Regional
9:17 am
Sat December 22, 2012

Lawsuit Claims Group of African-Americans Denied Access to Kentucky Bourbon Lounge

Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge in Louisville
Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge in Louisville

A restaurant emblazoned with the Maker's Mark name is accused in a lawsuit of civil-rights violations by allegedly refusing to allow a party for a black group. The claim has stirred the Kentucky bourbon maker to distance itself from the downtown watering hole.

Andre Mulligan claims in his lawsuit that he was making party preparations when he met with officials from Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge last Aug. 17, the day before the event. The Louisville man, accompanied by his brother, was pressed to specify the ratio of blacks to whites who would attend the event, the suit claims.

Mulligan responded that all the guests would be black, the suit claims. Lounge officials then told Mulligan that none of the blacks would be allowed to hold the event there and he would not be served if he tried to enter the lounge on that date.

The entertainment district, Fourth Street Live, flatly said it wasn't involved in the alleged incident and said the restaurant denied the allegations.

Maker's Mark Distillery executives called the allegations "abhorrent." They said the bourbon maker has no ownership stake in the lounge.

The suit filed this week in Jefferson County Circuit Court claims the lounge refused service to all blacks planning to join the party who tried to enter the establishment on the evening of Aug. 18.

Mulligan, described in the suit as a University of Louisville graduate with bachelor's degrees in political science and history, was at one point denied access to the downtown entertainment district that includes the Maker's Mark lounge.

He claims he was told by security guards to "shut up," that he was trespassing and would be "locked up" if he didn't leave. At the same time, Mulligan saw numerous whites entering the entertainment venue without incident.

Defendants in the suit are Louisville Bourbon LLC, doing business as the lounge, and the operator of the entertainment district, Cordish Operating Ventures.

Fourth Street Live was not involved in the alleged incident nor were any of its employees, spokesman Mike Leonard said. And neither Cordish nor its employees were involved, he said.

"The tenant has vigorously denied the allegations and stated they are totally false," Leonard said. "In addition, we have conducted an independent investigation of the allegations and believe them to be without merit."

A manager at the restaurant did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The suit claims the actions violated Kentucky's Civil Rights Act. It seeks a jury trial and unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

"Allegedly, they have made a determination that their venue and restaurant will be better served by excluding African-Americans and courting a group they believe feels more comfortable spending money in an environment without African-Americans present," Mulligan's attorney, Kurt Scharfenberger, said in an interview Friday.

Scharfenberger said the party had been booked, but the event was scuttled when Mulligan showed up and was questioned by lounge officials about how many blacks would show up.

"This was an organized event that had been planned and when they got there, they said, `no, you're not doing this,'" he said.

Maker's Mark Distillery said in a statement Friday that it licenses its name and trademark for the venture but has no involvement in the lounge. The distillery is not part of the lawsuit and said it was unaware of the complaint until seeing media reports.

"The allegations in the complaint are extremely serious and, if true, reflect behavior that is abhorrent and unacceptable, as well as absolutely contrary to the core brand values of Maker's Mark," the brand's Chairman Emeritus Bill Samuels Jr. and his son Rob Samuels, the brand's chief operating officer, said in a statement.

The brand, famous for its distinctive square bottles sealed with red wax, is owned by spirits company Beam Inc., based in Deerfield, Ill. Maker's Mark is produced at its distillery in Loretto, a quiet rural community 45 miles south of Louisville.

The Samuelses said the brand "does not accept, and will not tolerate, discrimination in any form, and has so notified and warned the company which is solely responsible for the operation of the lounge."

They said the brand would closely monitor the lawsuit and "take all actions it feels necessary under the circumstances."

The distillery declined to say how much it makes from licensing fees for the lounge. There is another Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge in Kansas City, Mo.