Cleveland's Cocktails That Are Raising the City's Drinking Standards
America is in the midst of a craft-cocktail renaissance whose menu reads like a time traveler’s diary: Prohibition is back. Tiki is back. The lazy, sugary concoctions of the '90s swing-revival are not back.
The nation’s revived love affair with the cocktail kicked off sometime in the mid-to-late 2000s, and we're fortunate in Cleveland that our city’s cocktail programs have kept pace with its nationally renowned culinary arts. Many places aren't as much reinventing the wheel as tinkering with the pieces parts to make each of its drinks' components shine. We've found the places doing as much and dug up some of the best cocktails you should be drinking right now.
There’s a disgruntled review on Yelp that reads something like, "If Hell has a bar, it probably looks like The Spotted Owl." And with its gated entry, dark wood and brick walls, and ambient, subterranean lighting, The Spotted Owl does feel a little hellish -- as long as we’re talking about a cool, Joss Whedon-esque version of hell. And if this upscale Tremont spot is the underworld, it’s at least run efficiently -- instead of a book-length list of drink options, the menu highlights around 15 at a time, swapping drinks out every eight-10 weeks.
Now’s the perfect time to try the Sherry Cobbler, a drink far more complex than its saccharine name suggests. In this beautifully violet-red drink, Amontillado sherry joins with liqueurs and angostura bitters for a surprising mash-up of flavors. You’ll taste amontillado’s dryness up front, lightened by the mint and pineapple garnish, but queen of earl, a tea-flavored syrup, gives the drink a smooth, sweet finish.
Also try: Owner Will Hollingsworth -- a former Lolita bartender and one of the friendliest guys in the business -- recommends The Banane, a mellow Scotch cocktail that tastes like an actual banana (that yellow stuff you did body shots with in college is not in it). And the Whiskey Fix of the Painproof Man, though a little on the sweet side, is worth ordering almost for the name alone, if not for its successful combination of Four Roses Yellow bourbon, Cynar artichoke liqueur (!), and shaved dark chocolate (??).
It might seem wrong to list a whiskey cocktail at a taco bar, but Barrio hasn’t made a name for itself by doing things conventionally. Since opening in Tremont in 2012, Barrio has built an empire on the supremacy of its tacos -- creative, delicious, eminently affordable -- but it’s our opinion that it deserves more recognition for cocktails beyond the margaritas.
Take The Figgy Bourbon: a variant on the Old Fashioned, it presents citrus and floral notes, courtesy of the plum bitters, cutting through the booziness of Woodford Reserve. The house-made fig syrup gives the drink an earthily sweet finish where the Woodford burn would normally go.
Also try: The Trace Negra at Barrio is an underplayed classic cocktail that combines Buffalo Trace bourbon with basil and balsamic vinegar syrup for surprising and delightful results. The Chupacabra is a fun combination of strawberries and spiciness with a sugar and cayenne rim -- just be careful if you order it and Carolina Reaper sauce on your tacos.
There are so many well-known and respected restaurants lining Ohio City’s main drag that it can be easy to forget there’s more to the neighborhood than West 25th. Case in point: The Black Pig, a treasure trove of seasonal, European-inspired dishes at the unassuming corner of W 28th and Bridge. Owner Michael Nowak believes in spirit-forward cocktails, relegating syrups and garnishes to the backseat. Accordingly, the ingredients in the Citron Vert (pronounce it verre) focus on heightening the characteristics of its gin rather than masking them.
The drink is essentially a gin Old Fashioned (which was actually, most agree, the original cocktail). It starts with a great gin, Ohio’s own Four Peel Watershed. A house-made syrup with oleo saccharum (a mix of citrus oil and sugar), fresh-squeezed juices, and rosemary takes the place of muddled fruit. The end result is a pleasing lime-green concoction that enhances Four Peel’s distinctive flavor profile. It’s a sweet, eminently sippable cocktail that’s about 87% gin.
Also try: The Black Lightning does for Scotch what the Citron Vert does for gin. And if Scotch and a high-end margarita had a baby and raised it in a cigar lounge, it might taste something like the Corrida, a drink made with smoky mezcal and herbaceous yellow Chartreuse.
