Talking About Booze, a Rite of Passage: A Few Words with Veteran Bartender Tommy Mullady

My first extended encounter with Tommy Mullady was at the Bottlehouse Brewery in Cleveland Heights. I was talking with a friend about whether or not a Negroni was improved by swapping out Campari for Cynar, another Italian amaro, when Mullady interjected from his post behind the stick. 

"No, no, no," he objected. "Cynar is too vegetal for that drink."

Moments later, after pouring a few beers, whipping together a Boulevardier and stopping to chat with some regulars, Mullady reached into his bag and pulled out two well-worn leather-bound notebooks full of cocktail recipes. He had several pages devoted to Cynar.

"What's a bartender at a brewpub doing with opinions regarding an artichoke-based bitter Italian liqueur, let alone referring to a decades-old notebook full of hand-written recipes using it?" I wondered. Soon, it became pretty clear: He was simply doing his job.

"We don't serve drinks, we serve people."

I've talked to dozens of Cleveland-area bartenders since I began writing about cocktails and spirits for this publication and I've heard that mantra repeated zealously. "Whether you're sad or celebrating, a bartender's job is to help you feel however you want to feel," Mullady said. "The end result of pouring someone an ice cold beer and pouring them a black mission fig Manhattan is the same thing." 

People and experiences supersede drinks and always will, and yet I spend much of my time writing about the drinks themselves – their culture, history and the people who make them. My reasons are twofold. First, I figure you already know how to have a good time. (If you don't, might I suggest bowling or something?) Second, inasmuch as alcohol is a social lubricant and a means to a drunken end, there is an endless amount of euphoria to be found in its application. Please, allow me to "serve" you drinks and allow bartenders to pick you up on a bad day. I don't need that kind of responsibility.

A Solid Foundation

Mullady, a veteran bartender of 30 years, runs the bar program at Bottlehouse, but he's likely better known for his years behind the bar at the Fairmount. It was there, around 2007 to 2008, that he transitioned that Cleveland Heights bar from wine and martinis to classic cocktails – at a time when the only other game in town was Velvet Tango Room.

"It was hard to get good spirits, liqueurs and bitters at the time because there was no demand for them, and there was little to no knowledge sharing among bartenders to advance the craft because the knowledge simply wasn't there," Mullady explains. "There was no market."

Mullady is a service-first bartender who believes that craft cocktails serve a fundamentally important role in a town like Cleveland, which is so fiercely proud of its food and tradition. The market he spoke of is here now, though admittedly still in its infancy, and both bartenders and consumers are like newborns preoccupied with their toes, fascinated that they exist at all. Put differently, we like talking about our drinks so much because they're new to us and we're fascinated by their potential. "I'm waiting for the preciousness to shake out," Mullady said. "There should be nothing special about a well-made drink. It should be the norm." 

To get there, bartenders will need a solid foundation. They'll need the ability to make a Cynar cocktail in a beer bar quickly and at a moment's notice, and customers will need to get to a point where someone doing that for them is no longer novel. Mullady knows this might take a while. He has a decades-long head start, after all. 

"I went to a place in New York that had a notice on the menu about how long the drinks take to make," Mullady said. "In the 1940s, if you went into a place and ordered a round of cocktails and they said, 'We'll have them for you in 20 minutes,' you'd go down the street to the sport club. These things have to be made right and they have to be made quickly. Once that comes back into play and people are expecting it rather than oohing and ahhing over it, then we've truly arrived."

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