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Seeking Vonnegut in Indy’s Best Bars

The famed writer Kurt Vonnegut has become a somewhat unlikely mascot for the Indianapolis cocktail scene. Drew Lazor tours the bars, and drinks, paying homage to the author and his work.

indianapolis kurt vonnegut

Certain things that fly elsewhere in America just don’t fly in Indianapolis. I learned this the hard way, which is really the easy way, as Hoosiers are so naturally nice their pointers come out like compliments.

Pedestrians crossing the street on red, even if there are no cars approaching in any direction in this remarkably flat capital city, is politely frowned upon. A few years ago, when Kendrick Lamar performed live at the Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn, an outdoor venue across the street from where the minor-league Indianapolis Indians play, some baseball fans were so disturbed by the lyrics that they fled from the stands, covering their children’s ears.

There’s one more: Hoosiers tend not to day-drink. “People don’t really do that here. It’s really frowned upon,” Julia Whitehead, CEO and founder of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library (KVML), gently informs me. It’s a brisk, clear morning and we’re sitting inside the Red Key Tavern, an 84-year-old institution in the Broad Ripple district. Reasonable Midwesterners tend to take it easy this time of day. Since I’m not from the Midwest and not very reasonable, I order a Martini.

It’s for work: Somehow Vonnegut, the most famous Indiana writer since Booth Tarkington, has become a posthumous mascot for Indy’s modern drinking scene, today marked, like much of the country, by an influx of craft cocktails. And there’s no better place to start figuring out why than at the bar where he supposedly spent time.

Aside from the lingering sense I should not be here in daylight, the Red Key feels wonderful. The drop ceiling supports a swarm of dangling model bombers (late proprietor Russel Settle flew a real one in World War II). The linoleum floors are worn shiny-smooth like the bottom of a dress shoe. The stools and chairs are rickety in all the right places, their creaks backing a pristine jukebox stocked with septuagenarian vinyl.

Screwed to the far wall above a tangle of Christmas lights, there’s a framed photo of Vonnegut, peering into the camera wryly with his fist up to his cheek. According to local lore—as well as an informal affidavit from Vonnegut’s son, Mark, which has also earned a frame (“Great to sit where my father wrote”)—the author hung out here. Brainstormed here. And maybe even downed a few Martinis here, too. They were, after all, the pick-me-up that inspired the title of Breakfast of Champions.

But the truth is, Vonnegut didn’t really drink or write at the Red Key, despite the scrawl from Mark, which writer Dan Wakefield, a Red Key regular and close friend of Vonnegut’s while he was still with us, winkingly labels “spiritual evidence.” Wakefield, who comes here so often there’s an oil painting of him displayed in a corner of the bar, is comfortable with this particular alternative fact: “It’s the kind of place he would have really liked,” he reasons.

Even if Vonnegut had darkened the Red Key’s doorway in his day, his orders would’ve been rather vanilla. He’s mostly noted as a Scotch-and-water guy, though Wakefield says he enjoyed the occasional Manhattan before a meal. He also drank straight bourbon, which he was fond of pairing with drunk-dialing. (“I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone,” he reveals in the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five.) Wakefield tells me all this as he nurses a can of Diet Coke—it’s before noon, after all.

While alcohol is a damning influence over so many American literary icons, Vonnegut was never one to be defined by his habits. He lacked the substance-addled brashness of Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson; he never cut a tragic Tennessee Williams-type figure. As hemmed-in as his boozing was, his counterculture charm has come to galvanize Indy’s burgeoning drinks scene, drawing attention to the old-guard haunts and lending inspiration to its newcomers.

Ryan Gullett of Bluebeard, [a bar] adorned with Kurt-related paintings and prayer candles, decorates his cereal-infused Breakfast of Champions with Angostura bitters dripped in the shape of a crude asterisk.

While Vonnegut—who passed away a decade ago this past April—massaged Indy into his writing often, it didn’t translate to a warm-and-fuzzy relationship with the city. Once a bastion of progressivism, Indiana shifted to the right as time passed, its statewide politics at odds with the edgy, bawdy sensibility and fierce anti-war stance Vonnegut established in his writing. There was friction, but it never made Vonnegut question his loyalty. “I am an Indianapolis person,” he told the Indianapolis Star in 1986. “I talk like an Indianapolis person. My jokes are Indianapolis jokes.”

Indy gradually reciprocated that love, leading to the establishment of destinations like the KVML, currently housed in a small space on North Senate Avenue. The museum is in the process of moving into a much larger home, and to coincide with this development, the local tourism board has organized “Cheers to Vonnegut,” which sees 11 of the city’s best bars creating cocktails inspired by his novels, stories, characters and quotes.

Launched early this year and running through the summer, “Cheers” has no hardcore guidelines beyond a discernible Vonnegut connection—which has led to some interesting plot twists. Honoring a plain-Jane drinker by tasking modern bartenders to riff on his work doesn’t scream promotional congruity. But it’s a subtle way for Indy to showcase a creative class that’s found a foothold in a city that’s drifting back Kurt’s way, at least politically. (Marion County, where Indianapolis is located, supported Republican presidential nominees for more than 30 years—before shifting left in every election since 2004, including in 2016.) Much like the writer, Indy’s bartending community exudes a quiet, industrious confidence in their nods to a native son who never once big-timed them.

Among the participants is The Ball & Biscuit, which opened in 2010 as an early proponent of Indy craft cocktail culture. (It’s located just around the corner from a looming 38-foot-tall Vonnegut mural, painted in 2012 as part of a citywide public arts initiative.) There, Kendall Lockwood, who runs the bar with an always-changing combo of her seven siblings, considers the author’s familiar Scotch-and-water order as well as his final novel, Timequake, built around the assertion that “all persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.” Lockwood’s resulting Purely Coincidental builds on a base of blended Scotch, turning it upmarket with additions of housemade grenadine, Swedish Punsch and pineapple rum.

Indy drinkmakers differ greatly in their approach to the challenge. Black Market’s Heather Storms, an enthusiastic bartender with a creative writing degree, draws inspiration from a poignant Slaughterhouse passage where Billy Pilgrim compares himself to a bug suspended in amber (she garnishes her drink—a mix of Scotch, Bénédictine, génépy and passionfruit served on the rocks—with a shard of translucent maple candy). Ryan Gullett of Bluebeard, named for Vonnegut’s 1987 novel and adorned with Kurt-related paintings and prayer candles, meanwhile, decorates his cereal-infused Breakfast of Champions with Angostura bitters dripped in the shape of a crude asterisk; readers will know what that represents if they’ve read the book.

Fans of sardonic sipping should also consider Spoke & Steele’s Not Kilgore’s Drano, which relies on activated charcoal to give the Scotch-ryeegg white Whiskey Sour riff a menacing look—it might actually help if you were to ingest the cleaning chemical that killed Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout. At the three-year-old craft distillery Hotel Tango, local gin is the staple ingredient in the hibiscus-infused Sherman Krebbs, named for a ne’er-do-well Cat’s Cradle character who dishonorably killed the protagonist’s feline (the blood-red, sour-style drink comes garnished with a tiny plastic kitty—“a nihilist drink for nihilist drinkers,” per the bar’s own tagline).

You just might want to wait until happy hour kicks in to indulge your inner Nietzsche. It’s Indianapolis, after all. 

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