City in a Glass: Cincinnati

Travel Features cocktails
City in a Glass: Cincinnati

Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in Cincinnati, is on us.

In many cities, the explosion of farm-to-table restaurants and craft cocktail bars is a happy accident. Or maybe it’s an inevitable byproduct of gentrification. But in Cincinnati, Ohio, the swift change from a Bud Light-drinking city to a Manhattan-drinking city has been a very deliberate, almost calculated step into making it an attractive place to live and work.

Over the past decade a public-private partnership called the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) has been investing in renovation projects downtown. The goal is to revitalize struggling neighborhoods and protect historic buildings, sure, but also to build entertainment districts. These improvements are meant to lure outsiders or make life better for employees at the big Cincinnati corporations like Procter & Gamble. Below-market developer fees have encouraged small business, especially restaurants and bars, and a few months ago the city launched a streetcar to shuttle people around more easily.

“There’s an incredible amount of forward momentum,” says Cincinnati barman Justin Simmons. Ex-pats are returning to Cincinnati to open their own bars and those with a keen eye for favorable business deals are moving in next door. Local bartender Madison Malott says the city has drastically changed from only a few years ago. “It’s cool to watch the community grow and be open to what you’re trying to provide,” she says. “When you have a community that’s supportive of you and supportive of what you’re doing, you can be a little bit more adventurous.”

Someone who knows intimately how the cocktail community has grown is Molly Wellmann, Cincinnati’s O.G. cocktail connoisseur. Wellmann, a seventh-generation Cincinnatian, began her local bartending career in 2008. Back then, no one was making cocktails. Period. (For comparison, New York City’s famous cocktail bar Pegu Club opened in 2005.) Wellmann read every cocktail history book she could find, taught herself how to make classic cocktails and brainstormed originals that incorporated fresh juices and homemade liqueurs.

“I’ll tell you something, a lot of bartenders in the city laughed at me,” Wellmann says. “They said, ‘no one is going to want to drink this in Cincinnati. They only want to drink Bud Light and appletinis.’ And I said no, I think you’re wrong.” Of course they were wrong. Drinkers began funneling into the bars where Wellmann worked. She was hired to consult at bars and restaurants around town and eventually opened her own place, the famous Japp’s, in 2011. She is now the proprietor of a half-dozen bars and restaurants, and the best bartenders in town have trained under her. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago people thought cocktails wouldn’t work in Cincinnati.

On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three Cincinnati cocktails, show you where to find them and even how to replicate them at home.


1. Mezcal + Root Beer Highball
Where to order: Sundry & Vice

MezcalRootBeerHighballCourtesySundryandVice.jpegPhoto courtesy of Sundry and Vice

Sundry & Vice is an apothecary-style cocktail bar in the rapidly gentrifying Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood. It’s is a dark, moody space decorated with ancient medicine bottles and wallpapered with vintage prescription pads. One that stands out is a handwritten Rx for the classic cure-all cocaine. The drinks are bright and often appear on draft, making them easier to serve in this hugely popular space.

“Not only are we a cocktail bar that prides ourselves on quality, we do it at incredible volume,” general manager Justin Simmons says. “That leads to special considerations when making the menu, because you have to be able to execute them really fast.” The key is coaxing as much flavor as possible out of as few ingredients as possible. For instance, on the new fall menu, which came out on Election Day (excellent timing), Simmons avoids the typical pumpkin spice or apple cider fall flavors. Instead, he works in unorthodox ingredients such as matcha (green tea), beets and clementines. “It’s our way of paying attention to seasonality while getting some of those deep, richer flavors—without over basic-izing ourselves,” he says.

One of the drinks he’s most proud of is a simple mezcal and root beer highball. To get big flavor out of this simple drink, Simmons uses a workhorse mezcal and a craft root beer that is crystal clear. The drink looks weak, like a tall glass of tonic water. “The only thing that could match the huge flavor from the root beer is something equally as assertive,” Simmons says. “The smokiness and the earthiness of the mezcal and the sarsaparilla and vanilla notes of the root beer create something that tastes super complex but only has two ingredients.”

Mezcal + Root Beer Highball

1½ oz. Del Maguey Vida mezcal
10 oz. bottle Original New York Seltzer root beer soda
Lime wedge, for garnish

Fill a highball glass with ice. Add mezcal. Top with root beer. Stir twice. Garnish with lime wedge.

2. Marlboro Man
Where to order: Japp’s

MarlboroMan AndrewYunker.jpegPhoto by Andrew Yunker

Japp’s, located inside a 19th-century wig shop in OTR, serves classic cocktails from the 1700s to the 1950s. The chalkboard menu only lists five drinks: two classics and three originals. (The menu changes every two weeks.) Proprietor and cocktail history buff Molly Wellmann likes to think of every drink they serve as one that will be enjoyed 100 years from now, even the ones you haven’t heard of yet. “I believe every craft cocktail will be a classic one day,” she says. That’s why every drink she and her bartenders make has a backstory. “If you hear a story, you have an experience. You are no longer just sitting there having a drink. You’re joining in this long line of people who have enjoyed this drink.”

