Award winning Century Bar at the
top of their game

Stepping in to the Century Bar is taking a step back in time. “So set ’em up Joe,
I’ve got a little story I think you should know…”

By Dr. Mike Rosenberg | Photo by Michael Morris

Bourbon’s popularity in the United States is booming. The overall American whiskey industry showed a $3.1 billion increase in revenue last year, and bourbon-themed bars are popping up in urban neighborhoods left and right.

One of these whiskey bars, Dayton’s own Century Bar and Bourbon House, has made a name for itself on the national stage. Over the last several years, the Century has scored multiple recognitions, including being named one of “America’s Best Bourbon Bars” by the Bourbon Review for five consecutive years including 2017.

The Century shifted to its current brown-liquor-heavy concept a few years ago. Opened in 1942, the Century was “a Chaminade-Julienne bar” for many years, according to Joe Head, general manager. When he started working there as a bartender, the bar didn’t have quite the same reputation.

“We were a metal bar—a late night party bar before. We’d be empty until 11 every night and then we’d be packed full until after 2,” explained Joe. “We needed something fresh, so we rode this wave, and it’s taken us good places.” Under Head’s management, the Century transformed itself into a turn of the aughts…the nineteen-aughts that is…time capsule, with its low light, copper and dark wood accents, and gorgeous heavy wooden back bar stocked with close to 500 different spirits, 400 of which are bourbons
and whiskeys.

The cozy front bar opens into a back room decorated with various bourbon memorabilia from decades past, as well as plaques with names of customers who have sampled their way through the Century’s extensive catalogue. The high ceilings boast what seems to be original (and gorgeous) stained glass.

As a quick note about the Century’s spirit of choice—all bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskey is bourbon. For a whiskey to be called “bourbon,” it must be made of a fermented “mash” of at least 51 percent corn, with the remainder largely malted barley and either rye or wheat. It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof
(that’s 80 percent alcohol).

Pure water, and only water, must then be added to reduce the alcohol level to under 125 proof before the distillate goes into barrels. A bourbon barrel must be made from new charred oak. Used barrels are coveted by beer and wine makers, who use them to impart particular flavors.

For a bourbon to be considered “straight bourbon,” it must be aged in barrel for at least two years. Most straight bourbons are barrel-aged for at least four years—many for much longer. Also, Bourbon does not, as many people believe, have to be produced in the state of Kentucky.

I sat down with Joe, his impressive soup catcher of a beard, and his even more impressive knowledge of spirits to sample some whiskey and learn more
about the place.

Round one: 1792 Full Proof

When Joe set this bottle on the table, I balked a bit. I worried how the day would unfold if I started with this copper-colored bourbon as my first drink of the day, since it clocks in at 62.5 percent alcohol. I asked Joe about why he’d want to start with something
that strong.

“People get all wrapped up in the proof of bourbons. A higher proof generally means more flavor, if a bourbon is made right. I believe that about 90 percent of a bourbon’s flavor comes from the barrel, but that said—if your ‘white dog’ tastes like shit and you try to make it taste better in barrel, you’re going to end up with a whiskey that tastes
like shit.”

White dog is the raw, clear spirit that emerges from the distillation process. White dog is then placed into barrels for aging, where it becomes whiskey. White dog is also better known as “moonshine.”

“So, if you’re doing a good job distilling, you can make a really high alcohol whiskey and let the barrel and time do its thing.” Joe explained that more alcohol in the initial white dog means more flavor is pulled from the barrel staves during the aging process.

“Lots of folks think that people should try to learn about whiskey from some lighter, less alcoholic bourbon—but I believe that you shouldn’t run away from flavor. A well-made whiskey isn’t going to be harsh, but it should be flavorful and balanced—and you’ll get that warm ‘Kentucky Hug,’” he said, gesturing from his throat to his belly.

Joe wasn’t kidding. The 1792, with a small splash of water, certainly warmed me up, taking me back to my Lexington days when trips down the Bourbon Trail were fairly regular occurrences. Along with the alcohol warmth, I found an almost lemony flavor alongside oak and some grain flavors. I thought it was pretty damned good.

The various whiskeys on the Century’s extensive menu range from $5 to over $100 per shot. The bourbon menu includes standards like Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark alongside more boutique bottlings like E.H. Taylor, John B. Stetson, and, yes, the now-unearthly famous Pappy Van Winkle. They have a plentiful selection of rye whiskeys, plenty of single malt and blended Scotch choices, and some other more obscure varieties like Nikka Taketsuru 12 Year Pure Malt from Japan alongside others from India and Taiwan.

Round TWO: Pikesville 6-Year Straight Rye Whiskey

Next came this cherry cola-ish spirit—a little rougher than the previous, but still flavorful. Even with the edge, I was greeted with a wash of caramel, leather, and wood flavors that was super pleasant. I usually use rye for Manhattans, but I would just as soon have had this straight.

“So why bourbon and whiskey?” I asked.

“Bourbon is America. It’s the fullest expression of whiskey. It’s big, bold, in-your-face. There’s plenty of flavor. Bourbon fell out of favor for a while in the U.S. after being big in the ‘40s and ‘50s. In the Ozzie and Harriet days, Dad would come home from work and pour a cocktail. Those times passed. Beer and tequila got big because people wanted to drink more and get hammered. A whole generation missed out on whiskey. Now, we’ve got some more of those traditional cocktails and drinks making a comeback.

“You’ve also got to remember that this is really the first generation of female bourbon drinkers. Before, they drank fruitier drinks and wine, now, after work, you’ll see nearly half the bar being women. This whole generation is really about ‘drink less,
drink better.’”

