Cocktail Culture: House-made mixers, bitters and more
With Watershed, Middle West, Buckeye Vodka and now Dancing Tree continually releasing new Ohio-grown spirits, Columbus is experiencing a boom in booze. But this homegrown cocktail creativity goes beyond liquor. More and more mixologists are foregoing national brands and choosing to make their cocktail accessories in house.
Cocktail consultant Nicolene Schwartz, who currently consults with Rigsby's and MoJoe Lounge, has a few ideas as to why. First off, there's demand.
"[Bars are] responding to customers who are educated about what makes a drink experience good," she says. "A lot of that comes from that drink being made in-house by a chef or bartender you know and respect."
And then there's the financial benefit. Schwartz says the bottom line comes into play when making sourcing decisions. The high margin in pre-made simple syrups helps to encourage some DIY work in the kitchen.
Finally, creativity comes into play. Making mixers in-house, she says, is a way for bars to show off their creativity and know-how.
Pour yourself a Sidecar and follow along as we maneuver through some of the best supporting actors found in the Columbus cocktail scene. (For maximum satisfaction, though, make sure you squeeze those lemons yourself.)
[Note: Many offerings change seasonally, and they're sometimes not listed on the menus.]
The mixology buzzword these days is bitters. Used in small amounts-literally, only one or two drops-as a modifier, these complex spirits are meant to add depth to a cocktail without adding any additional volume, texture or sweetness.
The return of house-made bitters (they were crucial in many pre-Prohibition cocktails) is spearheaded locally by Schwartz and prominent mixologist Cris Dehlavi. Both excel at the bitters-making process, which includes seeping ingredients such as herbs, spices or fruit peels into grain alcohol.
Are bitters the key to the perfect cocktail?
"I think that to some extent, people overestimate the ability of bitters to completely transform a drink," Schwartz says, "but in some cases, they absolutely do. It's kind of like with food. One year, everything has to have cilantro-where even fast-casual menus have cilantro on everything. It's kind of like that, how [bitters have] been widely accepted in the bar culture."
Indeed, bitters are an essential ingredient in a number of classic cocktails, like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans.
Find House-Made Bitters:
M at Miranova: Whiskey barrel-aged cherry bitters
Rigsby's: Lemongrass and cardamom bitters
Till: Till's classic-style house bitters, orange bitters, celery caraway bitters, and burdock and dandelion bitters
The growing number of artisan spirits flowing straight from Ohio distilleries into our cocktail glasses may just retire the pedestrian corn syrup-based concoctions that come out of the ends of soda guns. Quality liquor begs for quality mixers.
Luckily, the mixologists of Columbus are ahead of the curve, creating their own tonic water, grenadines and shrubs to keep standards high.
Many bars hand-squeeze juices for each cocktail that's ordered. "Fresh-squeezed juices certainly add an enormous amount to the quality of the cocktail," says Schwartz. "It's worth it in the end."
A newer-or older-arrival to the cocktail scene is the shrub, much to the delight of Slow Foodies everywhere. These concentrated fruit-and-vinegar-based syrups from colonial times are on the organization's list of nearly extinct foodstuffs. Found seasonally at some of the city's most tony watering holes, shrubs can boast flavors such as blackberry and thyme, blood orange and basil, and lemon with ginger.
Lest you fear the cocktail scene is losing its fizz, bubblies aren't left out. Drive north to Veritas Tavern to sip on drinks mixed with house-made sodas, or visit M, Till and Veritas to sample made-from-scratch tonic water. Which establishment will start a greenhouse garden to provide the lemon or lime for a 614-sourced gin and tonic? Our money's on Till.
Find House-Made Mixers:
Ace of Cups: Sour mix, grenadine
Curio: Seasonal shrubs, pomegranate grenadine, fresh-squeezed juices
DeepWood: Ginger beer, Bloody Mary mix
Giuseppe's: Fresh-squeezed juices, horchata, limoncello
Granville Inn: Pomegranate grenadine
M: Fresh-squeezed juices, tonic water, sour mix, lime cordial
MoJoe Lounge: Pomegranate grenadine
Mouton: Seasonal shrubs
Pie's Gourmet Pizza Bistro: Fresh-squeezed juices
Till: Tonic water, ginger beer, seasonal shrubs
Veritas Tavern: Seasonal shrubs, tonic water, grenadine, sodas and colas
Simple syrups are, well, simple. Made by dissolving sugar into water-flavored or otherwise-simple syrup takes only a few minutes to make and provides a blank canvas for any number of flavor combinations.
But the simplicity of this ingredient makes it a fundamental part of most cocktails. Simple syrups are to cocktails what salt is to a stew or sauce; they bring out the flavor while evening out the taste experience.
"Sometimes when I'm doing a cocktail and it's close, but not quite right, I'll add a quarter-ounce of simple syrup and find that everything just comes together," Schwartz explains. "Simple syrups use that sweetness to round those edges a bit. I don't know many bartenders that don't use it with a reasonable frequency."
Columbus mixologists overachieve in this category, providing a wide array of flavors from ancho chili (used in Surly Girl's Prairie Fire Margarita) to rosemary (in Rossi's Krak the Whip).
Find House-Made Syrups:
Curio: Clove-honey-black cardamom-grapefruit simple syrup
Deepwood: Vanilla simple syrup
Granville Inn: Blood orange simple syrup
MoJoe Lounge: Habanero-lime simple syrup
Pie's Gourmet Pizza Bistro: Agave-orange--thyme simple syrup
Rigsby's Kitchen: Concord grape juice simple syrup
Sage: Vanilla-cherry simple syrup
Till: Ginger beer simple syrup
Veritas Tavern: Yuzu simple syrup
Take vodka. Pour it in a jar with, say, chopped-up sweet potatoes. Or fresh lavender. Or Skittles. Cover and forget about it for three to five days. Voila! You have an infused spirit. With a chalkboard showcasing at least seven different varieties of flavor-spiked vodkas and tequilas, Ace of Cups has become well-known for its tweaked spirits, thanks in part to Nora Kilbane, the bar's infuser.
Kilbane is responsible for the ever-changing array of infused spirits at the music venue.
"Different things infuse in different ways. Alcohol preserves fruit. Basically, once it's in there, it's fine. It takes three to five days for fruit and then I strain everything out," she says. "Certain things look better. Strawberries look terrible. Peppers-they are beautiful. We strain everything out a couple times to be sure. But people don't mind a little stray seed. It adds to the fact that it's not just some commercial extract cucumber flavor, it's an actual cucumber."
Find House-Made Infusions:
Ace of Cups: Thai-quila, Red Hots-infused vodka, coconut-infused vodka
Curio: Bacon-infused bourbon, dill-infused Everclear, peanut Everclear
DeepWood: Ginger-infused Tanquerey
Granville Inn: Raisin-infused rum
M: Vanilla bean-and-orange peel Woodford Reserve Bourbon, St. Germain with pink peppercorns
Mouton: Hibiscus-infused vodka
Rigsby's: Watershed's Bourbon Barrel Gin with sherry brined smoked peppercorns, Bulleit Rye with strawberry and lemon peels
Surly Girl: Pepper-infused vodka
It's the garnish that makes those handcrafted cocktails worthy of Instagram. The added touch of the perfectly curled lemon peel or the delicate sugar rim is the wrapping and bow of an intricate drink, the finishing detail that makes these concoctions worth every penny you've invested.
While many bars have mastered the art of cutting fruit, a few places go above and beyond. First up, house-made ice. Schwartz believes that, while it's not essential to an excellent drink, making ice is a good thing. She likens it to making from-scratch soup.
"Do you make your own stock or do you buy stock? If you really want to enjoy the cocktail, ice does make a difference," she says. "[Custom ice] melts much more slowly and keeps the drink colder."
From large square cubes (found at Curio, Veritas and Giuseppe's) to hand-carved ice to order (done exclusively at M), ice is far from an afterthought for a handful of bars. Travis Owens, owner of Curio, has even gone so far as to create a system that frees water of impurities such as chlorine and fluoride.
Other garnishes of note include macerated cherries (making Rossi's Mason Dixon taste like childhood favorite Cherry Cola Bubblicious) and the vanilla bean-infused sugar rim at MoJoe Lounge.
They're fun, whimsical and often eye-appealing, but it's important to remember: garnishes do not count as dinner. Don't forget to eat.
Find House-Made Garnishes:
Curio: Cubed and sphered ice
Giuseppe's: Cubed ice
M: Hand-carved ice
MoJoe Lounge: Macerated cherries with nutmeg, cinnamon, brandy, rum and bourbon
Mouton: Macerated cherries with cognac and sugar
Rossi: Macerated cherries
Sage: Rosemary pear puree, vanilla bean-infused sugar rim
Veritas Tavern: Cubed ice