Just want a gin and tonic? Wellmann will probably slip in a history lesson about gin, putting you on a boat with sailors who are battling scurvy and malaria. Her popular Marlboro Man cocktail has a particularly amusing backstory. When working in a restaurant in nearby Covington, Ky., Wellmann was playing around with bitters made from dried tobacco leaves. “One night a super handsome man came in who wanted a cocktail,” she says. “And he was actually a model for the Marlboro Man, I kid you not.” She whipped up a variation on the Sazerac for him incorporating the tobacco bitters and bourbon-vanilla sugar. “When he asked what it was called I said, ‘well we’re going to call it the Marlboro Man after you!’ It was so cool.”

If you’re not in the mood for picking a drink, tell the bartender what you normally sip on and they’ll come up with something original for you. “That’s something we pride ourselves on and it’s nice because you don’t have to make a decision,” Wellmann says. “You’ve been making decisions all day at work. The last thing you want to do is make a decision when you get off.” And hey, you never know; they may just name the future-classic creation after you.

Marlboro Man

2 to 3 oz. Bulleit bourbon
1 barspoon bourbon-vanilla sugar (recipe below)
3 to 4 dashes of tobacco bitters, house-made (can replace with 3 to 4 dashes of Laphroaig scotch)
Lemon peel, for garnish

Make bourbon-vanilla sugar: Pack a small Mason jar with white sugar. Split four vanilla beans and bury them in the sugar. Add a few tablespoons of bourbon to the top (enough to wet the sugar, but not dissolve it). Seal. Let sit a few days until the sugar is infused with the bourbon and the vanilla.

Make drink: Rinse the inside of a cocktail glass with absinthe (swirl some absinthe around in the glass) and set aside. In a mixing glass, combine vanilla sugar, tobacco bitters, bourbon and ice. Stir until sugar dissolves. Strain into the cocktail glass. Garnish with an expressed lemon peel.

3. Black Mamba
Where to order: Video Archive

BlackMambaKatieFraser.jpegPhoto by Katie Fraser

Most speakeasy bars around the country lean heavily towards the pre-Prohibition era: classic cocktails, jazz music, suspenders. But Video Archive, a speakeasy in the diverse Walnut Hills neighborhood, is the opposite of that. On the outside, the bar looks like a video-rental store. (The façade is so convincing, in fact, that people often come in trying to rent DVDs.) But go inside, grab the right movie case and a wall slides to the side, revealing a lively cocktail and cheap beer den. The whole place, strangely enough, is inspired by the work of director Quentin Tarantino. “We want to project wonder and surprise people,” says co-owner Jacob Treviño. “We’re not exclusive, we’re inclusive. That’s what cocktail culture is moving towards: Drink what you want, not what we say.”

Video Archive is Treviño and partner Katie Fraser’s second movie-themed bar. Their first immersive concept, Overlook Lodge, opened last year in Pleasant Ridge and resembles the spooky lodge from The Shining. Treviño, who is obviously a movie buff, made Video Archive’s quirky menu part Asian, part American Southwest in honor of Tarantino. “Because a lot of his movies are homages to Spaghetti Western or kung-fu flicks,” he says.

One such drink is the Black Mamba, a creation of bartender Madison Malott. “Kill Bill is one of my favorite films because it’s so visually stimulating,” Malott says. “I got this idea to put Uma Thurman’s character into a glass.” Thurman’s character, code-named Black Mamba in the two-part film, is often seen wearing a yellow jumpsuit with black stripes. Malott tinted her drink with turmeric and then added local, barrel-aged gin, coconut milk, coconut water, lemon and Pimm’s. The glass is garnished with a stripe of black poppy seeds.

“It has this savory-esque feeling to it but it’s also refreshing,” she says. “Coconut milk has crazy texture that throws people for a loop, but they take a few more sips and they think it’s really cool.” When she’s not making drinks, Malott spends a lot of her evening chatting with customers about the cinema. As it turns out, Video Archive bartenders are expected to have the same breadth of movie knowledge that one would need if manning the counter in a real video-rental store.

Black Mamba

1½ oz. Watershed bourbon barrel-aged gin
2 oz. turmeric-coconut milk cordial, house-made
1 oz. lemon juice
1 barspoon Pimm’s
Poppy seeds, for garnish

Wet the side of a glass and roll it in poppy seeds. Set aside. In a cocktail shaker, combine gin, cordial, lemon juice, Pimm’s and ice. Shake. Pour into the poppy seed-garnished glass.

Image: Jeff Kubina, CC-BY-SA

City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel and bars for Paste and Playboy. She currently resides in the great state of Texas.

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