One of the major highlights of the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic this year was getting the chance to interview a spirits writer that I greatly admire, Esquire Drinks correspondent David Wondrich. Thanks to his books and articles, most notably Imbibe! and Punch, his name is closely associated with the classic cocktail movement and documenting the history of drinking culture in the Unites States. My partner Charlie and I sat down (more accurately, stood up in the corner of a tent in Washington Park) to talk with him about his writing and why he decided to attend the Food and Wine Classic in Cincinnati. You can listen to the full interview in Episode #195 of The Charlie Tonic Hour but here are the highlights.
The stores and bars where we buy our beer has the most prominent role in our beer drinking lives, even though brewers get all the fame. The following is what I’ve learned from retailers about the 3-tier system and their role in it.
I originally set out to make a list of some of the best bars in the city for this article. Nothing too fancy, just a list of places I would recommend to people from out-of-town if they wanted a great cocktail. Once I sat down to think about it I realized I had a problem. Not only do we have too many great bars and restaurants who are putting skill, art, and love into their cocktail menu to list in one article, but I was missing out on a great excuse to try a whole bunch of new places in the name of research. So for now I decided to limit myself to the one area of the city I am already way too familiar with and will be adding the top five cocktail bars of other neighborhoods in future weeks.
Five Places to Get a Great Cocktail in Over the Rhine
The rapid change of Over the Rhine from an economically depressed historical neighborhood to the city’s newest hot spot for trend setters and foodies has been a boon for cocktail aficionados. Craft cocktails are a must for every new bar and restaurant in the area, leaving us with dozens of places within a three block radius to get a $10 cocktail. Luckily we are talking about really good cocktails here and they are pretty darn strong to boot so that makes them easier to swallow (har.) But with limited time on your hands you may wonder which spots to hit on a night out. Here is my list of five places in Over the Rhine where you are guaranteed to get a great cocktail.
5. The Lackman: This bar is probably my least favorite on the list when it comes to atmosphere and price but since this is a list is about the quality of cocktails it made the cut. The drinks I’ve had there are always wonderfully executed and served with a consistent quality. They have some barrel-aged drinks on a rotating basis, including a barrel-aged negroni last time I was there. The bottle selection is not very deep, but it is high quality. Service is usually very good even when crowded. The beer choice is great and rotates regularly. In short they are doing everything right, they are just missing some of the heart of other places and they charge you a bit more for the pleasure.
4. Bakersfield: I’ve written before about my admiration of Bakersfield’s cocktails. They were the first place in the area where I ordered a barrel aged Manhattan and I love their Red Headed Stranger Cocktail. I also am a big fan of their $3 shot specials which always include a solid bourbon or tequila selection. I recommend stopping by on Fridays for a $3 shot of Four Roses. The cocktail list shows a great deal of thought and compliments their food and the vibe of the place. Just don’t go there if you are looking for a gin martini. Bakersfield loses points for being a tequila and whiskey only kind of place, but you can’t expect urban cowboys to drink fruit flavored vodka now can you?
3. Neon’s: When Charlie and I did our run around OTR for Yelp Drinks Neon’s ended up with the winning cocktail with a smoked elderflower that was out of this world. They make their own bitters and syrups for their cocktails as well as a huge number of infusions so the variety of drinks you can get there is almost endless. They have a beautiful patio and a really excellent beer selection that is always good for trying something new. The drawbacks seem to have a lot to do with how popular it has become, with crowding and slow service being the most common complaint. Also, although I enjoy the creativity that can come from making your own infusions, they can be hit or miss. I’ve tried several bourbon infusions at Neon’s and, unfortunately, many of them seemed to be a waste of good bourbon.
2. The Senate: The Senate Restaurant is one few places in OTR that manages to be a triple-threat. Great food, extensive beer list, and amazing cocktails that rotate out on a regular basis. The senate hits all the flavor profiles in their house cocktail list, from bitter to sweet, from fruity to fatty, from classic to cutting edge. I had a drink there once with duck fat, it looked like sludge but tasted divine and was served with a fig newton garnish. Recently I took my friend there for her bachelorette party and this was her reaction to the Fidel Castro she was drinking.
I think that says it all.
