There's a fun and delicious trend sweeping the nation, and much to the delight of the drinking public, it has made its way to the Sooner State.
That’s right. Dust off your bitters and get your syrups and shakers – or stirrers – ready: The craft cocktail movement has arrived.
Forward-thinking restaurants and bars are learning that great wine and beer lists alone do not make a great bar, and that handsome, sophisticated drinks made with first-rate ingredients are the perfect way to vamp up a cocktail menu for today’s mainstream clientele.
“More people are starting to appreciate what they are drinking, so customers are pretty receptive to trying new drinks. We try our best to provide them with the tools they need to experiment and have fun with it,” says Kyle Fleischfresser, head bartender at Lobby Bar in Oklahoma City. “We also want to pay more respect to the history of alcohol. I think it’s important to know where our products come from.”
Lobby Bar, which is located in the nostalgic Will Rogers Theater in Oklahoma City, is an ideal venue to test taste buds, with a less hectic atmosphere than many other bars – a perfect place to sit, sip and converse with good company.
Specializing in tried-and-true classic cocktails, such as Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and even classic margaritas as their base, Lobby Bar has also become known for its selection of craft cocktails, which tend to stray a little more off the beaten path.
Fleischfresser says that although some cocktails are not for the uninitiated, a lot of them are great for taking old favorites and delivering somewhat of a facelift in order to take customers to new levels.
“The classics are always going to be popular because they are simple and basic. They’re classic for a reason. But with our house cocktails, we kick it up a notch,” he explains.
“A lot of people will still always want the same thing, but some will start wanting something different, because once they get the bug, they want to start experimenting more.”
Most people who are going to order cocktails will initially order a basic gin and tonic or whiskey-soda variety, but with the encouragement and in-the-know skills of a good barkeep, vamped up cocktails with contemporary flair are bringing a resurgence of older drinks that have gone out of fashion back into style.
Take gin-based cocktails, for example, which are making their way back onto menus in a big way.
These drinks give a nod to the 1920s, when bathtub gin of the Prohibition era tasted so bad it had to be mixed with other ingredients to find ways to turn it into something people wanted to drink.
Although old-school cocktails were once made with lots of ingredients out of necessity, these days there is a lot of mighty fine alcohol available, and additional ingredients really add pizzazz.
This being said, the right ingredients have the ability to set a bar apart and give it signature flair.
The bar at Local in Norman does this by incorporating house-made syrups and infusions into its craft cocktails, which keeps within the mindset of Local’s mission as a whole: Use local, sustainable, seasonal ingredients whenever possible.
“We really bring that same commitment into our bar,” says Dana Nixon Moffer, bar manager at Local. “There are a lot of things we don’t grow here in Oklahoma, but in those cases we try to involve the local economy somehow. We don’t grow tequila, but we grow the peppers that we infuse into the tequila, and we get flavorings from local businesses like Forward Foods.”
As far as Local’s cocktails go, patrons love them.
Moffer says that one of the greatest things about these “designer drinks” is that they both complement and expand on the dining experience itself.
Mixologists from Lobby Bar, Local, Valkyrie and Vintage 1740 share craft cocktail recipes that you can make at home – if you have the ingredients.
“I think that we are definitely on the upswing of seeing great cocktails coming into vogue in more places. The more places start offering wider varieties of cocktails, the more people will learn about what is out there, and that benefits us all in the restaurant community as a whole,” she explains.
“Once you start getting into craft cocktails, and that’s what you crave, it’s kind of like when you start getting into food: You want to start experimenting with them on your own. You want to start exploring and learning the history of different things. You become a little more adventurous.”
Early on, a few enterprising Tulsa bartenders took note of the resurgence of classic cocktails and the growth of craft cocktails that was exploding in places such as New York, Portland, San Diego and New Orleans and knew this was a trend that had legs.
Vintage 1740: A Wine Bar opened its doors in 2004 in Tulsa’s South Boston entertainment district. As the name suggests, the bar’s emphasis is on wine; regulars simply call it “the wine bar.” As the first dedicated wine bar in Tulsa, Vintage attracted an enthusiastic following from the beginning with its carefully curated, rotating selection of wines from around the world.
Vintage offered a full bar when it opened, but when current owner/operator Matt Sanders joined in 2006, he wanted to up the ante with a selection of historically accurate classic cocktails and modern takes on traditional favorites, believing that customers with a taste for fine wines would also enjoy cocktails with a similar approach to flavors and quality.
“One of the first things I did was get rid of all the artificially flavored spirits, and we started making our own flavorings,” says Sanders. “I wanted everything that we do to be about quality over quantity.”
In doing so, Vintage became a pioneer in reintroducing such ingredients as aperitifs, homemade syrups and bitters, fresh squeezed juices and fresh herbs to the Tulsa bar scene and bringing the craft cocktail craze to Oklahoma.
Vintage still focuses on wine, but the bar maintains a regular cocktail menu that draws heavily on the classics and is augmented throughout the year with seasonal cocktails and others dreamed up by the staff. Drinks that range from the simple, such as the Pimm’s Cup and the French 75, to the more labor intensive The Deuce – Grand Marnier, Cruzan 151, Doubleshot cold brew coffee, orange juice, honey and Regan’s orange bitters – and Next Wednesday, a concoction of Plymouth Gin, house-made falernum, lemon, lime, orange, simple syrup, hopped-grapefruit bitters and soda water.
