“We treat every cocktail as a visual, aromatic, and gastronomic event,” explains Head Bartender and General Manager, Jake Sulek. Using fresh, local ingredients, their “farm-to-shaker” commitment means guests will experience authentic beverages that are approachable at the same time.
In addition to Sulek and his bar and kitchen staff, the key players at West Main Crafting Co. are owners Jason Jaggers and Chad Amos, chefs Stephen Holden and Kevin Barnes, and brand ambassador Jonathan Laurel. Jaggers and Amos are veterans of the software development business. “They were always wining and dining in all these great bars, and when they came home to Lexington, they felt they didn’t have a place that was like that, a bigger market bar to take their clients,” explained Sulek. “So when they decided to retire, they said, ‘Why don’t we just build our own bar?’ That’s when they hired Sulek to bring their vision to reality.
The space at 135 West Main Street had previously housed Kaufman’s department store, and most recently, Rick Scalf Gallery. “We loved the location, and for us, it was really about keeping everything as original as possible,” said Sulek. During the renovation, they removed the gallery’s walls to expose the original 1850’s brick. They added a staircase to the cellar and repurposed the wood from the original floor joists as check presenters.
The handsome, modern space is accented with long, custom-crafted communal tables, thick wooden beams and steel shelving, all of which is balanced with custom velvet seating and vintage décor accents. The West Main team handled the interior design themselves and hired Tom Dotson of Tom’s Cabinets Versailles to build it. “Tom took my designs and rendered them in 3 dimensions in the most amazing way. I cannot recommend him enough,” said Sulek.
While guests can certainly enjoy a full meal at West Main Crafting Company, Sulek explained that the menu of “reimagined bar food” is comprised of small dishes that are meant to be shared. For example, the chicken wings, one of their bestselling dishes, is made with a duck fat confit (a technique where the meat is slowly cooked in duck fat). “It takes 48 hours – after the confit, the wings are fried and finished with 100-proof alcohol and spices. It’s an amazing process,” he said. “Duck fat makes the meat so much more delicate – it literally falls off the bone.” The wings are served with a choice for three cocktail-inspired sauces – old fashioned, mai tai, or smoky margarita.
Another bar food staple, fried mushrooms, has been elevated to gourmet proportions. Sulek explained, “Instead of getting tiny, deep fried button mushrooms, you’ll get a local shiitake that has been fried in a gin and tonic batter and finished off with ramp (wild leek) seasoning.”
While the food menu is certainly impressive, as head bartender, Sulek’s true passion is the beverage program. The menu was inspired by pre-prohibition era recipes, also known as the “Golden Age” of cocktail-making, which took place from about 1862 to 1900. According to him, some of the most well-known drinks – The Daiquiri, the Margarita, The Manhattan, The Old Fashioned – were invented during that period. “Bartenders were the first celebrity chefs, and traveled across the country frequently. The first bartender manual came out in 1862, and we are throwing back to that era.”
With jars full of herbs displayed on the bar, along with an assortment of small bottles, droppers and atomizers, it’s easy to see how the presentation is as important as the drink itself.
“Apothecary is a word that comes up often,” he said, “but in the end, it’s all here for authenticity’s sake. We don’t painstakingly craft everything by hand as some sort of kitch. It’s about controlling the flavor.”
The Hickory Sour, the White Oak Old Fashioned, and the Barrel Aged Manhattan are among their most popular drinks, and customers often order a variety of beverages to share.
Perhaps the biggest showstoppers are the absinthe fountains. Contrary to what one might think, the ornate vessels are not for dispensing absinthe, but rather for dispensing water. The fountain, with several taps surrounding its central water container, drip ice-cold water slowly into a glass of the anise-flavored spirit. Not only does the slow, steady drip (known as “la louche”) transform the color from clear to opaque, but the drip also releases the flavors of the herbs and oils found in absinthe. “When one of these goes out to a table, everyone turns to look,” said Sulek.
In addition to serving fancy, historically accurate drinks, at the same time, Sulek and his team are determined to make their creations accessible to the average drinker. The most striking way they do this is with their beautiful, full-color cocktail manual. The thick, glossy books feature stunning photos of each cocktail, along with detailed explanations of the ingredients and process. “When I sit down at a bar, I have the advantage of knowing the ingredients and materials being used, Sulek said. “ But when I’m with friends, I’ll notice them reading a list of unpronounceable Italian names, and they will invariably pull out their phones and look everything up when the server walks away. So we’ve veered in the opposite direction. If you want to know what Campari is, you can look it up in the glossary.”
As one can imagine, making a large variety of handcrafted items daily takes a great deal of prep work. Part of Sulek’s job is to outline everything needed for the week and schedule entire prep shifts to get all the ingredients ready. So far, he says, they have never run out of anything. In addition, his bartenders must have extensive experience. “During interviews, I joke with people that they need to be able to make any cocktail invented in the last 200 years with the ingredients we have on hand.”
The team at West Main is clearly dedicated to creating unique food and beverages in a beautiful setting, and it’s a welcome addition to what some are calling the “Main Street Renaissance.” “This whole two-block stretch from here to the corner is all bars and restaurants, Sulek said. “We’ve got Seltzer Club next door and they’re adding a restaurant, and right next to Corta Lima, Rooster Brew is going in, which will be the permanent location for the Gastro Gnomes. It’s a great little section of downtown, and we’re glad to be here.”
Q & A with Jake Sulek Head Bartender
What drew you to mixology?
Mixing cocktails is a natural offspring of two passions: cooking and collecting whiskey.
What is your favorite West Main Crafting Co. cocktail to make? Walk us through the drink, and tell us why you love it.
My favorite cocktail is the Hickory Sour. Our twist on a classic Whiskey Sour, we char hickory chips to bring out the sugars, then infuse the chips in high-proof bourbon along with diced local peaches. We balance fresh-squeezed lemon juice with a touch of honey and apricot brandy, add two dashes of our homemade orange bitters, then shake the cocktail with aquafaba, a vegan substitute for egg white. The resulting cocktail is bold and bright with notes of smoky charred fruit.
What are the most important tools of a cocktail making connoisseur?
Your most important tools are the simplest ones: shaker, strainer, and spoon.
What are you aiming for conceptually with West Main Crafting Company’s bar?
We are a nineteenth century-inspired cocktail bar, and we provide an authentic cocktail experience. Our goal is to provide a drinking experience that is not only the best in town, but also one that competes on a national level.
What’s the standout feature that makes West Main Crafting Company different?
Our bartenders create cocktails from fresh, local ingredients, and our farm-to-shaker commitment means you get authentic, approachable, spirit-forward drinks. We treat every cocktail as a visual, aromatic, and gastronomic event.
Favorite classic cocktail to create (and recreate) and why?
A proper Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail is simple and elegant. Four ingredients (spirit, sugar, water, and bitters) combine harmoniously to produce an eye-opening mixed drink.
What has been the craziest technique you’ve undergone to nail a flavor for a drink?
Using a centrifuge to clarify cocktail ingredients is our current obsession.
On your (rare) nights off, what is your current go-to drink order?
My go-to drink order is a good single-malt Islay Scotch served neat.
Most unusual drink request you’ve ever received?
Any mixed beverage requiring “half-an-ounce” of everything in my speed rail.
What is the best piece of bartending advice you’ve ever received?
“Keep your head up.”
If your bar shifts had a theme song, what would it be?
My theme song would change every day depending on my mood.