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.
This year I was once again lucky enough to be asked to attend the Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic, held September 11-13 in Washington Park. This year’s event proved itself to be a significant increase over last year, with an additional day of tasting and events on Sunday as well as more things to seek out throughout the weekend. I was immensely satisfied with this year’s event. Last year felt like a wonderful local event with a lot of potential. This year they went a long way toward meeting that potential. The Cincinnati Food + Wine Classic felt much bigger and more vibrant this year, and I was thrilled to see our city producing something that seems destined to grow into a nationally recognized event.
It is Sunday afternoon and I am slowly coming down from the food high that I have been riding since Friday evening. I think I can safely say that the first Cincinnati Food and Wine Classic was a solid success with plenty of room to grow in the future. The event took place Friday evening and all day Saturday in Washington Park, with a few surrounding restaurants playing host to various after parties. I was lucky enough to attend both days with a VIP media badge and here are some of the highlights.
The Bourbon Classic was held last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. The event drew bourbon fans from around the country to join with distillers, bartenders, restaurants, and media representatives in celebrating all things bourbon. I was lucky enough to be among them and I left feeling very lucky to be living so close to bourbon country.
The Run Down of Events:
The event began Friday night with a cocktail competition that paired local bartenders, chefs, and sponsor distilleries in pairing bourbon cocktails with small plates of food. The cocktails were great that night but the food was outstanding, including the best chicken and waffles I’ve ever had. Saturday afternoon began with a welcoming question and answer session with master distillers. MC’ed by Fred Minnick, author of Whiskey Women and bourbon authority for the Kentucky Derby Museum, the question and answer session featured Wes Henderson (Angel’s Envy,) Fred Noe (Jim Beam,) Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey,) Harlen Wheatley (Buffalo Trace,) Tom Bulleit (Bulleit Bourbon,) Drew Kulsveen (Willett,) Willie Pratt (Michter’s,) Daniel Preston (Widow Jane,) Colin Spoelman (King’s County,) and Dave Schmier (Redemption.) This event was easily the highlight of the day for me. Listening to stories, learning more about the industry, and even witnessing some moments of tension on stage was all fascinating. We spent the rest of the afternoon in “Bourbon Classic University.” Guests got to attend two classes during the sessions including ‘Bourbon Recollections…A Trip Through Time’ with Fred Noe and Fred Johnson, as well as a variety of other classes like bourbon pairing with cheese, entertaining with bourbon tastings, bourbon and beer, bourbon and chocolate, and home bar essentials. The final event was a night of bourbon tastings, with books signings from well-known bourbon authors like Charles Cowdery and Joy Perrine.
You can read a more detailed and bourbon-focused recap of the event over on Bourbon & Banter and Charlie and discussed the event in detail on The Charlie Tonic Hour, but here are a few of the best moments of the event from my point of view.
– Hanging out with Jonathan Piercy of “What’s Cooking Now” and his lovely wife throughout the weekend.
– Spending time with Molly Wellmann at Friday’s cocktail event and seeing Tom Bulleit call her up to take a bow at the distiller’s welcome on Saturday. He credited her, along with countless other bartenders across the country, in helping to bring about the bourbon revival.
– Getting to talk once more with Wes Henderson from Angel’s Envy. Such a down-to-earth and great guy.
– Sitting in an audience and listening to stories from legends of the industry like Fred Noe and Jimmy Russell, as well as hearing the perspectives and explanations of newer and/or non-producing brands.
– Attending a session on bourbon tastings with a rep from Blanton’s that will help me when contacting bourbon tastings in the future.
– Talking with bourbon lovers from around the country and starting to feel more like I am a part of a wider, boozy community.
The Bourbon Classic was a success all around, despite the notable absence of one of my favorite distilleries, Four Roses. At a length of just a day and half, give or take a promotional dinner or hung-over breakfast, it is a perfect amount of time to immerse yourself in bourbon and the perfect balance between educational and drinking events. Bourbon lovers in Cincinnati who are ready to take their knowledge and enthusiasm to the next level should definitely look into making the drive south for next year.