1. Japp’s: I realize that a lot of people probably think I am on the payroll for Japp’s considering how often I rave about it. But seriously, this place has everything a cocktail nerd could ask for. First of all, the atmosphere is great. Beautiful historic building with no TVs and frequent live bands that compliment the style. But this is an article about cocktails and here is where Japp’s really shines. They train staff the amazingly well with a really high degree of professionalism and consistency for all of their drinks and I am willing to bet that this is one of the few places you can go in the whole city where you can order a Blood and Sand or a Martinez and not have the bartender ask you what’s in it. On top of the classic cocktails, the rotating weekly list of house specials is always great and the bottle choice is amazing. And let’s not forget that fresh juices and house-made syrups and bitters that are standard at this location. Nothing but the quality and the price is actually pretty reasonable if you look at what the other places are charging for similarly crafted cocktails. Not to mention that the bar’s owner and still regular bartender Molly Wellmann literally wrote the book on craft cocktails.
So now is the part where you go ahead and tell me how wrong I am. What places did I leave off? What places are overrated? I want to know. And before anyone says anything I do want to give honorable mention to Arnold’s, where I would actually rather drink most nights than a lot of the other places on this list. Arnold’s has a personality that can’t be beaten in this city and they have upped their cocktail game considerably in the past few years, but the mixed drinks are still inconsistent and rely on pre-made mixes. And let’s face it; wouldn’t we all rather keep Arnold’s feeling a little more down to earth and little less trendy?
Beer is popping up everywhere. More and more restaurants and bars are now serving craft beer in many shapes and forms. However, a ‘Beer Bar’ is a special place and differs from just a bar or restaurant in a variety of ways. These practices can be implemented at any place trying to run a good beer program.
So, what makes a good beer bar?
1. Tap Quality, Not Quantity, Matters
Bar XYZ has 100 taps, so it must be a beer bar. Wrong. Some of the best beer bars have as few as 10 taps but utilize them far more successfully than bars with over 100 taps.
Take those 100 taps, and eliminate anything from Budweiser, Miller, and Coors. Now eliminate stuff you can buy every single day of the year at the gas station or grocery store1. What does that number look like now? The tap list at a beer bar looks different every time you come in. Local one offs and seasonal beers are not the exception, they are the norm. If you can’t try something you have never had before (either in a bottle or on tap), you either are not in a beer bar, or you are and just have a drinking problem.
2. Beer Is The Main Attraction
Serve wine, serve liquor, serve food; I like them all. But beer is the star of the show here. It is called a beer bar, after all. The staff should be educated about the offerings and be able to make recommendations to novices and seasoned veterans alike. There is a manager dedicated to the beer offerings that is in frequent contact with local breweries and distributors. And if food is served, pairing recommendations are a must!
3. There Is Always A Fresh IPA On Tap
Americans like hoppy beers. Beer nerds like hoppy beers. Keep a good, fresh IPA on at all times. Just in Ohio alone, there are around a dozen very good IPAs brewed in state. Add states touching Ohio, and that number jumps even higher. Keep them rotating, variety is great! And the more local, the better!
4. Seasonality Matters
In the winter, Belgian Strong Ales, Stouts, Porters, and Barleywines dominate the taps. In the summer, Saisons, Pale Ales, IPAs, and Pilsener are the star of the show. Does this mean there are no barrel aged Barleywines in the summer and no sessionable Saisons in the winter? Of course not! But there are beers styles associated with seasons for a reason.
5. It Looks More Like A Pub Than A Club
Music is in the background. Did you hear that, I said BACKGROUND. T-shirts are perfectly acceptable attire. There is not a dance floor. The ratio of girls to guys does not matter. The jukebox contains more Bob Dylan than Pitbull2. You get the idea.
6. There Is Some Effort Input
If you take the effort to stock hundreds of different beers, why be lazy and not print them onto a list? Update social media with your tap offerings. Collaborate with local vendors, musicians, and artists. Get involved in the community. Organize fun events. Little things like these pay big dividends.
So, what do you think defines a good beer bar? Did I miss anything?
Steve1: I am not saying there aren’t great everyday beers available. Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald, Bell’s Two Hearted, these beers are staples at great beer bars. But there also has to be some effort put forth to keep things fresh and interesting with at least portion of the taps. 2: No offense meant to Mr. Pitbull.
It seems that many Cincinnati-area bars and beer stores need to do a little vocabulary work. Per good ‘ol Merriam-Webster, rare is:
1: marked by wide separation of component particles :thin<rare air>2a : marked by unusual quality, merit, or appeal : distinctiveb : superlative or extreme of its kind3: seldom occurring or found : uncommon
For our purposes, definition three is what we will be examining, though two does factor in.
