Keeper of the Secrets

When Tommy Mullady's behind the bar, Cleveland drinks like it's 1929

In the chic murk of the Fairmount Martini and Wine Bar, Tommy Mullady is something of a pub-room holy man. At 48, he's a slender guy with spiky short hair and a pair of thick-framed glasses sliding down his nose. On any given evening, you'll probably find him camped out behind the counter of the Cleveland Heights establishment, dishing out witty banter alongside drinks.

Increasingly, Mullady acolytes are making pilgrimages to the Fairmount just to see him. To them, he is the keeper of secrets from a bygone era of boozing that's pretty much nil in American culture these days. For more than 30 years, he's scoured speakeasies and basement dives, collecting old-school drink recipes from pre-Prohibition America — the High Renaissance of the cocktail.

And his knowledge gathers no dust. Mullady uses the menu at the Fairmount as a testing ground for the reintroduction of classic cocktail recipes into the everyday drinker's rotation, ornate concoctions of traditional liquors mixed with bitters, absinthe, and fresh ingredients. In other words: He'd love for you to put down that Bud Light or Jell-O shot and try something new. Which is to say, something old.

"Too many people had put the cocktail up on a pedestal and treated it like a museum piece," says Mullady, his voice slightly dented with a New York accent. "I wanted to make it accessible."

Count Eric Ho among the converted. A bartender at Lakewood's Melt Bar & Grilled, he's also a regular at the Fairmount.

"It's really delicious," Ho says between sips of a new specialty Screwdriver Mullady is prepping to unveil. Ho praises the recipe with a professional eye, but he downs it like a satisfied customer. "The ingredients are so well balanced. I think this is where we're going to see the trend going, back to these older styles."

A native of Chagrin Falls, Mullady split for New York City when he was 19, ostensibly to play guitar in a punk band. But he had his eye on another long-shot calling: writing plays.

He found early success, landing an agent and earning invites to swank parties. But soon the playwright was in need of cash, so he turned to bartending gigs.

Mullady found himself working at Ruppert's, a Manhattan spot popular with cops and Mafia types. He toiled alongside grizzled bartenders who'd logged a lifetime of shifts mixing drinks in high-end watering holes from L.A. to New Orleans to Miami. Mullady sat ringside for their bull sessions — talk of mixing Irish whiskey drinks for F. Scott Fitzgerald at the Paris Ritz and bumming around with mobsters like Mickey Cohen and Frank Costello.

"I was forced to listen — bartenders never shut up," he says today. "Hearing this stuff, these guys and their stories, I became interested in this world and culture."

Prodded on by his writer's curiosity, Mullady asked more about the past, and his elders would drag down dusty bottles of long-forgotten bitters and liquors, and show him recipes that hadn't been served in mainstream bars since the 1940s. He began scribbling down the mixtures in notebooks, recording where and when each was first cooked up. For Mullady, a traditional Bronx or Sidecar wasn't just another drink, but a way to tap into a long-gone time and place.

From a barstool perspective, the past 50 years or so have been unkind to the cocktail. In the century's early going, drinkmaking was an ornate process; with no bottled mixers or recipes at hand, it was trial and error that required fresh ingredients.

Prohibition only sparked new styles, as drink mixers were forced to get creative, adding new ingredients to bathtub gin and bootleg Canadian hooch in the quest for passable results. Many turned to bitters, aperitifs, and digestifs — high alcohol liqueurs — to supplement their concoctions and add kick. The result was a patch of innovation.

The cocktail movement continued strong until the '60s, when the daily beat of American life quickened and nuance was discarded. "When we went to the three-martini lunch, everything got thrown out," Mullady says. "The guys needed their booze faster, so there was less attention to recipe."

Staples began to change. Dry vermouth was left out of martinis; Manhattans — once made only with rye — were commonly concocted with bourbon. The new permutations became widespread, and Golden Era cocktail lore died off with the older generation — except for what was preserved in the neat script of Mullady's notebooks.

Mullady's playwriting hit a sweet spot in the mid-'90s: He cranked out five plays that went on to be published and produced stateside and overseas. But wordsmithing remained financially spotty, so he never strayed far from the bar.

Family washed him back ashore in Cleveland in 2006. He made a go at opening his own restaurant, but the concept fizzled out and left him sour on the business. He was drifting away from the game when Ryan Kay, owner of the Fairmount, tapped him to run the bar. Mullady agreed, but only if he could do things his way: with a cocktail menu that would draw from his institutional knowledge.

"Cleveland is very food savvy, so I had the feeling that the place was primed for something like this," he says. The menu he designed was unique and fresh, but not a wallet-buster. Whereas high-end drinks at a top-flight restaurant might pack a $15 price tag, most of Mullady's concoctions hover around $8 or $9. By stocking the bar with hard-to-find bitters, he was able to control cost thanks to portioning — delivering drinks with lesser amounts of more ingredients. The results are more complex than your standard drink, but just as potent.

Mullady upped quality by using ingredients made from scratch. The bar began brewing its own ginger beer for drinks like the Moscow Mule and Dark and Stormy, and it cooked up compotes from figs, cranberries, and other seasonal fruits.

"The things this guy knows, people just don't teach anymore," says Stephanie Rolla, assistant manager at Chinato, chef Zack Bruell's East 4th Street restaurant. Rolla first stumbled on the Fairmount when managing at L'Albatros, Bruell's high-end spot in University Circle. She recognized immediately that Mullady was a walking textbook, and she asked him to teach her a thing or two.

"I've been in the industry for 15 years now, and it was unique to run across someone with the knowledge base that he has and his willingness to show other people in the industry what I would consider trade secrets," she says. These days, Mullady is dipping into his notebooks with Rolla for a redesign of Chinato's bar menu.

"I think he really wants to see a change in the scene here in Cleveland," she says. "I think he wants to make it more sophisticated."

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