Monday, December 08, 2014

The PC: After Max Allen, the deluge.

The PC: After Max Allen, the deluge.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

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” (Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen)

Max Allen’s name used to come up frequently during barside conversations at the Public House, and far more often than you’d think. Now he’s been dead for almost fifteen years, and only the older regulars ever would have had the pleasure of meeting him.

But I can be a stubborn cuss when called upon to plant my heels in the primordial muck of Falls of the Ohio flood plain, and so it strikes me as vital that Max’s memory lives on. Now more than ever, I’ll propose to continue writing and talking about him -- just so everyone else doesn’t 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 & Oak in Louisville, which was followed by several years – a “coda” of sorts -- at the Seelbach Hotel downtown, where his father had tended bar many years before.

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 ever be likely to meet, and he was seldom seen in public without a broad smile on his face. He was a walking repository of jokes and stories, and unafraid to use them.

I met Max in the early 1980s. He came into Scoreboard Liquors one night and was studying the whiskeys very intently. When he asked me how much I knew about them, I conceded my ignorance as the nominal beer guy who still was learning the ropes. This delighted him. Henceforth, Max was the teacher, and I was the pupil, which probably was his intention from the start, seeing as he seldom if ever made a purchase.

For many years, even though he wasn’t a beer drinker, Max maintained a membership in the Fermenters of Special Southern Indiana Libations Society (FOSSILS), our local homebrewing and beer appreciation club. He didn’t attend very many FOSSILS meetings owing to his work schedule, but one 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 Selle’s and Peter Guetig’s “Louisville Breweries” book (an updated version of the book only recently has been released), where it survives for posterity – thanks to Max.

It is entirely appropriate that this memorable contribution to FOSSILS lore pertained to history, for Max was a diligent 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 lifetime pursuit in and of itself.

Today’s professional mixologists are an amazing breed, and positively molecular in their approach. I mean no disrespect to them with my comparisons, and obviously, any references to “classicism” suggest an inescapable chronology, which is to say that Max certifiably was an old timer in his approach. In his later years, he was featured in more than one Louisville Courier-Journal article on drinks, and for the very good reason that he knew the liquors and the recipes, and he did them right.*

Max was frozen in time. He did not indulge in the briefly embarrassing historical epoch of Tom Cruise-inspired, Globetrotter-style “extreme” routines of bottle spinning and juggling. Rather, the fundamental things applied, and significantly, not only with the theory and practice of cocktails.

A bar tended by Max was kept 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, shoe polish, spare neckties and road maps. He viewed himself as a concierge, whether within the confines of his workplace or pertaining to the city at large.

After all, we speak of the final period before the advent of smart phones and personal electronic devices, and accordingly, Max did not rely upon cheap, abundant electricity; his index card file was literal and analog, upon which were written the names of customers, their references, spouses, children, birthdays and anniversaries. If you came to Hasenour’s once a year for Derby, he knew who you were and what you liked.

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

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

Rest in Peace, my friend. You’d be having so much fun in this new, bourbon-driven age … without so much as an iPhone in sight.


* In 2008, Max and other Louisville bartenders of his generation were the subject of an oral history project conducted by Southern Foodways, to which I contributed remembrances.

Photo credit: Courier-Journal

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