There was a time not too long ago, when bartenders struggled to convince their managers that it was worth it to squeeze fresh juice daily. When house-made anything was unheard of… Tonic came from Schweppes (they still make good tonic) and sour mix, in all its neon green glory, was standard in every Margarita, the only drink on cocktail menus that didn’t have a vodka base, flavored or otherwise.
On average, Columbus becomes receptive to food and drink trends around five years after their introduction in places like NYC, SFO, and CHI. So if the first wave of the classic and craft cocktail revolution hit those cities in the early 2000’s they hit Columbus around 2010. That’s not to say there wasn’t a hint of what was to come before then. M at Miranova, which is celebrating it’s 15th anniversary this year, has been serving up fresh cocktails since 2006, when Head Bartender Cris Dehlavi made the switch from sour mix and Rose’s lime to all fresh ingredients, becoming the first bar to do so in the city. At the time it was a test, but soon it was adopted across all the Cameron Mitchell restaurants, where you would be hard pressed to find any neon green mystery ingredients now, unless you count Green Chartreuse, of course.
Over the next few years, a number of places began building on the trend, and pushing the boundaries of Columbus cocktail culture. Logan Demmy at Mouton, Travis Owens and Sean Ward at Giuseppe’s, and by 2012 Owen’s had opened Curio, a shrine to all things classic and craft in the world of cocktails. This generally fits the aforementioned trend timeline, but what does that mean for Columbus cocktails now, 10 years on from the first wave? Well, naturally, that would be the second wave, which if you haven’t noticed, we’re currently riding.
Bourbon finally beat out vodka in popular vote, the Old Fashioned is fashionable, and on many bars across the city, a bottle or two of bitters beyond Angostura can be found. Juice is fresh, vermouth is no longer a dirty word, and even your neighborhood Applebee’s is probably offering a Moscow Mule.
Gone are the tropes of suspender-clad, mustachioed lecturing barkeeps, and the pretentious refusal to pour vodka, or make an off menu drink. You can get a decent drink in a dive bar, or a Negroni slushy on a patio. The kinks are ironed out, and elevated cocktails are becoming not only common, but expected.
When Seth Laufman moved home to Ohio from San Francisco, he brought with him everything he learned as someone who experienced and participated in the first wave of the national cocktail renaissance. He tended bar at well known cocktail dens throughout the Bay area including Local Edition, Gitane, Alchemist, and Comstock Saloon before heading back to open his own place in the bourgeoning Columbus cocktail scene. Blind Lady Tavern is a realization of that dream, and while there wasn’t a whole lot that needed to be done to the perfect interior of the former Jury Room space, the food and drink menus received a welcomed reset. The cocktail menu, which changes regularly, features nods to the classics, with updated and inspired versions of some classic formulas, as well as new and interesting cocktails created by Laufman and his staff.
Beyond the cocktails, the atmosphere is lively and relaxed. It is easy to strike up a conversation with your bartender, or the person sitting next to you, and the tables are usually filled with a party or two enjoying a fun night out. With a staff of well-trained creative bartenders, and the spot-on Southern comfort food of chef Danielle Leeman, Blind Lady is a brilliant addition to the downtown restaurant and bar scene that only a few short years ago would have been tough to imagine.
Speaking of former Columbus Food League spaces, Parlor Room, which just opened after an extensive renovation of the former Surly Girl space, finds its stride in that space between speakeasy and neighborhood joint, with a casual menu of gastropub eats, and a surprisingly well-done cocktail menu. Part of the evolution of any food or drink category is when it loses it’s grandiose nature and returns squarely to a place where everyone feels comfortable. The folks behind Novak’s, Yogi’s, and The Filling Station have done an excellent job bringing a comfortable neighborhood feel without sacrificing quality in their drinks. There’s even TV’s on the wall, if that’s your thing.
With the second wave of cocktails comes all sorts of unique offerings beyond the standard low-lit, wood-grained, hushed-tone speakeasy theme. A beer and wine carryout that serves fantastic drinks using hand chipped ice while old movies are projected on the wall? Sure. Why not? The Bottle Shop on King Avenue meets all of those needs you never knew you had, and more. A Fernet and Cola on the patio? Check. A Singapore Sling paired with a black and white film from the 40s? Yep, sounds good. Grab a bottle of wine or a six-pack on the way out to keep the party going? If the second wave feels this good, I can’t imagine the third.
In the past year or two, there have been only a handful of bars to open that didn’t feature craft cocktails. But as cocktail culture leaves the realm of the trend and enters the Columbus canon, there are still some notable “second wave” spots worth a more than a casual glance. Places that are carrying the torch and putting out some exceptional drinks, amidst their decidedly more numerous peers. •