Classic cocktails at The Pearl

Brian Lindamood, Columbus Alive

Cameron Mitchell's new Short North gastropub feels like a Hollywood set designer's fantasy version of a classic tavern. The Pearl is appointed with comfy leather booths, dark wood trim and painted brick walls all bathed in soothing amber lights. Meanwhile, the nimble bartenders, sharply dressed in silver vests, are busy muddling and zesting fresh citrus, pouring housemade infusions and shaking concoctions from the extensive bitters collection.

The drink list is informed by the classics, with a Columbus nod to the trends that have been stirred up in speakeasies nationwide. According to Ryan Valentine, Cameron Mitchell director of beverage, the company keeps tabs on emerging food and drink trends with visits to other cities. "The fun part is to figure out what's going to fit into this concept," he said, "so that whatever we decide to do will resonate with the guest."

For instance, the margarita is the top-selling cocktail in U.S. restaurants. For The Pearl crew, the challenge was giving it a cool vintage-tavern twist.

"I've never seen anybody do a barrel-aged margarita, so I thought, let's do that," Valentine explained. "You're taking Herradura Blanco, which is a silver tequila, and then you're soaking it in the barrel for 45 days with Cointreau, and the spirits relax, they get acquainted and they're not as powerful when they come out. All we have to do is add lime juice and it's done."

Pearl patrons have been drinking up the barrel-aged cocktails. The tavern served 80 barrel-aged Manhattans on a recent Saturday night, Valentine said; he had to order more barrels so he can keep up with the long aging process.

"The biggest trend is information-people watching shows about food and spirits," he said. "I think people have a heightened awareness of what's going on, and more curiosity than they used to, so they're ready to hear about trends."

Another trendy drink is even older than the Prohibition-era cocktails you usually find at speakeasies: Punch is actually a pre-cocktail classic. Its popularity dates to 17th-century England (Charles Dickens was an effusive fan). In colonial America, taverns were outfitted with as many punch bowls as benches for thirsty patriots.

The punch at The Pearl is properly served in bowls. It's meant to be shared, so the recipes are smooth and easy to drink. "Unlike a cocktail where you should taste the primary spirit, we wanted the punches to be about great quaffable flavors-rounder and more friendly," Valentine said. The tavern has developed a dozen punch recipes, so they can be rotated in seasonally, two at a time.

The beer list features 10 taps and another 40 brews in bottles. Two of the drafts are meant to turn over frequently, with seasonal, rare or unusual selections. For instance, The Pearl is currently pouring a Belgian stout from Rogue that isn't available anywhere else outside the Oregon brewery.

At a time when other pubs brag about 20, 40 or even 100 tap handles, a selection of 10 drafts seems pretty modest. As the list was put together by a team of Cameron Mitchell chefs and managers, the goal was to focus on quality picks built around representative styles, Valentine explained.

"We tasted a couple hundred beers, and we would organize them in styles. We would put them out in flights of five, so if we were tasting 20 stouts we would have four different stout tastings. And then the best of the best would get one of the draft spots," he said. "You know, if we're only going to have 10 beers, we want every one of those beers to be really, really good."