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Bourbon capital has evolved into a trendy cocktail hub

I sipped my way through three evenings here in the world's bourbon capital, and among the drinks I rarely saw ordered was bourbon.

Though plenty of bourbon was poured, it arrived mixed with brandy, rock candy syrup, lemon, egg white, red wine and an endless array of bitters.

Louisville remains enduringly loyal to bourbon, but it is embracing a more modern method of imbibing that involves concepts beyond neat and rocks.

Some bars, like Proof on Main in the famed 21c Museum Hotel, have been at the cocktail game for a few years. But most of the new drinking breed has opened in the last year, and more are on the way.

"I walked in here tonight and said, 'This is my favorite new place in Louisville,' " Kristin Hulsman, 39, said one night at Meat, a dim, second-story cocktail bar east of downtown that opened in November. "This reminds me of something I'd see in New Orleans."

No one will take offense if you ask for bourbon on the rocks, but these new spots aim for more.

*Meat: This elegant room in a quiet corner of town, perched across from a decades-old slaughterhouse, is the heart of Louisville's suddenly serious cocktail scene. A menu of two dozen cocktails includes icons indicating "easy drinking," "a bit more challenging" and "rich, layered, not for beginners" (where I found a delicious concoction of Scotch, sweet vermouth, orange juice and celery seed bitters called The Smoke Monster). Almost any spirit imaginable appears on bartender/ recipe author/ co-owner Jeremy Johnson's menu. Don't be surprised to find seven or eight ingredients in your glass along with ice from a Kold-Draft machine. And they're open till 4 a.m. "I think people mean it as a compliment when they say this is something they expect to see in New York, but I say, 'Oh, God, no,' " Johnson said. "I want it to remind people of Louisville." 1076 E. Washington St., (502) 354-3212;

*Rye: In the burgeoning East Market Street corridor also known as NuLu, this recently opened spot has a concise but thorough cocktail menu. Only two of the 10 offerings are whiskey-based, leaving plenty of room for gin, rum, vodka and even cognac (it's the key ingredient in Rye's Sazerac -- a welcome nod to the original recipe). I usually avoid cocktails with egg white, but the bartender convinced me to try the Elderflower Fizz (St. Germaine, gin, lemon, egg white and soda), and guess what? Rye made me an egg white convert. Also, the food here is top-notch. 900 E. Market St., (502) 749-6200;

*Harvest: A James Beard Award semifinalist for best new restaurant, this place takes the "farm-to-table" concept with utter sincerity and boasts an impressive seasonal cocktail menu to match. The bartender nearly leapt over the bar for a high five when I ordered the drink she invented. Who can say no to rye, brandy, sweet vermouth and two kinds of bitters? Heavy on the organic spirits, the cocktails are almost as high-minded as the food, but the concept isn't overly serious: My menu was printed on the back of a Habitat for Humanity envelope. Actually, maybe that is kind of serious. 624 E. Market St., (502) 384-9090;

*The Silver Dollar: If you want straight whiskey in the new Louisville, this is the place. Dozens of whiskeys (and tequilas) line the shelves behind the bar, and they arrive both in an ambitious cocktail list and on their own. Silver Dollar fashions itself a modern honky-tonk, featuring a large American flag across a brick wall, country music spinning from a turntable and barbecue in the kitchen. It attracts a young and boisterous crowd. Think of it as Meat's fun younger brother. 1761 Frankfort Ave., (502) 259-9540;

*Against the Grain: OK, so all the modern drinking in Louisville isn't about cocktails. Louisville also boasts a healthy craft-beer scene, and its newest brewery might be its best. The constant on brewmaster and co-owner Sam Cruz's beer menu is style (hop, smoke, dark, malt, session and whim), but he allows himself a wide berth when interpreting the styles. It keeps the menu fresh and inspired, drawing a loyal crowd that includes the post-work lawyers in suits alongside the pierced, tattooed set. 401 E. Main St., (502) 515-0174;