It’s undeniable that the revival of The Flats has been a boon for the city, and it’s exciting to see crowded new bars and restaurants in a place once memorably described as "a Scooby-Doo ghost town." If you’d like something worthwhile for your river-view fees, you could stop into Bold Food & Drink.
The drink of note here is the Mint Passion. Its base liquor is vodka, a rarity for this list (and another betrayal of your correspondent’s biases). On top of that, the build is pretty simple: passion fruit puree, a mint leaf, and the kicker, habanero simple syrup. This is a syrup that provides more than a light touch of heat; it's a strong burn before ultimately bowing out to the tropical fruit and mint flavors.
Also try: The Bold Manhattan, which replaces sweet vermouth with a nutmeg- and vanilla-infused red wine reduction, comes highly recommended by the bar staff. It’s hard to go wrong with a Manhattan.
North Collinwood (or the Waterloo District, now) is one of the most pleasantly weird neighborhoods in Cleveland, and the Beachland Ballroom has been a fixture here since 2000. Order a cocktail during one of the Ballroom’s concerts and the bartenders will give you a funny look (and maybe toss you a Hamm’s). Order one during the famous Beachland brunch, however, and you will be rewarded with some of the most generous bang-for-your buck liquor concoctions in the city proper.
Try the Irish Breakfast, matching velvety Guinness with the peaty burn of Jameson, and lightening things up a bit with Kahlua. Beer cocktails can be gimmicky, but the smooth, foamy sweetness of this drink is a winning combo. Thankfully, the Beachland is in the process of making its full brunch menu available Saturdays as well.
Also try: With house-made ginger vodka, lime juice, and Champagne, Summer in a Glass drinks like a sweeter, stronger ginger beer and is even more refreshing than a booze-less one. For a similar effect, try the Beachland Blue, made with the same vodka. Served in pint glasses, the Ballroom brunch drink list is potent and sweet (but not overly), and at $7 each, Beachland’s drinks prove you don’t have to default on your student loans (again) to enjoy a quality cocktail.
Like the rest of the neighborhood, Jukebox at first appears to be hyper-trendy. It shares a block with a tea shop, a local soda producer, and a funky vintage-clothing store. It has an honest-to-goodness jukebox (screw you, TouchTunes!) and has vinyl record nights. It’s lucky that sometimes, what is trendy aligns with what is good. Known for its beer list championing the locals and pierogies like grandma makes 'em, Jukebox should also be commended for its always-rotating cocktail menu, one constantly utilizing the wares of nearby businesses.
A fixture has been the Cucumber Collins, a variant on the classic cocktail that replaces gin with vodka from Columbus distillery Watershed. Jukebox infuses that vodka with cucumbers, then tops it with cointreau and lemon soda on the dryer side from the folks down the street at Old City Beverage. The result is a drink with citrus sweetness that’s well-balanced and light. We’re not sure Hingetown has earned a title separate from Ohio City just yet, but places like Jukebox do some work to convince us.
Also try: Whatever juice cocktail is on the menu when you go to Jukebox, order it. It will surprise you, refresh you, and make you forget, for a moment, that you are slowly destroying your liver. The Kermit was there when we were, made with Watershed vodka, St-Germain (known as "the ketchup of bartenders" for its go-with-everything versatility), and an unexpected mixture of mango, pineapple, and jalapeño juices from neighboring juice bar Beet Jar.
Mabel’s BBQ, Michael Symon's newest Cleveland venture, runs on a mid-century, almost noir-y vibe, with its '30s-style neon sign outside and its '50s-style metal cooler of a bar inside. Symon’s approach to food -- fewer, better ingredients in original combinations -- works pretty well with the cocktails, too. Embrace your inner-child (and outer boozehound) by ordering the Sazerac Sno-Cone this summer.
An old-school machine shoots out a tiny mountain of shaved ice into a coupe glass (think a martini glass that’s sloped at the stem). The ice is topped with the ingredients of an authentic New Orleans Sazerac: rye (Mabel’s uses Old Overholt), an absinthe spray, and Peychaud’s bitters, a NOLA creation packing a Christmasy blend of cinnamon and cherry flavors. Jaggery, a dark, smoky East Indian sugar, makes the whole thing go down easy. It even comes with a Pinterest-worthy striped paper straw that won’t crumble when you drink from it.
Also try: Both of the Manhattans, the Fancy and the French Toast (though bar manager David Earle will be the first to tell you only one of them is an "actual" Manhattan), drink smooth and go great with your plate of pig ears. If you go with two or three brave friends, consider splitting the cost one of Earle’s bottle-aged cocktails: the Cleveland Hunt Club is an adventure in oak, vanilla, and smokiness.
Toast (named for the thing you do with your glass) is a grown-up bar in the best way, walking that fine line between hip and classy: drop-cloth curtains, car filter light fixtures, exposed brick under warm, jazz-club lighting. The sign says "wine bar," but the bartenders have a repertoire of over a hundred original cocktails and liquor concoctions behind the bar. Some of them seem pretty out there at first blush -- horseradish-infused vodka, anyone? -- but order an unexpected concoction like the Bolero and your daring will be rewarded.
The Bolero’s base spirit is mezcal, a smokier cousin to tequila that’s fairly new to the state (Ohio’s liquor laws are byzantine). The bartenders at Toast then throw in carrot juice, which gives the drink an earthy-orange color, then add mild heat with Ancho Reyes chile liqueur. A near-untraceable dash of pomegranate molasses cuts the mezcal’s bite without dampening its Scotch-like smokiness.
As a bonus, Toast features the discounted drinks and urban-farmed food of their Toasty Hour not once, but twice a night: once after work, and once for the late-night revelers and snackers.
Also try: The Red Ace is another creative cocktail that puts root vegetable flavors forward. Made from vodka infused in-house with beets, lemon, and thyme, it avoids the too-sour or too-bland pitfalls you risk when crafting what’s essentially a beet-juice martini. The Tasty Jade is a limey, refreshing drink made with Copper Kings Immature Brandy that’s way more herbal and complex than its base liquor’s name would suggest.
Death in New York
If the Porco tiki-vibe captures the spirit of the '50s and VTR’s jazz-lounge feel evokes the '40s, then Society is definitely your Roaring 20s, Gatsby-style bar. And we’re talking the edgy, Baz Luhrmann hip-hop Gatsby. Its elegant pillars, low-light chandeliers, and velvet-draped everything make it the perfect place to order a drink like Death in New York.
This modern cocktail draws its name and its flavors from two classics: Death in the Afternoon (a drink invented by Ernest Hemingway and named for one of his books) and the New York Sour. From the New York sour, we get bourbon -- Four Roses Yellow -- fresh lemon juice, and house-made pomegranate grenadine. From Hemingway’s grimly named cocktail, we get champagne and a light touch of Lucid absinthe. The result is a bubbly creation that starts light and citrusy on your tongue, then gives just a touch of memento mori bitterness from the absinthe at the end. Just don’t drink it by any pools.
Also try: There could be another 4,000 words written in praise of the Coco Fashioned, a drink that infuses bourbon with dark chocolate, bridging them perfectly with house-made mole bitters. The Mexican Monk is a brilliantly devised drink made with reposado tequila, Ancho Reyes liqueur for spiciness, and egg whites for a frothy top.
Full disclosure: your correspondent works part-time as a bar-back at this establishment (he can’t make your drink, but he’ll clean your glass for free). But if you take your Cleveland drinking seriously -- and we definitely do -- you’ll know that it’s impossible to talk about cocktails in the city without talking about Porco Lounge & Tiki Room.
With its wall-to-wall faux-Polynesian decor and bartenders decked out in Hawaiian shirts, Porco embraces the lighter side of the midcentury cocktail era. You can forget what you thought you knew about tiki drinks (which are actually contemporaries to the Boulevardier and those fancy Prohibition-era concoctions over at VTR) -- Porco goes for complexity and balance over the dominance of sweet or tart flavors.
Take the Singapore Sling. It’s a cherry-red drink that balances, rather than masks, its Tanqueray gin base with pineapple, lime, and Cherry Heering and orange liqueurs. Tanqueray’s dryness keeps the fruit flavors from decimating your palate, the mint sprig keeps it refreshing, and Benedictine brandy gives it light herbal notes at the end. A favorite among Porco bartenders, you can enjoy a couple of these without that too-sweet aftertaste lingering in your mouth. Just call an Uber after you do.
