If you’ve had even a passing interest in spirits or cocktails over the last five years or so—Adam Roelle is likely a name you’re already familiar with. In one way or another, he has been an entrenched presence in the high-proof world, and a guiding lantern in the labyrinth of liquor laws Ohio has been saddled with.
I first met Adam in his role as the head of the liquor department at Clintonville’s Weiland’s Market. It had long been known among bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts that it was the spot for hard-to-find spirits, vermouths, and bitters, a fact that was largely due to Roelle’s work behind the scenes, campaigning for Ohio’s liquor control board to add these unique spirits to the state’s list of available items. Getting an item “listed” is just the first step in a long, complicated process riddled with the type of bureaucracy, inefficiency, and frustration that might lead someone to reach for a bottle of the hard stuff in the first place. Supply is ever-changing, and a brand may be listed one month, and then disappear forever the next, or the product may never appear in stores at all, despite promises that it would be arriving shortly.
Working within a frustrating system, Roelle successfully introduced many of the spirits we now enjoy in our state, effectively infusing a broader palate for the city’s evolving cocktail scene. Before moving here, Roelle had spent years as a bartender in Chicago, where high-proof spirits were not sold by the state government, and the selection was vast compared to our own. Many of the cocktail ingredients he had taken for granted were simply unavailable here, and he wanted to fix that. It was one of those spirits, specifically Ransom Gin, a barrel-aged Old Tom-style gin that led to me introducing myself to Roelle among the aisles of rare scotch, rum, and amaro at Weiland’s—a high-proof oasis in an otherwise barren landscape.
After leaving Weiland’s for a position as Spirits Manager for Cavalier Distributing, his access only increased, and soon we saw the arrival of many of the products we had simply lost hope of ever stocking on our bars. Those first six months of Roelle’s new position were like extended Christmas for many of the cocktail focused bars around the city. If you are not faced with coming up with a whole new list of cocktails and flavors seasonally, it may be hard to understand what this meant for many of us. Imagine a chef being told that the high-quality ingredient they want and were willing to pay for was simply not allowed to be used—“no cinnamon for you, and if you’re caught bringing it in from another state that does sell cinnamon, we’ll take away your license.” You know cinnamon tastes good, you’ve tried it in other dishes from places where chefs are allowed to use it, but you just cant use it here. After years of waiting, you’d be pretty excited to see it sitting on the shelves. Now, over a year into his position with Cavalier, there are no signs that Roelle intends to stop bringing us the spirits we’ve been clamoring for, as well as the ones we never knew existed.
It was this spirit of discovery that led me to ask him if he would mind stepping back into his previous life as a bartender to show me some of his favorite products from his portfolio, and his favorite cocktails in which to use them. A week later I found myself sitting at the bar at Curio, as Roelle, took me on a tour of some of the unique flavors, and creations he enjoys.
Preferring to stick with classics as a canvas to display the spirits, Roelle began with a Martini using Xoriguer Mahon gin, a Spanish wine based gin produced on the island of Menorca, and Pineau Des Charentes based La Quintinye extra dry vermouth. Pineau Des Charentes is a foritfied wine produced with a mixture of grape must and Cognac and aged in French oak barrels. The extra dry vermouth had a surprising mixture of savory fall herbs with a strong flavor of rosemary that stood out amongst the other botanicals in the vermouth, and cut through even the juniper of the gin. A dash of Bittermen’s Orange Cream Citrate gave the drink a hint of acidity, and the expressed lemon peel served to enhance that quality creating a surprisingly complex martini.
2 oz. Mahon gin
1 oz. La Quintinye blanc or extra dry vermouth
2-3 drops Bittermen’s Orange Cream Citrate
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and stir with ice, strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with olives or a lemon twist.
1 lime swath
2 oz. Rhum JM
.5 oz. Can syrup
Squeeze lime into chilled glass and rub peel around the rim. Combine syrup and Rhum JM in a mixing glass with ice and chill slightly. Strain into glass with lime and swizzle to combine.
1.5 oz. Town Branch rye
1 oz. La Quintinye rouge vermouth
1 oz. Casoni 1814
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and stir with ice, Strain into an old fashioned glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with an orange wheel, or twist.
2 oz. Castaréde VSOP armagnac
.25 oz. Simple syrup
2-3 drops Peychaud’s bitters
Coat the inside of a chilled glass with absinthe and discard (or drink), combine remaining ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir, strain into absinthe rinsed glass and garnish with a lemon peel.
The next drink in the line-up was another deceiving simply creation, the Ti’ Punch. This drink is the national drink of Martinique, home to the drinks star, Rhum Agricole. Rum Agricole is rum distilled in the French Caribbean islands from fresh sugar cane juice, giving it its characteristic grassy vegetal flavors. Roelle began by squeezing a third of a lime into a chilled glass and rubbing the peel along the rim to impart the citrus oils. Then he added Sirop JM cane syrup and Rhum JM white rum to a glass with ice and gave it a couple of quick stirs before straining the slightly chilled mixture back into the glass with the lime and serving it up. A slightly stranger cousin to the Daiquiri, this drink is no less refreshing and is ideal for a Caribbean climate, or a humid day in Columbus.
A Boulevardier came next combining Town Branch rye with Casoni 1814, an aperitif that falls somewhere between Aperol and Campari on the bitterness scale, and played nicely with the La Quintinye rouge vermouth. It was an added bonus that the three ingredients used in this cocktail came from my three favorite spirit producing countries, Italy, France, and the good ol’ US of A. This is a drink that I find troublesome in its ability to lure me in, and make me want to drink one after the other, and it was tough to push it aside for the final drink of the day, a Sazerac.
It is widely debated whether or not a true Sazerac is made with rye or brandy, and it’s a debate I prefer not to join. As far as I’m concerned, you can taste both and decide which one you like, or switch back and forth. Personally, I tend towards the spicier flavor of rye over brandy, but today it was going to be brandy, Armagnac specifically. Castaréde V.S.O.P., a 10-year-old Armagnac produced by the sixth generation Castaréde house. Roelle joked that he thinks the Sazerac is “one of the most simple drinks to f*ck up,” but luckily he pulled it off well, though a bit heavy handed on the simple syrup. If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t actually pay attention much after he coated the glass with Absente absinthe, trusting him to do a fine job, while I focused on tasting the Armagnac (one of only two for sale in Ohio) on its own, and furthering my mid-afternoon buzz.
Once he got used to the lay of the land behind the bar at Curio, it was clear that Roelle was just as comfortable behind a bar today as he was years ago in Chicago. Perhaps the trade is a bit like riding a bike, or perhaps knowing as much about booze as this guy does just makes him a natural, either way, I’d trust him to fix me another any time.