I am very excited to announce….ok I take that back. Excited doesn’t even begin to cover it. I am ecstatic beyond belief to announce that I will be attending the San Antonio Cocktail Conference this coming holiday weekend. This is the third year for the conference, which is the first of it’s kind in Texas. These kinds of events draw bar owners, mixologists, liquor reps, writers, as well as regular people who are just passionate about cocktails.
Modeled on the wildly popular Manhattan Cocktail Classic and New Orleans’ Tales of the Cocktail event, San Antonio’s own Cocktail Conference was the first of its kind in Texas. Every year, we bring together top bartenders and cocktail aficionados for four days of educational seminars, guided tastings and cocktail parties. Conference proceeds benefit HeartGift San Antonio and ChildSafe.
The classes read like my dream college schedule. I am especailly looking forward to Evolution of Barrel Aging with Wes Henderson of Angel’s Envy, one of my favorite bourbons, as well as Women Behind Bars: A Spirited History of Women in the Cocktail World. Every night there are tastings, parties, and of course the whole beautiful city of San Antonio to explore as well. Special events include the Original Cocktail Competition where bartenders from across the country will show off their own creations. I look forward to bringing back new spirits and books to review for you and information on cocktails trends we will be seeing soon in Cincinnati, as well as some crazy stories to share. Be sure to follow me on twitter to see the whole crazy weekend unfold in real time.
Over the Rhine’s dining and bar scene continued its quest to take over the rest of the city, with two great new restaurants, Salazar and The Eagle, opening within two blocks and two days of each other this past December. I’m here today to give you a quick run down on their food and a deeper discussion of their bars.
All of my foodie friends in Cincinnati have been eagerly awaiting Jose Salazar opening his own restaurant and a few weeks ago it finally happened. Salazar is located on the corner of Republic and 14th Street in Over the Rhine and serves food that can perhaps best be described as gourmet french comfort food. The menu is rustic and farm inspired but with a degree of class that belies its comfortable bistro style seating. The food I’ve had is incredible but the bar menu is what we are here to talk about.
In the interest of full disclosure the bar manager, Jacob Trevino, has become a good friend since he first waited on Charlie and me at Japp’s. Not only have we interviewed him on our podcast, he came to our Boxing Day party so he’s basically family now. That being said, I have been genuinely impressed by the bar menu he came up with for Salazar. Cincinnati has a wealth of great places doing retro/classic style cocktails and I love them all. But Jacob is making drinks that are more forward thinking and original than a lot of other places in Cincinnati. Several of his drinks are less sweet than you might expect for a restaurant cocktail and none of them taste like anything that other people are serving. Perhaps because he came to Cincinnati via Texas and New Orleans, the spirits, combinations, and even some of the garnishes are just not what you would expect and I think that is a great thing.
Just to give you an example, his Creole Gimlet has gin and lime but it also uses a house-made falernum and creole bitters. I’ve had just about everything on the menu at this point. They are all amazing but the 71 South, Pinky Swear, and the Coco Del Cielo were three of my favorites. The beer selection was smaller but focused, with a few quality examples of several types of beer from both local and national microbreweries. Do yourself a favor and get in there to check out the restaurant and bar soon.
While Salazar had the breathless anticipation of the foodie crowd in Cincinnati, The Eagle seemed to have just about everyone waiting to get a seat once they opened. Owned and operated by the same people who have Bakersfield, The Eagle also opened in late December and is located on Vine Street, just a few blocks away from Salazar. The Eagle is located in an old post office and continues the trend of doing high-class cheap food, this time with fried chicken. For a more detailed review of the food check The Eagle Has Landed, but I thought it was very good. The price was right and I liked all of the sides a lot. The fried chicken was actually kind of too spicy for me. I am pretty sure they use tabasco in the batter so be warned.
