Saturday, December 03, 2005

Remembering Max Allen.

We're drinking my friend to the end of a brief episode

So Make it one for my baby

And one more for the road

"One for My Baby," by Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen.

Max Allen’s name comes up during bar conversations far more often than you’d think, given that he’s been dead for five years, and very few Rich O’s regulars ever met him.

As they say, Max’s memory lives on, and deservedly so. Maybe the reason people continue to talk about him is that I won’t let them forget.

For much of his working life, Maxwell E. Allen, Jr., was a professional bartender. He was best known for his quarter-century stint at the legendary Hasenour’s Restaurant at Barret and Oak in Louisville, which was followed by several years – a “coda” of sorts -- at the Seelbach Hotel downtown.

It is much the understatement to refer to Max as a “people person,” because he was as jovial and friendly a man as you’d be likely to meet, and he was seldom seen in public without a broad smile on his face.

For many years, Max maintained a membership in the Fermenters of Special Southern Indiana Libations Society (FOSSILS), our local homebrewing and beer appreciation club, but he didn’t attend very many FOSSILS meetings owing to his work schedule.

One that he did is fondly remembered. In 1994, the late Virgil Hosier, a former employee of Ackerman’s, New Albany’s last operational brewery (closed in 1937), came to a FOSSILS meeting to talk about his job on the bottling line. Max had the foresight to bring a cassette tape recorder, and the recording of Virgil’s talk later was transcribed in Conrad Selles’s and Peter Guetig’s “Louisville Breweries” book, where it survives for posterity.

It is entirely appropriate that this memorable contribution to FOSSILS lore pertained to history, for Max was a member of Louisville’s Filson Club, a collector of books about beverage alcohol in general and Kentucky bourbon in particular, and a walking encyclopedia of local legend and lore.

After a long and gradual decline, Hasenour’s went out of business, and Max moved to the Seelbach for the final chapter in his professional life. In the twilight of his career, there seems to have been a dawning awareness on the part of observers, including many in the Louisville media, that he represented something that was fast disappearing: Skill and excellence in the traditional art of bartending, practiced by a true craftsman for whom bartending was not a temporary stop on the way to something better, but a respectable vocation in and of itself.

Max was featured in more than one Louisville Courier-Journal article on drinks, and for good reason: He knew the liquors and the recipes, and he did them right.

He did not indulge in embarrassing Globetrotter-style “extreme” routines of bottle spinning and juggling. Rather, the fundamental things applied. Max kept his bar clean and stocked -- not just with alcohols and mixers, but with any item that he felt his customers might need: A needle and thread, toiletries, neckties and road maps.

With him behind the bar was an index card file of customers, including names, preferences, wives, children, birthdays and anniversaries.

In every sense of the word, Max was a pro’s pro, and he remained one as the bar business inevitably began to reflect the assembly-line prerequisites of the modern consumer economy, eschewing its slower-paced, traditional role as restful sanctuary for a frenetic place in the cookie-cutter service sector.

Max Allen was the friendly, efficient, helpful face behind the bar, but not just any bar. His was the imperial “high street” American bar of the post-war zenith, an era that now is gone, and with it Max and so many others of his generation.

Rest in Peace, my friend.

No comments: