Cocktails Stir Up Nostalgia and Adventure

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Two years ago, I bought a 70-year-old drink menu at a local secondhand shop. It proved perfect for framing, but I’d never heard of most of the drinks from my grandparents’ generation: sidecar, gin rickey, ward eight and Moscow mule, among others.

Many of those cocktails are back in vogue, spurred by shows such as AMC’s “Mad Men” and a renewed curiosity about a time when bartending was an art.

In the Mahoning Valley, three establishments are taking that nostalgia seriously, introducing today’s drinkers to the bar experiences of yesteryear.

Ryes Craft Beer & Whiskey and Imbibe Martini Bar in downtown Youngstown are on the cutting edge of the cocktail movement, says Jeff Kurz, co-owner of both establishments. Ryes opened in 2014.

“What’s old is new again,” he says. “People are starting to wonder what it was about those old drinks that their parents, grandparents or maybe their great-grandparents really enjoyed.”

Designed as a place where drinkers from bigger cities like Chicago or New York could feel at home, Ryes features both the very oldest cocktails and drinks made famous after passage of the 18th Amendment. “We have a Prohibition cocktail list, but we also specialize in old-fashioneds,” Kurz says as he prepares the classic whiskey cocktail at the Ryes long bar.

Unlike the character Don Draper – who helped revitalize the old-fashioned in “Mad Men” – Kurz doesn’t muddle the cherry in the drink glass. “We do not permit the mashing and mulling of cherries and oranges in the drink itself,” he says. Ryes offers 40 whiskeys and 17 types of bitters to choose from, enough for any fan of the cocktail, Kurz says.

As he stands beneath a photo taken the day the 21st Amendment was ratified in December 1933, he explains the origins and evolution of Prohibition-era cocktails.

“Prohibition cocktail drinks started out to try to cover up the poor quality of liquors,” Kurz says. That changed after repeal of the 18th Amendment. “The original purpose went from hiding the flavor to accentuating the flavor by the use of really good liquors and quality ingredients.”

The Prohibition cocktails run the gamut: whiskey-, scotch-, gin- and rum-based drinks are available. One can imbibe cocktails with colorful names such as the bee’s knees, Mary Pickford (named for the silent-era screen star) and the 12-mile limit.

Ryes co-owner Brad Schwartz developed the drink menu. “We see people asking more for those Prohibition cocktails,” Kurz says. “People want to know what they are and how they’re made.”

Below Ryes on the first floor is the Imbibe Martini Bar, which opened in 2005. The bar is in a former bank that retains the vault, an area where patrons can sit. “When we first opened Imbibe, it was hard to explain to people why we were serving martinis here,” Kurz says.

Customers are now more familiar with martinis and cocktails, he says, and the drinks are priced competitively in the Youngstown market. Customers at Imbibe can find martinis for $7 that would sell for $18 in Cleveland or Pittsburgh, Kurz says.

“Our top seller right now is a starburst martini,” says Jordi Dando, general manager of Ryes and Imbibe. Another martini that features Tang (yes, the artificial breakfast beverage) called the astronaut is especially popular. But there are those who come in looking for cocktails such as the James Bond martini – known as the vesper. “It is actually a very strange recipe,” Dando says. “It is three parts gin, one part vodka and then it gets a floral wine.”

The Speakeasy Lounge in downtown Warren won’t disappoint fans of the vesper, says Paul Lettau, bartender and general manager. The lounge, which has its own entrance, sits beneath the Best Western Park Hotel on Courthouse Square. As might be expected, Prohibition cocktails are popular, but so are newer mixed drinks such as the World War II-era Moscow mule.

Paul Lettau, bartender and general manager at the Speakeasy Lounge, sees popularity rising in Prohibition and World War II era drinks.

Lettau’s version of the drink is a colorful concoction, garnished with a strawberry and mint leaves. It’s part of his approach to making drinks, suggestive of a chef’s effort to please the eye as well as the palate.

“Like cooking, you have to understand how different flavors work with each other,” he says. “Basil and tomato go together. Orange and bourbon go together.”

Lettau came of age watching his father drink bourbon Manhattans and highballs. His signature drink is “a perfect Manhattan,” he says. It contains bitters made on the premises using 180-proof Everclear, a powerful neutral liquor. The homemade bitters are another part of the craft of making cocktails, Lettau says.