Nearly every week, there are numerous cases of the “rare beer tasting”, “rare bottle release”, or, my personal favorite, “the first/last/only keg of xxx in the State of Ohio/City of Cincinnati.” Any of these increasingly-encountered phenomena would be much, much less irritating if they used the word (or at least concept) of rare correctly. If I can buy the “rare” beers at your tasting or at any reputable beer store in the area ALL YEAR LONG, those beers aren’t rare.
If you have the only keg of such and such that has ever been made in the history of mankind, but I can buy the same beer in bottle format anytime I please, who gives a crap? And that’s without even considering the fact that actual rarity has nothing to do with how good a beer actually is. Give me a Bell’s Two Hearted that I can buy any day of the week from the gas station down the street over your one-hundred bottles ever created of triple-dry-hopped-barrel-aged-wild sextuple stout.
The Store Who Cried Rare!
Words have meanings and when those meanings are detached, the words become pointless. Just as in the case of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, if you’re a beer store who bombards me on email/Facebook/Twitter with a critical mass of hyperbole regarding the rarity of your stock, I’m going to stop listening. I realize it’s a marketing ploy and I know that we craft beer lovers have largely brought this upon ourselves in over-valuing the latest “White Whale” and riding the hype train on certain beer traits (barrel-aged, sour, and, yes, rare).
I’m just asking this: the next time you need to market an event or product as “rare”, take a step back for a second and think about whether or not it’s 1) true and 2) necessary. If you’re going to sell a good product, it doesn’t have to be rare.
Bourbon* and I are old friends. We first got to know each other back in my 20’s and we’ve been enjoying each other’s company ever since. Of course at first I thought bourbon was a little out of my league. I was intimidated by his reputation and some of his friends seemed a little cooler-than-thou if you know what I mean. But the more I get to know him, the more I liked bourbon. Sure we’ve had our ups and downs but I’ve forgiven him for the hangover from my 30th birthday and he’s forgotten all about how I used to mix him with coke.
If you have yet to become acquainted with bourbon I can recommend no better place than the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar on Main Street in Covington. This week marked my second visit to Molly Wellman’s new bar, dedicated to showcasing American whiskey of all kinds, but there is obviously a heavy focus on bourbon. The OKBB is small, clean, and modern looking on the inside. At no point during either of my visits was the bar crowded. That is probably because this is not really a bar in the typical sense of the word. It is hard to imagine a group of friends piling into the OKBB to mindlessly enjoy drinks while chatting about their week, let alone going there to pound back shots and get rowdy. This is not so much a bar as it is a museum that showcases one of the true American art forms: bourbon. You go to the OKBB to be educated and if you come out with a buzz, that’s just a happy coincidence.
I realize that this description is going to put off the vast majority of people reading it but I encourage you to give it a try anyway. The bartenders are incredibly knowledgable about the entire process of making, drinking, and mixing whiskey but they are also very approachable. On my first visit I was brought a tiny little cup of spring water and the bartender clearly read my confusion when he set it down next to my drink. He kindly asked if I would like a glass of water for drinking in addition to the one for mixing. If you don’t like the taste of whiskey by itself the staff knows many excellent cocktails, like the Horse’s Neck or the Manhattan, to give you a taste without overwhelming you. But if you do already enjoy bourbon this is a great location for discovering new things. On my first trip I got to try a selection of much older bourbon than I could usually afford. On this last trip I tried a flight of rye whiskey, something I’d had little experience with in the past. In addition to the top shelf bottles, the bartender was also very helpful in pointing out some good “everyday” bourbon that were surprisingly strong for their price. The quite atmosphere, talkative staff, and chance for trying new things together also makes the OKBB ideal for a date night.
And speaking of price, that does bring us to the main downside of the OKBB and the reason why, despite my love of bourbon, I’ve only been there twice. It is not a cheap place. As I said earlier, this is not somewhere you go to get drunk. The pours have been described as small considering that they tend to start around $6 and quickly go up to $9 or more. In this case I think it is clear that you are paying for the knowledge of the staff as much as for the whiskey itself. It is a great place to go and invest a little money in order to increase you knowledge and to try small portions of expensive delights but it is something I save it for a special occasion.
*I was reluctant to give bourbon a gender but the flow of the writing required it. So I went with the masculine but I think that an equally strong case can be made for going with the feminine. You can hear more about my trip to OKBB on last week’s episode of The Charlie Tonic Hour.