Shaken or stirred: Cincinnati's cocktail scene is served any way you like it

Barkeeps share what ‘craft cocktail' means to them

CINCINNATI -- Craft cocktails are not new to Cincinnati: Japp’s, Neons, Boca and a host of other spots have been serving stylish and creative drinks for years.

But with the small-batch bourbon and craft beer community booming, it’s no surprise there’s an increasing interest in even more cocktail options, on both restaurant and bar menus. 

I sat down with both cocktail bar and restaurant bartenders to see what creating a craft cocktail experience means to them.

Behind the Bar at the Rookwood

In Cincinnati, an inventive meal paired with a well-chosen cocktail isn’t hard to find. Steeped in Cincinnati history, the Rookwood in Mount Adams boasts sweeping views of the Queen City’s skyline, an inviting bar, a scratch-kitchen and an excellent cocktail menu.

The Rookwood's JT Howard says he loves to use fresh, seasonal items in the bar. “We stock fresh juices and syrups, and the kitchen is great about roasting garlic or pickling beans for a drink idea we may have.”

I sat down with bartender JT Howard and general manager Jonathan Stencel to talk drinks and food at the Rookwood.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, just elevate it,” said Stencel about the Rookwood’s cocktail menu.

And elevate it they do. On the day I met with them, Howard was soaking Morita chili peppers in Bulleit Bourbon for a syrup to be used in a new cocktail for the fall menu. Yes, please.

Working with a skilled kitchen is second nature to Howard. Having worked multiple jobs in the restaurant business, from dishwasher to general manager to a stint in Spain to learn more about wine, Howard credits his time behind the bar at Salazar for teaching him the finer points of flavor.

“While working with Jose (Salazar) I really understood what it meant to make a drink with a balanced flavor profile. It didn’t matter if a drink had 15 different unique ingredients – if it just wasn’t good, then get rid of it,” Howard explained.

At the Rookwood, Howard noted how the bar works with the kitchen, helmed by farm-to-table executive chef Jackson Rouse.

“Chef (Rouse) works with fresh, seasonal items, which we love to use in the bar as well,” Howard said. “We stock fresh juices and syrups, and the kitchen is great about roasting garlic or pickling beans for a drink idea we may have.”

The experience at the welcoming circular bar (and expansive patio in the warmer months) is where Howard shines.

“We aim for the 3 ‘Cs’: Consistency, Creativity and Confidence (without being cocky) in the cocktail experience here,” Howard explained, as Stencel nodded in agreement. “We want you to feel comfortable ordering a Manhattan but be pleasantly surprised with our twist on it.”

“Making a creative cocktail that you will love is what we’re about.” Stencel added. 

Cheers to that.

Try this cocktail: The Rookwood’s Smoke & Barrels, with house-made candied ginger, Luxardo, fresh lemon, smoked bourbon, chili syrup and whipped egg white.

The Rookwood: 1077 Celestial St., Mount Adams. 513-421-5555; therookwood.com

At Sundry & Vice, the Cocktail Stands Alone

While pairing a creative cocktail with a lovely meal is one of life’s greatest pleasures, sometimes a girl just needs a drink. Sundry & Vice fits that need.  

Open in early 2015, Sundry & Vice is part of the expanding cocktail bar scene in Cincinnati. Cocktail-only haunts such as Low Spark and The Overlook Lodge have recently opened to join perennial favorites such as Wiseguys Lounge and Japp’s Since 1879.

Sundry & Vice's bartender, Jack Keane, says, “We’re about the care and attention to detail that goes into each cocktail. If you want me to create something especially for you, or if you just want a Jack and Coke, we put the same care into it.”

Owners Stuart King and Julia Petiprin met in Los Angeles, both members of the local cocktail scene. After years in the business, King was considering opening his own space. Knowing Petiprin’s bartending skill and design creativity, King asked her to join him in this cocktail venture. As both have Midwestern roots – King is a Northeast Ohio native, and Petirpin is from Michigan – Cincinnati became the first-choice locale.

“When I thought about the kind of service and experience I wanted to provide, I knew that Cincinnati, with what was happening here in the dining scene, was the perfect place.” King explained.

“We can make people’s days better,” added bartender Jack Keane. “We’re about the care and attention to detail that goes into each cocktail. If you want me to create something especially for you, or if you just want a Jack and Coke, we put the same care into it.”

Keane has done his time in bars around town, most recently at the Claddagh Irish Pubs and Moerlein Lager House. Keane said that when he spoke to King and Petiprin, he knew he would fit in at Sundry & Vice.

“Stuart and Julia shared my bartending philosophy, and that’s when I knew I found a home here,” Keane said. “We want this experience to feel comfortable.”

“Cocktails at Sundry & Vice are a dialogue, not a monologue,” King added. “We want you to feel comfortable chatting with the bar staff, or if you’d prefer to enjoy your beverage on your own, we get that, too.”

And what about the cocktails?

“We probably get more fresh fruit and vegetable deliveries than most restaurants,” King said with a laugh.  

“You can ask for something with gin, booze forward, and I’ll make something that fits that bill but that may be totally unexpected,” Keane added. “It’s about pairing the right drink for the right mood.”

I jokingly asked, “What if a girl came in and had just broken up with her boyfriend? What’s the right drink for that mood?”

King and Keane shared a look and said almost simultaneously, “Whiskey, straight.”

Sounds absolutely right.

Try this cocktail: Sundry & Vice’s Art of the Age, with ginger liquor, fresh ginger, rye whiskey and vodka.

Sundry & Vice: 18 W. 13th St., Over-the-Rhine. 513-721-8423; sundryandvice.com

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