Also try: Porco takes pride in its rum selection and its housemade syrups, so try both by ordering a Fog Cutter. The almond and citrus flavors of the orgeat syrup balance a potent blend of four types of booze, and the addition of dry ice has smoke steaming off and bubbles percolating delightfully in your glass. And you might not expect to find a great bourbon drink at a tiki bar, but the Roman Twist is a balanced drink that successfully brings together powerful Booker's bourbon with both citrus and coffee flavors.
Back in the '90s, when "Ohio City" was a name used mostly by Cleveland historians and the idea of "farm-to-table" food would be a sitcom punchline, Karen Small opened a little eatery off West 25th St. Seventeen years later, Flying Fig continues to set the bar for restaurants across Cleveland, and lucky for us, it has a bar program to match.
Flying Fig’s cocktails, like its food, are made from local ingredients, thoughtfully prepared, and seasonal, so act quickly on the Rhubarb Smash. This is a cocktail that lets its fresh ingredients do their thing. Bourbon, along with vanilla and a fresh mint sprig, compliment and balance sweet tartness of the house-made rhubarb syrup. This is a whiskey cocktail you’ll be in imminent danger of finishing in about three sips.
If the Smash is gone by the time you make it to Flying Fig, fear not. The innovative bar staff will be coming up with new cocktails all summer long -- and some of them, like Mabel’s, will be incorporating an ice-shaver.
Also try: Peel Slowly and See is a fizzy and refreshing summer drink, and yet another reason to make Watershed’s Four Peel your top gin of choice. Smokey & the Bandit (not to be confused with the Manhattan-like concoction of the same name at Society) matches reposado tequila that’s been gently smoked in-house with sweet vermouth and Aperol for a sweet, almost campfire-like cocktail with some backbone.
Called "the gateway to Cleveland Heights," Cedar Fairmount is an elegant stretch of Tudor-style buildings with just a light dash of hipness. With its relaxed atmosphere, low-lighting, and wide-ranging beer list, The Fairmount captures that neighborhood’s vibe well. You’re as likely to run into your Coventry hipster friend there as you are to see your rich aunt from Pepper Pike.
A mainstay of this establishment has been a cocktail called the Winchester. Achieved through much experimentation, the Winchester’s smartest move is highlighting the bar’s house-made ginger beer. Made fresh from real ginger almost daily, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more satisfyingly spicy and crisp ginger beer in the city. That's paired with Watershed’s Bourbon Barrel gin and lime juice for a flavor that’s a distant cousin to the Kentucky Mule, but a dash of bitters and a light touch of St-Germain add depth and complexity that set the Winchester apart.
Also try: Anything on the menu using the Fairmount’s ginger beer is worth ordering, but it's also worth giving the Cuba Libre a try. It’s an interactive cocktail: you get a glass filled with Bacardi 8-Year, ice, and lime juice, and you get an opened bottle of Mexican Coke -- glass bottle, real sugar, the works. After that, the ratio is up to you. The depth and complexity of this drink’s flavors puts every rum and coke you’ve ever ordered to shame.
Old Tom Negroni
Griffin Cider House comes closer to replicating the experience of drinking in an actual British tavern than any of the so-called "pubs" you might find in suburban shopping strips across Northeast Ohio. It helps that it’s run by an actual Englishman. The Cider House specializes in two things that, in matters of drinking, the British do best: cider, which owner Richard Read makes himself, and gin. The cider is highly acclaimed, but we’ll focus on the gin. Cider House’s selection of over 45 varieties makes it the largest collection of gin in this and several other states.
The Old Tom Negroni adds a British twist to a classic Italian cocktail. It uses Ransom Old Tom gin, a caramel-colored gin aged in French oak barrels, as its base. Campari, the bitter, herbal liqueur that is the staple of the classic Negroni, lends an alluring dark red color to the drink. Carpano Antica, a vanilla sweet vermouth, is this cocktail’s equivalent of the easygoing guy who keeps his two hard-headed companions from beating the shit out of people.
This is a drink with the richness and vanilla tones of a whiskey cocktail with the crispness that Negroni drinkers expect. When the citrusy, fizzy drinks of summer fade, the strong, hard-won comfort of the Old Tom Negroni will sustain you through the fall and the winter.
