This month is a big month for The Century, located on Jefferson Street downtown. It is National Bourbon Month, and for the premier bourbon bar in Dayton, this is an opportunity to really show this community what a gem of a place they have hidden in the city (View all of the different bourbon tastings/events at Century Bar here). They have an incredible line up of events, from blind bourbon tasting this Saturday to a representative from whiskey distilleries later in the month. They kick it all off tonight with a midnight toast to get Bourbon Month into high gear, and will salute the passing of the month in the same way.
While the outside my not grab the eye as you are driving down the street, once you get in you cannot help but notice the grand, dark wood bar that dominates the main room. It has a wide collection of bottles, most of which are whiskeys in some way or form. The lights in the bar are dim, and some of the lights that exist are flooding over bourbon bottles filled with grains. It is comfortable, warm, and intimate. The people behind the bar know their whiskeys. They are tested on a monthly basis by the general manager of The Century, Joe Head, because he knows he cannot always be there. He wants to make sure his bartenders, Tim, Jared, Heather, and Josh, know what they are talking about. Joe took some time this week to sit down with me to talk about the bar and its history.
Some of the old customers come in, and remember the old bar. They have commented that the bar had diminished in their other liquors since their focus shifted to bourbon. “We have not got rid of another thing,” he states quite plainly. “We still have vodka, we still have gin. That’s part of being in the business. We know that bourbon drinkers have friends that don’t drink bourbon. I imagine the Dublin Pub has a Bud Light.” Joe is very knowledgeable about not only bourbon (he has probably forgotten more than most people know), but about his customers and the industry. He is incredibly friendly and easy to chat with. He respects all whiskeys and bourbons, knowing they have a place on the taste buds of all his different customers. “Jim Beam white label is certainly not the greatest Jim Beam, but even Porsche makes a crappy Porsche.”
1. How long has The Century been around?
It has been here since early 1900’s as the Frank Steffen Company. It has been The Century Bar since 1942. It was originally a lunch and Chaminade Julienne hangout. It was the number one place to eat downtown when Dayton had more business people looking for lunch.
2. Why is it named “The Century”?
It was changed in 1942 to The Century. I don’t know what significance was to them. Some of that history was lost. Things look similar as they did in the 70’s. It was a restaurant during day, and a bar at night. No food was served past 4 PM. When I first started here there were low top tables and chairs. All we did in the last year is strip the décor back so the bar is the focus. No more Jagermeister machines, no more Budweiser neon signs. The bar speaks for itself. All of our lights out there are bourbon bottles and they’re filled with grain that makes the recipe for each of the bourbons. All of our tables, we made them ourselves, buying the barrels from a cooperage in Louisville. We bought the furniture tops from a local place.
3. How long have you been with the place?
Since February 1, 1998. Diane Spitzig owns the bar, but I run the business for her. I wanted to do this for a few years. I did not plan on being here for fifteen years. We’ve always carried twenty bourbons, because I am a bourbon guy. In New York, San Francisco and Chicago, this is what they are doing. They are getting away from the beer. You want to drink less and drink better. For us, it felt like the way to go with it.
4. What made you become a fan of bourbon?
You know, I would love to say I sat on my grandpa’s lap when I was a kid. But honestly, when I was a kid my friends and I were Hank Williams Jr. fans. When we got old enough to think about drinking, we heard about Jim Beam. Today I still drink Jim Beam. I wish there was a more romantic story. There’s not. It’s the truth.
5. What was the impetus to mold The Century into a bourbon bar? How successful has it been?
I always thought that this was possible. You can be one spirit specific. You can see it more and more in the magazines. We have representatives from Jim Beam come here and say “You guys are way ahead of the curve. What you are doing here, they are doing in the big cities.” I spent fourteen days in Louisville, KY, visiting every bourbon bar I could go to, and I never left like we were not doing it right. The only thing we are limited by is Ohio’s regulations. They have to get it so we can get it. It is quite the process. We were in the Jockey Silks in the Galt House, a legendary bourbon bar, and another couple was sitting next to us. The bartender was talking with me for fifteen minutes, asking me about my opinion on bourbon. They asked the bartender a question, and he gestured to me and said “I don’t know, but I bet this guy could answer your question.” We laughed. I went there to be wowed, and left feeling good that what we are doing here with our staff is right. Bourbon is a passion for us; it is something we believe in.