In addition to straight alcohol, the Century also has a fairly extensive menu of reasonably priced craft cocktails. The bartenders like to be creative, Joe said, so in addition to the classics like Old Fashioneds and Whiskey Sours, part of the menu shifts to incorporate seasonally available ingredients. Beer, wine, and other standard spirits are also available, if that’s your thing.

Round THREE: Old Grand-Dad Bonded Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Joe introduced this amber glass to me as “the bartender’s bourbon”—one of the best values in whiskey, and what he and his crew drink when they go out. It’s a butterscotchy, brandy-noted whiskey that ends with vanilla and cinnamon flavors. Very smooth and easy to drink, I could see this being a session bourbon if I wanted to get into considerable amounts of trouble.   

“Our bartenders here go through a six-month apprenticeship program when they start. They’ll spend time shadowing the bartenders, and we have a whiskey curriculum that they’ll learn. Once they get through that, we’ll let them start making basic cocktails and experimenting a little. When they feel like they’re ready, we put them through a two-hour oral exam where we fire drink orders and questions at them. When they get through that, I know I can trust them with the place.

“Because whiskey is a conversation…and you need the right place to have the conversation. We’re all about the experience and we focus on having a real attention to detail. The bar lights are always low, and we made sure all the bulbs have the same hue. We play big band music in here, not Slayer. All the bartenders are in three-piece [suits] when they’re working. All of us have beards. Bourbon is a lifestyle.”

The bourbon lifestyle also includes an additional throwback to the roaring ‘20s. Construction is underway on Joe’s related passion project, Kette’s Kandies, a Prohibition-themed “speakeasy” that will be located next door featuring turn-of-20th-century cocktails. The speakeasy is scheduled to open sometime in 2018.

Round FOUR: Russell’s Reserve 10-Year “Small Batch” Bourbon

I asked Joe for something “balanced yet interesting” as I pondered what kinds of bourbons I might want to go with thereafter. He went with the Russell’s Reserve, a premium bottling from the makers of Wild Turkey. I’m glad I didn’t know that association before, honestly. Wild Turkey was the culprit in my first bad drunk, many moons ago. The Russell’s Reserve had a big vanilla and spice nose with some sweetness at the back. Lots of spice and honey on the palate went along with a nice smoothness.

I asked Joe what the “Small Batch” referred to, since that term shows up on a number of whiskey bottles. He explained to me that, like “Old Vine” with red wine, there’s no legal or standard definition for “Small Batch.” It’s simply a marketing term.

While letting this not-so-Wild Turkey roll around on my tongue for a bit, I asked Joe about the clientele since his change of concept.

“We get all sorts in here. I really think, because of the atmosphere that we work so hard to create, people come in here and just naturally want to relax, soak up the atmosphere, and have a good time. Sure, we get plenty of dudes coming in here with their corporate cards, ordering the most expensive stuff they can and doing shots with it. That’s just normal. But most people are looking to explore and find a bourbon they can call theirs.”

“Honestly, though,” said Joe as we finished our last few sips, “the days I enjoy most are like this time when a 75-year-old guy walked in. He slowly walked up to the bar, sat down, and said to me, ‘It’s my birthday, and my wife told me to enjoy myself.’ He ended up ordering a Pappy [Van Winkle] 15-year and he just sat for like an hour and sipped it slow. I could tell it was a really meaningful experience for him, and it felt great to be a part of it.”

The Century is located at 10 S. Jefferson in downtown Dayton. They’re open from 3 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday and from 6 p.m.-2:30 a.m. on Sunday. You can learn more at or at their Facebook page.

Joe Head reveals Century’s past
and future

By Tim Smith

Joe Head isn’t content to sit on his laurels as Dayton’s reigning bourbon expert. The Century Bar co-owner makes regular trips to Kentucky’s bourbon country, seeking out aged wooden barrels that have just the right seasoning to enhance the products he stocks in his bar on South Jefferson Street. He also has plans to expand when he opens Kette’s Kandie’s, a Prohibition-themed watering hole featuring an emphasis on popular 20th century cocktails.

“The Speakeasy essentially is an extension of our brand,” Joe said. “We’re gonna take the focus of whiskey and put it only into our cocktails next door. At the end of the day, I love whiskey. And I love that I look like my great grandpa did in Virginia. However, that’s not all we are ever gonna be. We’re fun and creative people. This is gonna be a vehicle for that. So on a Monday night we will be open, doing a Bourbon 101 academy. The idea of it is for three to four weeks, I’m going to teach classes on bourbon.”

Head plans to maintain the same standard in his new venture that his customers have come to expect at The Century. Translation: ask any bartender in either establishment to recommend a spirit or cocktail to match your mood, and you’ll get the right answer.

“That’s the only reason they’re there,” he said. “They’re professionals. Matter of fact, they are bartenders. That’s a term that got whored out terribly. This used to be a job that people wanted to get into, like this is something I want to do before I do something really real. We have a training program, because I’m not there all the time. You can’t just come to be a bartender. That just speaks to how I can say that you go there and say ‘educate me.’ I know I know that. But I have to know my staff can do that. So there’s a two-hour verbal exam and a six-month internship program. And a cocktail program. It’s like any other profession.”

His Kentucky barrel-hunting trips are another way for The Century to stay competitive in a copycat market.

“The bar business is a funny business,” he said. “We went to whiskey and now we’re so famous and quite honestly, we didn’t expect it. And now every bar in Dayton is like “We want to be a bourbon bar, we want to be heavily focused on bourbon.” So how do you fight that? You do private barrels. At home, we have 22 barrels and we have 4 more coming. So when we go down to Kentucky, we pick. The goal is to buy a new one every day. There will be 3 or 4 barrels and you taste them and eliminate them pretty quickly. And then we’ll blindly choose. We just try to pick the best brands.”

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Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at or visit his blog at

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