Also try: The Frothy Mess embraces the lighter side of gin with lemon juice, cream, egg-white froth, and a molasses-like "golden syrup" from across the pond. And Cider House will soon be adding a Build-Your-Own Martini feature to the menu, which, as long as you let the bartender’s expertise guide you, will be a boon to you on your quest to find the ideal version of the classic drink.
These days, you can open a basement bar, put your bartenders in cabbie hats, and call it a speakeasy. Speakeasy gets you as close to the Prohibition experience as you possibly can. Enter through the backdoor of an old Cleveland Heights house barbershop, walk up a narrow staircase, and... actually, we're not going to give the entrance away here. It’s too much damn fun.
Suffice it to say you find yourself in a literal secret room whose dark wood-and-leather trappings seem picked to complement the bar’s excellent bourbon selection. You can get any number of those top-shelf bourbons neat, or you could order a Frisco Sour and redeem yourself for all the gross, pre-mixed sour drinks you chugged in college.
This drink is a beautiful illustration of balance: lemon juice cuts the Bulleit bourbon burn, Benedictine, an herbal liqueur, balances the acidity, and brings out the sweetness of the lemon juice. An egg white topping gives the whole thing an insanely creamy texture, and whiskey barrel-aged bitters with three Amarena Fabbri cherries on top give the whole thing latte-art beauty. Lucky for your upcoming bachelor party/second date you really want to impress, Speakeasy takes reservations. Call (216) 262-8288, ask for Dawn or Alex, and tell them you need to see a man about a horse (kidding, don't).
Also try: For your next round, stick with whiskey and order the Applejack Sazerac, made with applejack and rye from Chagrin Falls’ own Tom’s Foolery distillery. As a bonus, you get to drink the absinthe used for the rinse on the side. If that isn't appealing, try the Grapefruit Gin Fizz, Speakeasy’s more complex update to the classic cocktail.
There’s a misconception out there that quality cocktails must come from fancy establishments and be about as expensive as your first semester of college. But one of the more enjoyable things about drinking cocktails in Cleveland is finding great ones where you least expect it.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Mahall’s, Lakewood’s charmingly run-down bowling alley/music venue/bar on Madison, would be a strictly shot-and-beer kind of establishment. And you could certainly enjoy it that way, but then you’d miss out on drinks like the Jalisco Express, a tequila cocktail.
Tequila gets a bad rep on its own since most of us drank the cheapest, nastiest varieties possible as younger people. Perhaps as a result, most tequila drinks try to hide the spirit’s flavors by packing on the sweetness. The Jalisco Express keeps it light and simple: a base of Olmeca Altos Silver (mid-shelf, but smoother than Cuervo and all its knock-offs), fresh-squeezed lime, honey, and bitters. The result is something like the salt-shot-lime tequila experience with all the gross parts taken out.
Also try: The Grand Autumn is a lovely, Kentucky Mule-like drink that should be back on the menu come September. The Don Jon, a tequila old-fashioned, is the only drink I know in the city that comes with a cigarette. And for goodness’ sake, don’t write the food off either: the meat is locally sourced and free of hormones, and the fried chicken, served with an inspired touch of spicy honey, is maybe the best in the city.
Live piano jazz, a lush, Italian Renaissance-style back garden, fancy cheese plates -- Velvet Tango Room is elegant AF. It’s well-known to anyone who’s been there, but you pay for that elegance in spades -- $20 is a lot even for the finest of hand-crafted cocktails. There are ways around that: go for the happy hour for half-off all drinks, which is about as good a deal as you can find in the world of ultra-fancy cocktails.
VTR is known for the classics, but you won’t go wrong with an original cocktail here. Try the 5:15, a masterwork of cherry and lime submerged beneath a frothy pillow of egg whites. Sweet and acidic enough to satisfy your sugar cravings and boozy enough for the Rob Roy crowd, the 5:15 is a gin drink for people who don’t like gin (yet). Be sure to ask bartender Nina, the drink’s creator, for the story behind the title.
Also try: If you’ve never ordered some of the lesser-known classics like the Boulevardier, the Sidecar, or the French 75, this is the place to try them. The Velveteen, another VTR original, is like drinking a spicy ginger creamsicle. And just for fun, order the Ramos Gin Fizz, which calls for a six-minute shake, and see the cocktail-shaking robot behind the bar (seriously) do its work.
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