I’ve passed the nondescript place so many times, it’s become my great white whale. It was pretty much the only bar in town I had never stepped foot in … until last week, when I finally infiltrated the members-only Bonnycastle Club in the Highlands.
I had heard sordid stories of a private men’s club that offered cheap drinks in secret rooms without windows. I heard women can’t be members but can tag along with husbands, boyfriends or friends. Well, for the most part, all of that is true.
My friend, who will remain nameless, belongs to the Bonnycastle and teased me with it for years — holding his membership over my head like a golden ticket into Charlie’s Chocolate Factory. I begged and pleaded and offered to dress in drag. Finally, my efforts paid off, and he escorted me into the bar sans mustache. Some might say I waterboarded him with 32 ounces of Bud Light beforehand … but I’ll never tell.
Although you have to enter through a side door, the club actually stretches through the entire space at the corner of Bardstown and Bonnycastle — and has a back room that looks out onto Bardstown Road, labeled with the mysterious “Zip Delivery Service” on the window. The storefront windows are mostly blocked by room dividers, and the room is sometimes used for poker games. My friend remembers the days when you could actually enter through that door with a secret key.
There are a few other rooms (bathrooms, an outdoor patio and a kitchen), but the long bar, which you encounter when you enter through the side door, is where most of the action takes place. Members can take up to 10 guests in at one time, so it can get crowded on weekends.
The prices are definitely cheap — $2 for domestic beers, and a few more bucks for bourbons like Old Forester and Maker’s Mark. High-end liquors might top out at $7-$8.
Members have to pay annual dues of a couple hundred dollars, meaning the prices aren’t quite as cheap when you account for that.
The bar room is dark and quiet. You could tell it was the prime spot for many backroom business deals from a time when handshakes meant something, when cigarette smoke was sexy, and when slo gin fizzes outsold Fireball. It’s a bar that’s been captured in time — quaint and comfortable like Freddie’s but clean and grand like the Seelbach.
I did find out the Bonnycastle Club has to follow the same rules as every other bar in town — no drinking after 4 a.m., no smoking, no Diet Coke in top-shelf bourbons. And, unfortunately, women still cannot become members.
If the powers-that-be at the Bonnycastle would like to step into the 21st century, I’d love to become the first honorary female member. Just drink about it and get back to me. I promise I won’t tell anyone about the secret popcorn machine or the golden palm trees from one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces.
The Unofficial History of the Bonnycastle Club
Apparently, the first rule of the Bonnycastle Club is you don’t talk about the Bonnycastle Club, because I couldn’t find much of anything on its history. Even the esteemed, knowledge-filled owl Tom Owen — Metro Councilman for much of the Highlands and reference archivist at U of L’s Archives and Special Collections — was wary to relinquish details, but here’s what I garnered from his records and from talking with a few members.
A group of neighborhood guys decided to start a sports group — the Bonnycastle Athletic Club — after graduating from high school in the 1920s. They owned their own ball field on Richmond Drive and played — and won — against the likes of U of L and other major college teams at that time.
In the mid ’50s, Bellarmine University wanted the club’s field, so they offered a pretty penny for it. It’s speculated that the guys took that money and purchased the old Cherokee Branch Post Office at 1951 Bonnycastle Ave. for their own private bar — exactly what most guys (and me) aspire to do. Thus, the Bonnycastle (social) Club was born.
Membership is currently near a maximum (a few hundred), so it’s extremely hard to join nowadays.
Sounds like a challenge I’m willing to take …
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