Cleveland's cocktail culture steps up by stepping back in time

Sour Mix Getting Sweeter 

Cleveland's cocktail culture steps up by stepping back in time

It was only a matter of time until Cleveland's cocktail scene began to catch up with its food scene. Just as local chefs now routinely rely on fresh ingredients to construct their menus, area bartenders are following suit. Vanishing from bars are the bottles of Rose's concentrated lime juice, replaced by freshly cut citrus, squeezed at the last possible moment. Fading too are apathetic bar jockeys who know little and care less about the spirits behind them and the people in front of them. Today's enlightened bartender — or bar chef, or mixologist — is passionate about the art and craft of the cocktail. 

"With the evolution of the dining scene in Cleveland, customers are becoming more educated and sophisticated about food," explains David Haynes, bartender at Dante. "That sophistication naturally carries over into cocktails. Customers are no longer satisfied with a cold Budweiser."

That trend often appears in the form of classic cocktails, a category of pre-Prohibition drinks with names like Manhattan, Sazerac, Aviation, and Old Fashioned. In many of Cleveland's top bars and restaurants, artificially colored "martinis" are giving way to refined potions with balance, complexity, and pedigree. More than just nostalgia for the good old days, it signals the dawn of the second Golden Age of Cocktails.

 "You see it in every market — pre-Prohibition-era cocktails are always the beginning of an improved cocktail culture," says Chris Minnillo, bartender at Duck Island Club. "You can't run until you can walk, and these drinks are the foundation for all that followed. They aren't classics for no reason; they stand the test of time because they taste great."

And it's no accident that they taste great, says Minnillo. Like any great recipe, they adhere to a formula that produces equilibrium and deliciousness. The heat of the alcohol is offset by the sweetness of fruit or simple syrup. Aromatic bitters add depth and enhance flavors. Citrus notes brighten the drink while water or ice softens the blow. Truly a sum-of-its-parts creation, a well-crafted cocktail can be a revelation to imbibers accustomed to one-dimensional drinks. 

Since opening the Velvet Tango Room nearly 15 years ago, Paulius Nasvytis has been championing classic cocktails in much the same way Parker Bosley did for local cuisine. His dedication to fresh ingredients, impeccable technique, and unwavering consistency has inspired a new generation of bartenders. 

"Bartending went from being an honorable profession before entering a downward spiral accelerated by the advent of cocktails with stupid names and crappy ingredients," says Nasvytis. "A whole generation of bartenders lost the ability to make a proper drink. It's a whole different game now. A lot of younger bartenders have been taking notice of what we're doing here and are following suit." 

And that's precisely what it will take to expand the trend beyond a niche of well-heeled cocktail geeks. A diner who trusts a chef is more likely to spring for one of his or her more creative specials. Same holds true when bending elbows at the bar. 

"A bartender shouldn't just be an order-taker," says Joe DeLuca, owner of the consulting company Beverage Resources, which helps clients plan all aspects of their beverage program, from inventory control to bartender training.

"A bartender should educate the guest and inspire them to try new products. They should be able to offer historical perspective on classic cocktails and spirits. We don't want chefs in the kitchen who don't know their cuts of beef, and we shouldn't have bartenders that don't know their spirits." 

Thanks in no small part to the Tango Room, Cleveland is enjoying the same sort of cocktail revolution that is taking place in New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. But Cleveland might be better than those cities when it comes to learning the ropes.

"What's great about Cleveland as opposed to some of the larger markets is that we have places where customers can step gradually into the scene," says Everest Curley, who works for the craft beer distributor Premium Beverage. "It can be very intimidating ordering a drink in some of those other places." 

At Dragonfly Lounge, bartender Mike Gulley is doing his part to get customers excited about fine spirits and drinks. In addition to crafting classic cocktails with modern flair, Gulley holds informal seminars on liquors and mixology.  

"We need to get the younger crowd interested in cocktail culture," says Gulley. "The way we do that is with the democratization of the cocktail — making them more approachable, less pretentious, and more affordable. I mean it in the nicest way when I say Velvet Tango Room is a museum, while we're an amusement park. I want you to come here and experience three different cocktails, not just one." 

We'll drink to that.

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