Full restaurant and bar, enormous scotch & whiskey selections, nostalgia, honky-tonk music, great patio with skyline view
“Each bottle of scotch contains so much history, tradition and attention to detail that the men who drink it are not just downing a beverage, but participating in a celebration of artisanship and the deep pleasures of life.” -Schaefer
I used to joke that I didn’t drink scotch because I wasn’t man enough, yet, and that I was still waiting for chest hair to sprout—really, I had no taste for the stuff. My ignorant tongue knew no better. If only someone had taken me to Harry’s Country Club for a drinking lesson, then I might have blossomed into manhood before the age of 31.
Designed by John O’Brien as an homage to 1940s honky tonks, Harry’s Country Club, a restaurant and bar in the historic River Market neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo., pulls off that rare feat of making the customer feel like they’ve time-travelled. If you fake nostalgia wrong then you end up looking like every Applebee’s in every town in the Midwest. Fake it right and you pay homage to a city and its history. At Harry’s Country Club, owner Harry Murphy and John O’Brien created a bar you’d swear has existed since the ‘30s—a place City Boss Tom Pendergast might have ordered busted kneecaps or a tumbler of scotch. Truth be told, Harry opened his namesake in 2003.
The bar décor evokes a feeling of history and tradition. Each black and white photo of a young George Jones or baby faced Willie Nelson draws you deeper into the illusion of time standing still. Even the star-cut cloth lamp covers above the bar recall rodeos, cowboys and honky-tonk music. A black-chocolate wood stain covers everything in the dining room not made of brick. The dark wooden bar, with its scrapes and chips, whispers history to each customer that sinks into a barstool. The aged building Harry’s occupies at 112 E. Missouri St. helps create this ‘40s illusion—it is lucky to have spent decades as a retail spot for Kansas City Light and Fixtures, which kept the building from falling into disrepair. The brick structure stands as a shining example of early 1900s River Market brick and mortar architecture. Frosted glass windows, antique advertisements, and illustrations of naked squaws dot the bathrooms, and it’s this attention to detail at Harry’s Country Club that allows the customer to “participate in a celebration of artisanship and the deep pleasures of life.”
The booze at Harry’s reflects the establishment’s attention to detail. Harry broke the scotch menu into scotch-producing regions. On a gloomy Thursday afternoon, the bartender, Matt, poured my drinking companion and me a flight of scotch from three regions: Islay, Campbeltown, and Highlands. The drinking order for each flight is important, he says. You start with the mellowest scotch and proceed to the smokiest, or peatiest, scotch in your flight in order to avoid frying your taste buds from the burn found in harsher whiskeys. The bartender slid over a tumbler of 12-year Highland Park from the Highlands to start us off. You could smell the caramel and taste the ash. It covered my tongue in sweet whisky oil. The 15-year old Springbank from the Campbeltown region carried a hint of peat, but didn’t overpower the palate. The seawater seemed to leak into the scotch from the casks, which age on the cliffs of the tiny scotch-producing region. We finished up with a 16-year-old Lagavulin from Islay. It smelled like leather and tasted of campfire or burning trash in country air, but with an incomparable smoothness to the finish—none of that harsh whiskey burn.
After we raved about the Lagavulin, the bartender created a flight based on our Islay preference. It’s this knowledge that sets Harry’s apart from other bars in Kansas City. The bartenders’ abilities to identify a drinker’s preference and design a tasting specifically catered to their palate encourages the scotch drinker to explore whiskeys they might not have tasted without sitting down at Harry’s bar.
To finish off our second flight we tried Harry’s favorite scotch, Octomore. Harry described it as greasy and forceful, the type of grease that coated the hair of a musician, Slim Harpo, whom Harry talked about at some length. I had no idea a scotch could coat your tongue like a teaspoon of cooking fat, but for this reason it is Harry’s favorite.
Harry’s Country Club is not just a bar. It’s a celebration of a bygone era when bartenders wore crisp white shirts, black ties and long aprons. An era that celebrates the beauty found not only in booze and music, but in experts doing their jobs so well that anyone who walks through the door benefits immediately. Kansas Citians, we’re lucky to have this joint.