Lexington bar’s eccentric history helps set it apart


Bar-goers visit and enjoy drinks on the rooftop at Belle’s Cocktail House on Friday, September 6, 2019, in downtown Lexington, Ky. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Jacob Eads

There’s only one place in Lexington where you can grab a bourbon slushy with a taxidermy water buffalo and a Victorian-era brothel owner – that’s Belle’s Cocktail House.

The city’s eccentric three-story rooftop bar may sit quietly at the corner of Church and Market streets during the week, but when Thursday hits, it welcomes UK’s students with open arms and unique cocktails.

But if you’ve never ventured over to Belle’s place here’s a rundown of what it has to offer:

Belle’s has a reputation of catering to Lexington’s older bar crowd, but each of its three floors has something to offer everyone.

“I think that’s what’s kind of cool about this place. Each floor has a little different atmosphere, and as the night goes on it’s a different age group of people that come in. I think we we’ve built up a wide array of people,” said Belle’s general manager Jason Curstinger.

Make it past the bouncer at the door, and on Belle’s first floor you’ll find a bustling bar with hundreds of beer, wine and bourbon options sure to keep you on your toes.

If you’re feeling adventurous, take it up a notch and head up to the second-floor and grab a seat on the bar’s Victorian-era furniture and enjoy your drink with any one of Belle’s taxidermy animals that keep a watchful eye on the bar’s patrons.

But Belle’s biggest attraction is its rooftop patio that gives visitors a glimpse of the city skyline and can even cool them down with its Ale-8 and Maker’s Mark bourbon slushy machine. Curtsinger said the machine came with its own recipe, but Belle’s added more bourbon.

Belle’s prides itself on its list of eccentric cocktails like its bourbon slushies, but says it’s signature drink is probably the “Naked in the Garden,” a Wheatley Vodka drink infused with cucumber, mixed with a strawberry kiwi shrub and with muddled strawberries and lemons added in.

Belle’s staff said it’s this attention to the details and it’s atmosphere that sets their place apart from Lexington’s college bars.

“It’s kind of off the beaten path. It’s more of a destination bar…people have to want to come here,” said assistant manager Natalie White.

UK student Latoya Walker said that Belle’s offers an escape from South Limestone’s typical college bars.

“I know of a lot of older people that come here, but I feel like there are definitely some younger people who find it nice. I don’t really like the ‘college bars’ like Two Keys and Tin Roof,” Walker said.

But even for the most frequent of Belle’s visitors, the bar’s bizarre history hides some secrets that set it apart from the rest of the city’s watering holes.

Belle’s is actually named after Madame Belle Brezing, a 19th century brothel owner who’s been called “Lexington’s Most Famous Lady.” A portrait of Brezing hangs in homage inside of the bar.

Brezing was born in 1860 Lexington, the illegitimate daughter to a dressmaker and occasional prostitute, according to the UK libraries.

Maryjean Wall, the author of “Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel,” said that Brezing had a “very unfortunate way of starting out.”

“It was a small city, so everybody knew everybody else’s business, and the newspaper would publish items about her and her mother, and so the newspaper was cruel. Everybody knew who Belle was by the time she was 10 years old. And then by the time she was a young teenager, she was working as a (prostitute), and her mother was dead by then,” said Wall.

Wall said that Brezing eventually reinvented herself into a powerful business women who operated a series of brothels catering to the city’s elite and other influential visitors from around the country.

“I think she had a lot more influence than people wanted to give her credit for…,” Wall said. “I have to wonder, how much was she really pulling the strings that ran the city? I think that’s the big question behind the story of Belle Brezing. The police didn’t touch her. She knew a judge, and I think she probably knew a lot of city officials.”

Although Belle’s Cocktail House has no actual ties to Brezing, the two share an eerie similarity.

It was Brezing’s third brothel on what is now Lexington’s N. Eastern Street that was the most popular, according to Wall. But on two separate instances, fires ripped apart the third floor of the mansion – once in 1895, and later in the 1970’s long after Brezing’s death.

In August 2018, a fire tore through the third-floor rooftop of Belle’s Cocktail House decimating that portion of the bar. Belle’s staff say that this spooky coincidence just adds to the bar’s intrigue.

So if you’re planning to make a trip over to Belle’s this semester, make sure to say hi to Madame Belle Brezing while you’re there.