Known far and wide for decades as the Bad Girl of Bourbon, Joy Perrine of Equus and Jack’s Lounge in Louisville, Ky., is nothing short of a legend. A bartender for more than 50 years (yes, you read that right), Perrine has not only been instrumental in helping shape the rise of bourbon and bourbon cocktails but also in blazing a trail for women in the craft-bartending world. This year, Perrine will be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame for her contributions to the industry, but she has no plans on putting away her shaker anytime soon. Perrine reflects on everything from shouting drink orders in Saint Croix to the growth of bourbon culture over the past half-century.
How did you get started as a bartender?
I come from basically five generations of selling beer, wine and spirits, going back to my great-great-grandfather, who had a hotel in New Jersey. My mother, father and their families were all involved in Prohibition. After Prohibition was repealed, they decided to quit the spirit end of things. My mother’s family got into the restaurant business, but they never sold liquor again. I grew up working in these restaurants.
In 1965, I moved to Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. I started out as a waitress but evolved into being a bartender when, one night in the middle of a shift, the bartender walked out. My boss, the chef, said, “Well, I can’t leave the kitchen. If you want drinks, you’re going to have to make them yourself.” I knew how to make basic drinks, but if I got a drink order that I didn’t know, I would shout into the kitchen something like, “Brandy Alexander!” He would shout how to make it back to me. That’s basically how I learned to bartend, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
You moved to Kentucky in 1978. Did you always have a soft spot for bourbon?
I had lived in the Virgin Islands, so my first love was rum. When you go to the West Indies, that’s what everybody drinks. So originally, I started experimenting with rum. When I moved to Kentucky, I knew even then that the national and global trend with bourbon hadn’t yet started, but bourbon was a big deal in Kentucky. Pretty much everybody drank bourbon. I knew there were similarities between rum and bourbon, because the rum industry buys the used bourbon barrels [to age the rum], since the bourbon industry can only use the barrels one time. So I just started playing with bourbon the way I had with rum.
How did you earn your nickname, The Bad Girl of Bourbon?
It was from an interview with Esquire. When I started getting some press and recognized for making bourbon cocktails, a lot of people got really pissed off. They said, “You’re ruining the product. You should only drink this product neat, blah, blah, blah.” I told them, “Hey, there are some people who just don’t like the taste of whiskey straight. So if I make a cocktail and convert them to being a bourbon drinker, then who cares?” Slowly but surely, I started becoming less and less the bad girl and more like the good girl.
What was it like to be a woman in bartending in the 1960s?
When I started out in the ’60s, there were very few women bartenders. I was lucky, because pretty much the time that I started bartending was also when Dale DeGroff, King Cocktail, started his revolution of the cocktail industry in New York at Rainbow Room. When you talk about the bourbon industry, where there are very few women who are recognized, I would say that not only stateside but globally I’m probably in the top five. Most of that is through the two bourbon cocktail books that I co-wrote and my involvement for the past eight or 10 years with the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Ky.
Who are some of the most interesting people you’ve met through the bourbon industry?
A group of Brazilians came to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival about six or seven years ago. They were a riot. They were going to literally open a steakhouse with a bourbon bar in Brazil. I don’t know if that ever happened or not. That was pretty interesting. But I’ve met people from all across the world and pretty much every state in America. People just love bourbon.
Do you have a favorite bourbon?
No. I have to be very diplomatic. As my friend Mike says, “My favorite bourbon is whatever one you’re willing to buy me.”