Rather than focusing on craft cocktails that pack a punch, all of the house cocktails at The Eagle are classic drinks served in large glass mugs that really make you feel like you are getting your money’s worth. The Moscow was my favorite but the OTR Lemonade and the Bloody Mary were also enjoyed by my group. The beer selection was very good, much bigger than similar sized restaurants in the neighborhood. The downside of The Eagle is the wait. Be prepared to wait 1-2 hours for a table on the weekends. If you go I recommend putting your name in and then heading to Salazar for a cocktail and some warm olives while you wait.
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?
One of the great things about making cocktails is the almost endless number of ways you can combine spirits and mixers to create new taste profiles. With the rainbow of flavored vodkas and liqueurs on the market this is more true now than ever. But I am here today to let you know that there is an easier and cheaper way to get new and interesting flavors in your cocktails. You could create your own infused spirits, liqueurs, and even bitters from ingredients you have at home but the easiest way to start to really customize your cocktails is with homemade syrups.
The simplest recipe is of course for simple syrup. A huge number of cocktails call for additional sugar and simple syrup is the easiest way to get a smooth mix. Simply boil equal parts sugar and water until they are dissolved and there you have it. It will keep in the fridge for up to six months but to extend the shelf life even longer add a little vodka; I usually use about 1/2 a teaspoon per cup of syrup. To this basic recipe you can add just about any flavor you want during the boiling phase: herbs, fruit, and tea all work well. Or you can replace the water with juice and go from there. The possibilities are endless. Also these syrups can be mixed with club soda to make your own sodas and virgin cocktails for non-drinkers.
To get you started here is one I have come up with recently that I really liked but I encourage you to experiment freely because there is not a lot you can do to mess this up.
Vanilla Violet Syrup
1 cup fresh violets
1 cup boiling water
1 cut vanilla bean
1 cup sugar
Fresh lemon juice
First pick the violets growing profusely this time of year in your front yard or better yet, have a small child pick them for you. Put the violets in a mason jar and cover with one cup of boiling water. Let the mixture sit over night or up to 24 hours to steep.
Strain the mixture and press out all of the liquid. It will be kind of blue grey at this point. That is ok. Put the violet water in a pan, add the sugar and the vanilla bean and bring to a low boil for 10 minutes. Strain the syrup through a nice thick cheesecloth because the vanilla will leave specks. Next add the lemon juice to adjust the color. It doesn’t take much so add just about 1/4 teaspoon to start and add more until you get the color you want. Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator. This syrup makes a delicious cocktail that is a variation on the aviator cocktail so I called it:
1 1/2 ounces Hendricks Gin
3/4 ounces Vanilla Violet Syrup
1/4 ounce lemon juice
Shake well over ice and serve in a cocktail glass.
I realize that violets are a little fiddly and obscure as an ingredient but since I’ve really been getting into the idea of local drinks I couldn’t resist using something that was literally growing right outside my front door. Check out Episode 10 of Bottoms Up for recipes for Mandarin Orange Syrup and Rosemary Mint Syrup if you want recipes that don’t involve foraging.
When I read about Yelp Drinks 2013 I have to admit I got excited. I am something of a craft cocktail obsessive and the chance to check out a few places I’d been hearing about for half price was too tempting to miss. The deal is simple, 20 local bars and restaurants agree to feature three of their drinks at half price anytime before nine during the featured week, which just so happens to be this week. The timing was great for me because I’ve just started doing a second, all alcohol, podcast called Bottoms Up and I thought that featuring some exciting local bars would make for a good show. So last night Charlie, my partner-in-crime and co-host, picked me up and we hit 5 of the bars in 90 minutes. You can listen as we talk to the bartenders and try the drinks starting Friday over on the Charlie Tonic site but here is my rapid fire review of the five locations we hit.
