An Eye-Opening Whiskey Bar
The Blind Donkey serves up familiar and esoteric brands from its menu of 60 craft whiskeys.
By Bradley Tuck 04/05/2013
The damp wind crept under my collar, as instinctively I hunched over, the better to keep warm. I turned up the collar of my wool coat and stared across the bay spread out before me, its gray waters lapping quietly, lazily onto the pebbled beach beneath my feet. The dark, heavy clouds above nestled atop the bottle-green hills around the bay, blurring the line between land and sky as I sucked in the soft, peat-laden air.
Okay, I’m lying. The peat-laden air I’m actually inhaling emanates from the neck of a whiskey bottle at The Blind Donkey, a newish whiskey bar on Union Street, Old Pasadena, in the space that was once Dish Bistro. Dish was a lovely little spot, and its former patrons will note that the layout is pretty familiar. That’s because, as one of the bar’s four owners, John Bowers, tells me, he didn’t want to spend a fortune on the interior, opting instead to invest his budget in the products on the shelves. And what products they are. John is guiding me on a sniffing tour of some of his favorites among the 60-odd bottles of the gold stuff from Ireland, Scotland and the Americas that line the back of the bar.
Bowers’ partners are Brandon Bradford, Alen Aivazien and Ryan Sweeney, the man behind West Hollywood’s popular craft beer hangout, The Surly Goat. Bowers is a tall, willowy chap, affable and self-deprecating. A former political publicist, it’s clear he’s at home behind the bar. He doesn’t just like whiskey. He loves whiskey. I ask him to show me a couple of his favorites, and it takes him no time at all to line up some very diverse spirits in beautifully designed bottles.
First up is Templeton Rye. I’m no whiskey expert, but I’ve heard of this one. A fact of which I was unaware, until Bowers enlightened me, is that Templeton was Al Capone’s favorite, and during Prohibition it was called “The Good Stuff.” Apparently, when Capone was shipped off to Alcatraz, a case was smuggled in for him. The brand, relaunched in 2006, is a popular rye, and I want to know about the esoteric stuff. Bowers points out that the menu is designed to allow patrons to try some of the more elusive and expensive drinks without having to sob into their wallets. Most bars pour a two-ounce measure, and The Blind Donkey follows that standard, ranging in price from $8 to $59 for a 1975 Glenlivet Signatory. But its whiskeys are also available in a one-ounce shot, at a more approachable price of slightly more than half, so that it’s possible to explore the glories of some more unusual products.
Take, for instance, FEW Rye Whiskey, hailing from Evanston, Illinois. Deriving its name, ironically, from a prominent member of the Temperance Movement, Frances Elizabeth Willard, it bears a very beautiful label one could easily imagine gracing the shelf of a speakeasy in the 1920s. A pop of the stopper reveals a lovely fruity aroma, with apple and pear notes. Then, quick as a flash, we’re on to the next, a whiskey described by Bowers as a “bit of a science experiment”: Brimstone, out of Waco, Texas, is a corn whiskey that is smoked in an effort to simulate a peated malt. The smoking is done over Texas sagebrush wood, and a whiff of the bottle reveals not just a mesquite campfire, but almost a desert post-thunderstorm smell. It’s a revelation. I could stay here all day and do this. Alas, two more sniffs, and it’s time to get going.
The Blind Donkey has, in addition to an interesting cocktails list, a carefully curated selection of beer, as one might expect with Ryan Sweeney on board. There’s also a basic bar-food menu, including some triple-fried fries with ketchup ($5), and a dangerous-looking Cowboy Burger ($10), with bacon, cheddar and onion rings. Because let’s face it, you’re here for something other than food. But it would be dangerous to do all that
exploring on an empty stomach.