Bartending is changing with the rise in popularity of cocktails. “People are starting to learn as bartenders,” he says. “We just can’t throw a Bud Light down the bar anymore. We actually have to do something. Which is good. It gets people interested.”

Bartenders are also getting reacquainted with the muddler, used to crush (muddle) fruits, herbs and sugar cubes for cocktails.

Many of the older cocktails have numerous ingredients and feature lesser-known liquors and liqueurs, requiring more knowledge and effort on the bartender’s part. “A real martini, a Manhattan, a Moscow mule – it’s something that some work goes into,” he says.

Lettau has a customer who orders a different drink every time he visits, which sometimes leads the bartender to consult “Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide,” published since 1935.

Lettau has fun talking with his customers about many recipes and drinks. It can be a learning moment for all involved, he says. “You’re not going to know every drink in the book – it’s not going to happen,” he says with a smile. “But every day you learn something new, and you remember.”

Patrons still order well-known cocktails, but Lettau gives them a classic twist that pleases and educates the customers. “Take a rum and Coke, squeeze a quarter or a half ounce of fresh lime in it, and you’ve got yourself a Cuba Libre,” he says. “You’ve named their simple drink for them.”

Customers watch a bartender make their cocktails, and that increases their connection to the drink itself, Lettau says. And while wines remain popular, both the knowledge involved and cost intimidates some customers, Lettau says. He predicts the latest interest in cocktails will remain strong and grow. “I see all the classics coming back,” he says.

Not far from the Speakeasy Lounge in Howland is Barrel33. Originally a wine shop, owner Mark Rhodes expanded the business into a full bar and bistro two years ago. On the list of cocktails are classics such as the mint julep, negroni and sazerac.

“Our goal was to bring back a lot of the classics like the Manhattan, the old-fashioned, aviations,” Rhodes says. “We use a lot of quality ingredients, a lot of ingredients that you won’t find at other bars like crème de violet, Saint Germain, premier vermouth.”

Barrel33 features Carpano Antica, a top-shelf vermouth from Italy that’s popular with cocktail aficionados. Despite the often-costlier ingredients, Rhodes says he tries hard to keep the cocktails under $10.

Rhodes borrowed drink ideas from bars he visited in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and some of the cocktails he features are popular at places such as the restaurant Trader Vic’s in California, where his wife once worked. The most popular drink at Barrel33 at the moment is the Moscow mule. The Manhattan comes in second.

Barrel33 makes two kinds of Manhattans, one fresh, the other barrel-aged. “We take vermouth, rye and put it in a little 5-liter barrel and let it sit for about a month,” Rhodes says. “Just like a good soup gets better a couple of days later, well, some cocktails get better a few months later.”

Rhodes prides himself in the quality of the ingredients. The bar’s “well,” or lower-cost, bourbon is Maker’s Mark, a high-quality whiskey that would be a top-shelf product at other bars. “What’s unique about us is that we do know a lot about cocktails,” he says “We don’t have Jägerbombs. We don’t sell Coors Light or Miller Lite.”

When hiring bartenders, Rhodes takes personality and depth of knowledge into consideration.

The first question he usually asks an applicant is whether he can make a Manhattan. “If they don’t know how to make a Manhattan, then I will end the interview that quickly,” he explains. “Because if you don’t know what I do and didn’t take the time to learn how to make a Manhattan before coming in here, then you’re probably not the right person.”

Bartender Renee Mauk has 20 years of experience, but there were drinks she wasn’t familiar with when she started at Barrel33. “When I started, there were some that I hadn’t made before because we do have a lot of the old-school, Prohibition – style cocktails that you can’t get other places.”

Some of her best customers are millennials, a generation that has taken to certain cocktails. “They are very into the old-fashioneds, Manhattans,” she says. “The bourbon-based cocktails are very big with the millennials.”

With the interest of the new generation of drinkers, Rhodes sees a bright future for cocktails. “If you’re looking for an experience, an education, change and the willingness to try different things, then the cocktail movement will only continue to grow and get better.”

Pictured, top: Jordi Dando is the general manager and Jeff Kurz co-owner of Ryes Craft Beer & Whiskey and Imbibe Martini Bar in Youngstown.

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