Mayberry: I’ve been wanting to try the gastro pub for awhile now so we started here with the plan to get some food while we had a drink. Oddly enough the menu really didn’t appeal to me. Everything seemed to have pork belly and I know that doesn’t sound like a problem but it just wasn’t what we were in the mood for so we settled on ordering two Blood Orange Martini’s and some Bacon Garlic Popcorn to snack on. The Blood Orange Martini was made with vodka, freshly squeeze blood orange juice, and triple sec. It was an uncomplicated and refreshing drink and the driest of all the cocktails we sampled. Not too sweet at all and if you don’t like the taste of vodka you probably won’t like it. The burnt orange peel was a nice touch.
Japp’s Since 1879: Of course I am no stranger to Japp’s but with it right across the street from Mayberry I couldn’t walk past without trying a drink. Since we were in Over the Rhine I decided to order the OTR Cocktail and it was an interesting experience in having the same cocktail made by a different person. The OTR has vodka, vanilla, fresh squeezed lime, cranberry and rose water. The first time I had it the vanilla and rose water came through and it was a much softer and sweeter take on the old stand by combo of vodka, cranberry, and citrus. This time the lime was much stronger and I didn’t taste any vanilla at all. Sadly, this was the first time Japp’s has let me down.
Taste of Belgium: I’ve been a fan of these addictive little waffles since I first picked them up at a farmer’s market but I haven’t been to their new restaurant yet, in part because I thought that as much as I love the waffles, eating them for dinner seemed a bit much. But it turns out that Taste of Belgium was my favorite food stop of the night. To make up for the disappointing and over-priced popcorn, Charlie and I decided to split a burger. It was delicious and the toppings of bacon, goat cheese and caramelized apples complimented each other beautifully. Not only was the food great but the cocktail here tied for first place of the night. The Rosemary Bistro was made with Watershed Bourbon Barrel Gin, house-made rosemary leek syrup, and topped off with tonic water and a sprig of rosemary. The result is a crisp and slightly savory take on a traditional gin and tonic. Two thumbs up for this one.
Below Zero Lounge: The drink here was the most disappointing but the atmosphere was the most fun so I guess it’s a draw. I ordered the Yelptini which has vodka, triple sec, and cranberry juice. Now you may be saying to yourself, as I was, wait a minute isn’t that basically a Cosmopolitan minus the lime? Yes indeed it is and it tasted basically like a Cosmopolitan as well. Nevertheless, a cosmo is a nice cocktail and I managed to forget to take a picture until the glass was nearly empty so it’s not like I didn’t enjoy it. The crowd at Below Zero were unpretentious, talkative, and just plain fun to be around. I admit I was disappointed when it was time to move on to our final stop.
Neon’s Unplugged: I never though I would enjoy a bar called Neon’s but this is where we got the second winning drink of the night. With its long narrow interior, dark wood beams, patrons wearing knit hats, and a dog laying by the entrance Neon’s felt like a pub in a European fishing village but the variety of craft beer and house-made bitters was decidedly modern. We decided on the Smoked Elderflower cocktail and this one was a winner. Something like a smoked gimlet, this drink was made with vodka, smoked fig bitters, St Germain, a splash of lemon juice, Sprite and then garnished with fresh lavender and a lemon wheel. The result was a smokey-citrus taste that was really unique and enjoyable. This is a bar I will definitely be trying again.
If you want to try these or any of the other 55 drinks that are on special during Yelp Drinks you have until Sunday to make it out. If I get the chance I will be stopping by Arnold’s for their Maple and Bacon infused Wild Turkey Old Fashioned.
Also in the interest of full disclosure and because I don’t want everyone thinking that I regularly slam back five cocktails on a work night, except for the first stop Charlie and I shared one of each of these drinks so it’s not as bad as it looks. Drink happy and drink safe!
You can hear Charlie and I try all of these drinks on Episode 2 of Bottoms Up.