On Monday, the world lost one of its most regarded and beloved bartenders when Joy Perrine died at 73 after a battle with cancer.
It was like a punch in the gut as word spread throughout the Louisville bar and restaurant industry, affecting everyone who Perrine crossed paths with and inspired — from fellow bartenders to prominent chefs, bourbon industry ambassadors and distillers, writers, and regular customers of Jack’s Lounge/Equus, where Perrine tended bar for more than 30 years.
Perrine, after all, touted bourbon when bourbon wasn’t cool, and she knew, like a mad scientist, which ingredients played well with Kentucky’s native spirit, winning over one person at a time, slow and steady — although nothing she whipped up ever took much time.
Perrine co-authored the best-selling “The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book” with fellow bourbon expert Susan Reigler in 2009, and in 2016, she was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
She came naturally to the service industry as her family was in the hotel and restaurant business in New Jersey, and at age 20, she decided to head south to the Caribbean island of St. Croix to learn the craft of bartending.
It was during this time she familiarized herself with barrel-aged rums, the importance of using fresh ingredients and how to skillfully yet quickly concoct a dazzling drink.
And in 1978, Perrine relocated to Louisville, where she became acquainted with and fascinated by all things bourbon.
The rest is history, as Perrine worked her way up the ladder at various Louisville bars and restaurants, including Jack Fry’s, eventually landing at Chef Dean Corbett’s Jack’s/Equus in the late 1980s.
Remembering the legend
I first met Perrine in 2010 while on assignment for LEO Weekly. I was nervous to meet the local legend in person, as she’s someone I had heard about since moving to Louisville in 1999. My job that day, as I meekly sauntered into Jack’s Lounge, was to pick Perrine’s brain about bartending and ask her five simple questions.
I recall Perrine being nothing but friendly and accommodating, and she saw me — this young, nervous writer who called herself “The Bar Belle” — as an equal, which floored me. I sat at her bar most of the afternoon, watching her interact with regulars, come up with recipes on demand by chefs and talk shop.
She shared great tips with me since I also was bartending at the time — although not at a place as swanky as Jack’s. The first was not to master every cocktail but become a master of two or three. Also, make a nice garnish, keep the cocktail simple, and use quality ingredients.
She also staunchly believed that every bartender in Kentucky should be able to make a proper Old Fashioned.
“This is the home of the Old Fashioned — if there is one drink that every bartender in Kentucky should be able to make, it’s the Old Fashioned. Most people suck at it. They won’t take the time to learn how to make one drink properly.”
That was 2010, and I do believe Louisville bartenders definitely have stepped up their game.
One last conversation I remember from that day was about the trend toward mixology, and if that’s what she considers herself to be — a mixologist. What she told me rings pertinently true today:
“I’m a bartender. I’ve always been a bartender — born a bartender, die a bartender.”
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Michael Veach — bourbon expert, author, speaker, writer of BourbonVeach.com
Joy was an inspiration to all who loved good bourbon cocktails. She was a bit of a firecracker who proudly referred to herself as “The Jersey Devil,” as she definitely had a wild side when it came to cocktail events. They were always informative and entertaining. She also had a love of history and supported institutions like the Filson Historical Society and the Oscar Getz Museum.
I will miss her humor and her no-nonsense attitude at these events.
Susan Reigler — bourbon expert, author, co-writer of Perrine’s “The Kentucky Bourbon Cocktail Book”
Joy always said she “loved playing with liquor.” She was truly influential in showing how bourbon could be used in cocktails beyond the traditional Manhattan and Old Fashioned. She was great fun to work with because she always spoke her mind and didn’t tolerate pretension. And, of course, she made great drinks!
Fred Minnick — bourbon expert, author, editor of Bourbon+ Magazine
Before Louisville was cool, Joy Perrine was the only bartender who could sling bourbon cocktails as if she was in New York or San Francisco. And she loved the taste of bourbon!
I will never forget judging a Four Roses cocktail contest with her, and she demanded of every bartender to taste the bourbon in the drink, which seems obvious, but whiskey can get lost in ice and sugar.
She revolutionized bourbon bartending, creating syrups specially for particular styles, and putting the Louisville bourbon drink scene on the map. I like to think she’s sipping a little bourbon right now with her old friend Dean Corbett.
Chris Zaborowski — bourbon expert, co-owner of Westport Whiskey & Wine
Excerpt from a Facebook post, published with his permission:
My path with Joy Perrine began almost 40 years ago at the bar of the long-defunct Cafe L’Artiste in downtown Louisville. We created a series of recipes based upon Marie Brizard cordials that was published for the regional market. She taught me that the best cocktails are really simple and balanced between sweet and savory, which I promote and teach today.
When she moved to Jack Fry’s, we — (wife) Robin and I — became regulars at the bar. She taught me to make one of my favorite cocktails: the Good & Plenty.
She believed in teaching and sharing. She was one of the first people to call once we opened WW&W offering to do cocktail classes in support of what we do. Giving, teaching, supporting so many were her great strengths and what made her a great friend.
The Louisville bartending community and we at WW&W will miss her humor and her love.
Bernie Lubbers — bourbon expert, author, brand ambassador for Heaven Hill Distilleries
I met my friends Mark and Mike at Equus in the lounge. I had not met Joy before, so they introduced me to her. This lean fire ant of a woman looked down at me and asked, “Are you a lush, too?”
She brought me my Manhattan and, as she sat it down, I noticed a black widow spider tattoo on her hand and complimented it, and she said, “No one f$&ks with me,” and I was hooked. Then after her shift, she joined us for drinks at The Red Lounge. She had a lot of energy and — I was to find out — a lot of knowledge, too.
Over the years we crossed paths at many bourbon events, and Joy always had a funny line and a smile. I miss her already.
Feel free to share your own memories of Joy Perrine in the comments section on Facebook. We’ll also include more memories from those in the bourbon industry as they come in. This post will be updated.