Going down the stairs from The Principal's Office, the constant din of the Ivywild School fades. It's less a hush and more a comfortable reservedness that pervades the new Axe and the Oak Whiskey House. The two-level bar and barrel furniture read whiskey joint, but the couch and easy chairs feel more café. There aren't any four-seat tables, though two-seaters share a wall-length, split-log bench, matching the bar. It's a setting fit for hillbillies or hipsters, especially after sunset.
Axe and the Oak bourbon has been on shelves since 2014, taking home silver medals in 2016 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the North American Bourbon and Whiskey Competition and the Denver International Spirits Competition. Distiller/co-owner Jason Jackson is no doubt proud of his bourbon.
The bar also pours three other Axe and the Oak spirits: a 15-month-aged, 100-proof bourbon; a 104-proof moonshine; and a Whiskey House exclusive, cask-strength bourbon. The first drinks a little hotter than the flagship bourbon, but it's an even heat, carrying dark notes of cigar and cinnamon. We're fond of the latter, made from the same 68 percent corn mash as the bourbons and diluted instead of aged. There's a lot of sweetness in the nose, but less in the spirit itself, which sips with clean sweet corn notes.
Jackson has built good base spirits, and his team has hired Principal's Office vet Ryan Toth as bar manager, a promising move. On first visit, we try a Maple Old Fashioned, and to our surprise, we find it wanting. The house-infused cascara maple syrup oddly drowns out the bitters for a disjointed sip that mutes its own nuances.
But after that visit, Axe and the Oak's drink menu changed substantially. A harmonious Tobacco Old Fashioned gave us everything we'd hoped for in the maple drink. Sweet aroma gives way to a smoky, spiced exploration of flavors. Pipe tobacco gets infused into the whiskey for around a minute and a half, just long enough to add flavor, and it's mixed with nutmeg maple syrup and old time bitters. It's intense, but not overwhelming, and we are pleased.
Really, there's a lot to love on the all-drinks-$10 menu. We try the Smoked Cinnamon Flip, which also uses tobacco and nutmeg maple syrup, but with smoked cinnamon, lemon and orange juices, and egg white. Again, there are smoke and spice both, but with the citrus tang, sweetness and smoothing egg white, it invites exploration instead of demanding it.
For moonshine drinks, we enjoy the Moonshine Mary and the Medicine Man alike. The former, Toth informs us, is only the "eight out of ten" version, as they're out of butternut squash to purée in, but even this iteration delights with a pronounced fermented darkness from kochujang (Korean chili paste) and Smøk whiskey glaze infused with bourbon. The Medicine Man sees moonshine with house ginger mint syrup playing nicely with creole and old time bitters, lemon and orange juices keeping things light.
If a stumble remains, it's the Black Tea Hot Toddy, which bears black peppercorns and cardamom pods floating about, for an intense spice nose. Sans floating spices, the citrus-sugar-bitters-chai combo does fine until the spice-heavy dregs at the bottom. Even then, it's wholly drinkable.
But then, we get to the food. To be blunt, Axe and the Oak is for cocktails, not dinner.
Like the rest of the Ivywild complex, food comes from the Old School Bakery's kitchen. So yes, the bread satisfies across the board, from black pepper spent-grain buns to sweet spent-grain cornbread. While the fries have always been passable-to-forgettable, the so-called jerk fries lack defining spice profile and heat. Mind, the Axe and the Oak barbecue dipping sauce has deep flavor and a pleasant kick. We enjoy it on house meatballs and the Axe and the Oak burger as well.
While the meatballs' pork-beef blend tastes pleasant enough, they're overdone and poorly bound, crumbly rather than cohesive. Two mid-sized balls come with a piece of cornbread for a ridiculous $12.
The Axe and the Oak burger costs $15. For context, that's on par with outright-gourmet burgers at The Warehouse or The Famous, enough for plentiful fries and a burger with everything but the kitchen sink almost anywhere else. This one arrives medium well, sans any customer input, with black pepper dominating. Texturally, it's fine, with bacon adding a little chew and fries accompanying. At the asking price, we'll pass.
Similar pricing problems show with the meat and cheese board, a $16 item with fairly pedestrian meat options — capicola, salami and ham — no advertised almonds, and pieces of gruyere with a powerful and inconsistent funk factor.
That said, we enjoy the bread pudding, when it arrives after a 20- to 30-minute wait, lukewarm with Shamrock Farms vanilla bean ice cream on the side. The accompanying salty, smoky maple sauce turns it into a standout pleasure, far and away the best bite of the night.
Axe and the Oak Whiskey House isn't an all-in-one stop. So what? It's a purpose-built place, and it serves that purpose well. The drinks are well-executed and based on locally distilled spirits. When things get too loud in the rest of the Ivywild School, it serves as a prime spot for cocktails and contemplation.