6. Where did the idea for a blind bourbon tasting come from?
I had read and talked about bourbon tastings. The biggest hurdle we have with bourbon is label prejudice. People say “I do not like Jim Beam” or “I do not like Wild Turkey”. That is not necessarily true. They make a lot of bourbons, they just don’t make one. We want to strip away everything but what is in the glass. We had seventeen people at first one in October. The next one we had thirty five, and we haven’t had fewer than forty five since. All forty five people at the last one liked number six. It was Wild Turkey 101. If they knew, they would have told you they did not like it. When all they judged is what their taste buds told them, the whole room loved it. We are not trying to trick people. We are just trying to show them not to get caught up on what is on the front of the bottle; what is in the bottle is what is important.
You try to separate yourself from everyone else. We are on an island here by ourselves. We are a downtown bar; a destination. Part of our deal is to get away from the dive bar. It becomes negative. Most people that work here are in their 30’s. You have to see the market and separate yourself. It gives people quality option to come to downtown Dayton. The bourbon tasting we did earlier tonight, we tied also in with Olive. Those women are getting the whole downtown experience.
7. What is the “Bourbon Rocks” event for the Downtown Dayton Festival about?
We’re trying to tie into the Downtown Dayton Revival event and promote it as well. We will feature some appropriate bourbon that weekend. When we did our March tasting, we did two distilleries versus each other, to tie in with the March Madness play in game. We are just trying to promote from another angle what downtown is doing.
8. Why should more people be drinking bourbon?
I think things cycle, like clothing. In the 60’ and 70’s, people wanted to get away from what their mom and dad drank and went to the vodkas and gins. It was the opposite of Ozzie and Harriet, like dad had a glass of whiskey after work. We get a lot of twenty-somethings that want to drink what their grandparent’s drank, or their great grandparents drank. All things come around. When you sip on it, you’re not just shooting it at a party. We have 242 people in signed up in our bourbon club, half of them are women. Half of tickets for Saturday’s tasting are for women. We don’t believe bourbon is for everyone, but it is for enough people. We have sixty eight bourbons and one hundred and twenty total whiskeys. Bourbon is our focus.
9. What do you think of the trend of flavored bourbons, like American Honey by Wild Turkey, Tennessee Honey by Jack Daniels, and Red Stag by Jim Beam?
As a traditional bourbon drinker, it is not for me. But they don’t want me to drink it. They are trying to get past that “whiskey” thing. There are people who absolutely love it. We embrace it. Whatever grows the industry is good for us. They make good Manhattans. We mix it with lemonade and sweet tea and Coke. People ask me “What is the best way to enjoy whiskey?” Drink it any way you want, it’s yours. The best part of bourbon is there is no right or wrong way to enjoy it. This party that was in earlier said they would never have guessed they would enjoy sitting and drinking bourbon that much. That is what we are looking for.
10. What is your favorite bourbon?
What day of the week is it? George T Stagg and W.L. Weller are two of my favorite bourbons. Stagg only comes out once a year. It is a 141 proof from Buffalo Trace. It comes out every October. This 1792 is an everyday drinker for me. It is in my bourbon flight.
11. How long have you been doing bourbon flights?
December was our relaunch, so we started the flights in December. Each of the guys that work here has their favorite four, and when you reach the fifty whiskey mark in the club you also get to pick your favorite four. We feature that for a few months. We also do one that’s called Aged. I show people how white corn whiskey is and then increment the age so they can see how whiskey matures. The flights are very popular.
12. Do you need a beard to enjoy bourbon more?
No! Tim and I both, obviously, have facial hair. We thought it would be a nice night (September 22nd) to tie beards in with bourbon. Come in and wear fake beards. Draw in a handle bar moustache.
Joe also left me with a few final words: “We did not want to get ahead of ourselves. We did not want to sit down and have this conversation until we were ready as a business. We are up and running. All of our staff had to be taught, and they did really well with it. You can buy all the good bourbon you want, but your staff needs to make it a good experience. We are passionate about it and understand it. We look forward to coming into work.”
We look forward to coming to The Century all month to celebrate. If you are someone who loves bourbon, or have just been curious about it for a long time and want to try it, now is the time, and this is the place to educate yourself on the finer points of America’s spirit. Happy National Bourbon Month! Cheers!