking for an experience. They want to watch their drink being made. They want to be educated on what is going into it.” The foodie culture is making its way into the cocktail realm, and just knowing the ingredients is not enough. They want to know where those ingredients are coming from, how they are made, and what is unique about them. That is another angle that lead to the creation of the cocktail menu and its seasonal rotation.
Bourbon barrels, as mentioned earlier, can only be used once for the creation of bourbon. After that, they are typically sold to a variety of industries to be reused for other purposes. One of those purposes is to rest another liquor in it. Most of the flavor components that give bourbon its caramelly, sweet flavor have been extracted, but all of the bourbon has not. Even after pulling out the excess liquor from the staves, some of the flavor still remains. Joe and Tim Fry of The Century Bar recently collaborated with John Haggerty of Warped Wing Brewing to create Whiskey Rebellion. Using barrels from Angel’s Envy, they married bourbon with a locally brewed Russian Imperial Stout, creating a beer with a delightful bitter chocolate flavor backed with a sweet bourbon finish. It has been available locally at many brewpubs and bars, including Warped Wing, The Century, Chappy’s and soon at Fifth Street Brew Pub for an event with ARC Ohio!. The beer has been immensely popular, not only for the outstanding flavor but the limited availability as well. Joe and his team did not stop there. He is also working with the team at Toxic Brew Company on another bourbon barrel beer, this time utilizing a Belgian quad (much like Toxic’s Abby XXXX) and used barrels from StillWrights in Fairborn. It will be released exclusively at Toxic in early December, so keep an eye out for an early holiday present!
Cocktails…beer…there is plenty going on with Joe Head. He has his eyes set on more things as he prepares for 2015: expansion. “We need to expand, as it makes sense for us to do it. Some people will not go downtown, and there are some limits to our downtown location that prevents us from exploring certain concepts.” The second location of The Century is going to be in the south of the city, near the Dayton Mall. It will have two patios, one for smoking cigars and one for the non-smokers just wanting to enjoy a fine bourbon outside on a warm summer evening. Another expansion in the works is not as far from their current location. In fact, it is right next door to it. “There is going to be a speakeasy attached to The Century, with a false store front and a secret entrance in the back of our bar. We are only going to have it open on Friday and Saturday only with reserved bar stools, so we can know the numbers better. That will allow us to know how much we need to prepare and keep all of our mixers fresh. Because it is a speakeasy, it should also be something that is a little elusive.” And if that is not enough on his platter, he is also considering a tequila and taco bar on a corner near The Century.
More locations for any business means hiring more staff. One of the hallmarks of The Century, and what keeps people coming back night after night, is not just membership to the Century Club. It is the atmosphere that the employees have created of educating their customers, not just serving them. It is talking with the customers and finding out what bourbons they enjoy, suggesting similar bourbons, and making non-bourbon drinkers feel right at home at the bourbon center of Dayton. “We have an apprenticeship program for anyone who wants to become a bartender here. I need to know that when I am away from the bar, the brand is still being well represented.” Joe requires that anyone interested in becoming part of the team to work as a bar assistant for six months, learning not only the technical specifications of the cocktails and bourbon, but the culture that The Century has developed. “I want to see that you can educate and entertain the customers while you make the drinks. There will be timing for the drinks, but I want to hear how you speak and interact with people.” The final test is over 150 questions, in front of a panel of judges. The Century’s move to the south does not mean you are going to get less of an experience. The quality is expanding too.
“The Century will always be about whiskey. The cocktails will make us well rounded.” Joe was very matter of fact about what was important to him: no matter where he expands to, from collaborations to new locations, the quality of the product stays the same. The Century had twenty bourbons when he began, and he has grown the small bar to over one hundred bourbons and a top stop in the country for bourbon enthusiasts. The respect he has for the industry, his guests, and his community is evident. It is one of the pieces that makes The Century such a great place to sit down and have a bourbon, beer, or any cocktail with friends. And say hello to Joe while you are there. He would love to make a few more friends over a nice glass of whiskey.