Photos by Tony Valainis
TIDY OPEN shelves stacked with tasteful merch greet you at the entrance to West Fork Whiskey’s new far-north outpost. A small leather-bound flask. A collapsible dog bowl. Baseball hats. Shot glasses. A “(Local) Whiskey Made Me Do It” can cooler. For $29, you can take home one of the handpoured Penn & Beech candles created specifically for the Indianapolis-based brand. Several of them flicker on the Welcome Center’s countertop, their sweet scent permeating the air, Abercrombie & Fitch–style, with warm, bourbon-adjacent notes of maple, vanilla, and toasted oak.
West Fork’s signature scent wafts over the lobby’s gift shop and carryout bottle bar, infuses the intimate Stave speakeasy where guests 21 and older sink into leather sofas to nurse serious brown cocktails, and makes its way toward the resident family-friendly restaurant, The Mash House. As with any pheromone, this one is hard to resist.
The entire complex covers 30,000 square feet, positioned on more than 25 acres of covetable Hamilton County farmland. It helps to understand the lay of the land here, because West Fork’s property line hits the northern edge of the massive Grand Park Sports Campus that, according to the marketing materials, “welcomes 2.5 million visitors a year and has helped Westfield attract over $1.5 billion in economic development.” You don’t have to be too much of a visionary to imagine the droves of soccer, football, and softball parents emptying out of Grand Park’s parking lots directly into West Fork’s bullpen. “We wanted to be somewhere within a few minutes of a highway. And we knew that being close to another tourist attraction that’s pulling in people would be a huge benefit,” says West Fork cofounder Blake Jones. He says they are just getting started on what will eventually become one of the largest agritourism destinations in the Midwest.
In sporting terms, West Fork is a bit of an underdog. The award-winning house of spirits began five years ago with a modest tasting room on a tucked-away corner of downtown’s Kennedy-King neighborhood. The new location, a $10 million project that launched its first phase in August, is a monumental rebranding. Jones called in a big gun to oversee West Fork Westfield’s culinary branch, picking restaurateur Carlos Salazar to serve as executive chef of The Mash House. After building a reputation as one of the city’s most innovative chefs, first at Fountain Square’s Asian-fusion showpiece Rook and later at a pair of Lil Dumplings food stalls focused on global street food and noodles, Salazar takes a highway detour into the heartland with The Mash House.
The chef’s debut summer menu included pan-seared bluegill served with roasted potatoes and creamed leeks, as well as a trio of thick, charred (not fried) green tomatoes fanned over rough-cut corn grits and smothered in a gravy-like tomato cream sauce. An entire half of tea-brined Indiana chicken, crispy-skinned and succulent to the bone, lounges in its own jus on a plate that it shares with a mini cast-iron dish of textbook supper-table corn pudding. The fried bologna sandwich features a noble custom cut of Fischer Farms lunch meat seared just enough to caramelize around the edges, slathered with a generous layer of pimento cheese, and topped with thick pickle slices, white barbecue sauce, and potato chips. Of course, the bun is squishy in just the right way.
In general, the food takes the kind of fun risks diners have come to expect of Salazar, who pioneered gourmet Spam sliders at Rook and managed to serve duck-leg ramen out of a food hall kitchen at Lil Dumplings Noodle Bar inside The Garage. But the flair is noticeably toned down here. True, meaty hunks of Hoosier bison fortify the red pepper–forward Grand Chili 3-Way poured over twists of casarecce pasta and topped with sour cream, cheese, pickled red onion, and homemade Fritos. It’s a thoughtful layering of extreme flavors and comforting textures. And yet, it’s a bowl of chili.
Corn Puppies are wonderfully crunchy, tangerine-sized hushpuppies presented in a bowl smeared with maple butter. The skillet cornbread arrives in a wee cast-iron vessel, piping hot and drenched in melted-in sweet sorghum, bacon drippings, and jalapeño butter—a heady combination of unapologetically Hoosier ingredients. That is precisely the direction that Jones, not a fan of chefs who “chase the coasts,” wanted the menu to take. “We have a lot of really great agriculture here in the Midwest, and I want to innovate with that,” he says. “But as Midwesterners, we still want to offer a handful of approachably priced, locally sourced, high-quality options.”
And so, Mash House serves a breaded pork tenderloin that is somewhat tame and straightforward, along with grass-fed Fischer Farms beef sliders topped with bacon and caramelized onions. There is a grilled romaine salad artfully arranged on a black plate with parmesan shavings and zesty zucchini pistou, but also a simple salad of sliced heirloom tomatoes tossed with charred tomato–skin vinaigrette. Reading the room, Mash House offers a kids’ menu of chicken tenders and buttered pasta. And for dessert, diners choose between strawberry shortcake or bread pudding. The menu does what it needs to do, and nothing more.
Libations, on the other hand, get a lot of attention on a drink list that showcases whiskey-forward cocktails (such as a Nitro Bourbonade that contains cold-brew coffee, a New York Sour with house bourbon and a pinot noir float, and a classic orange peel Old Fashioned) while catering to hardcore connoisseurs of American whiskey. West Fork’s house spirits are sold in 1- and 2-ounce pours, as well as three-glass flights for a chest hair–producing opportunity to taste the spectrum of high-corn, wheated, and high-rye bourbons.
Just be warned: The only open flame you will want to be around afterward is that of a signature scented candle.