Sanders says one difference between Vintage and what other bars focused on craft cocktails are doing is an emphasis on creating their own drinks from scratch.
“We’ve done spins on classics and variations of things we’ve seen in bars in New York and elsewhere, but oftentimes it’s total creativity. (Bartender) Jon Paul (Pope) creates things all on his own,” he says.
Vintage helped pave the way for a range of Tulsa bars that threw out the soda guns along with the sweet and sour mix. One of the newest is Valkyrie, a swank yet cozy spot in the trendy Brady Arts District that opened in June 2012. Cocktails are the main event at Valkyrie, and the owners and staff have an almost fanatical devotion to the art of craft cocktails.
“We say we’re about playfully making serious drinks,” says Aaron Post, who is co-owner, along with Tony DeLesDernier. “We take the cocktails very seriously, but little else. There’s no pretention, except the inherent pretention of the drinks themselves.”
And they’re dead serious. Valkyrie staff makes as many ingredients in house as possible; they squeeze fresh juices daily, make their own syrups, cola and even tonic water – Post can give a dissertation on the flavors of cinchona bark and citrus that gives his tonic a flavor far superior to what you buy at the supermarket.
Although they’re not the only player in the craft cocktail game, Post believes they stand heads and tails above the rest through sheer dedication.
“We take an all-encompassing approach to cocktails,” he says. Noting that the bar has a current repertoire of around 250 drinks, and every member of the staff is trained to make them all in exactly the same way.
Valkyrie spotlights 14 cocktails on its menu each week, along with 14 beers and 10 wines, but you can order anything from the repertoire. Just not a vodka Red Bull.
“We don’t sell any energy drinks,” Post laughs, “but if someone asks for that, we take it as an opportunity to talk to the client about what flavors and types of drinks they like and find something that might suit their tastes. More often than not they’re pleased.”
The time the staff spends with customers, not to mention the amount of time it takes to make some of the cocktails served at Valkyrie, comes at a price – the staff must carefully regulate the occupancy of the bar, not by what the fire code dictates, but by what they can manage.
“We compare it to being seated at a restaurant. We hold the door at 60 so that when you come in, you have a good experience and your bartender is able to spend time with you and not just sling a drink at you,” says Post.
Post says the reception to Valkyrie has been great.
“The concept has worked. People come in that may have never has a classic cocktail, and we make a point to never be pompous and make everyone feel comfortable,” he says. “We take them on a ride and let them experiment.”
Fruit of the Vine
Placed firmly within what gourmands on the coasts consider fly-over territory, you might think Oklahoma wouldn’t be on the radars of the world’s top wine makers. You’d be wrong. Most vintners are well acquainted with Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and it isn’t at all uncommon to find big names in the wine industry pouring their varietals at a wine dinner or festival in the Sooner State. At one such event in 2012, a high-end vintner shared with a crowd of local foodies that he comes to Oklahoma at least once a year for a simple reason: We know good wine and we’re willing to pay for it. Lest you think he was blowing smoke, consider that seven Oklahoma restaurants were included in Wine Spectator magazine’s “World’s Best Wine Lists” in 2012. Not bad for a state of this size.
Receiving the magazine’s coveted Best of Award of Excellence were Tulsa’s Polo Grill, a perennial presence on the list, and Opus Prime Steakhouse in Oklahoma City. Restaurants on this list must have a wine list with at least 400 selections and with comprehensive coverage of at least one of the world’s major wine regions. Also making the list were Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar and Platt College’s Foundations Restaurant, in Tulsa, Nonna’s Euro-American Ristorante and Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse in Oklahoma City and Boulevard Steakhouse and Martini Lounge in Edmond.
Eight Other Noteworthy Wine Lists
| The Coach House,|
| Red Primesteak,|
| Sonoma Bistro & Wine Bar,|
| Palace Café,|
| Vintage 1740,|
Even the most impartial observer must note that Oklahoma’s liquor laws aren’t exactly keeping up with the times. However, despite legal hurdles, a growing number of local brewers are turning out great beers and finding an enthusiastic market for their brews.
Choc Beer: The granddaddy of Oklahoma beers traces its origins to the famous beer made by Pietro “Pete Prichard” Piegari in Krebs, Okla., in 1919. In 1995, Pete’s grandson, Joe Prichard, began commercial – and legal – production of Choc Beer. Today, Choc produces more than a dozen craft beers from the original 1919 brew to its Signature line. www.chocbeer.com
Marshall Brewing Company: In 2008, Eric Marshall brought the first production scale microbrewery to Tulsa. Marshall now makes four brews year round and a rotating selection of seasonal beers. www.marshallbrewing.com
COOP Ale Works: What began as a homebrew hobby has turned into brisk business for a trio of Oklahoma City friends. COOP began commercial production in 2009 and produces six beers year round. www.coopaleworks.com
Mustang Brewing Company: OKC couple Tim and Carmen Schoelen sold their house and put everything on the line to begin producing Mustang beers in 2009. They now make four beers full time and a selection of seasonal and specialty beers. www.mustangbrewing.com
Other Oklahoma Breweries
| Battered Boar Brewing Company|
| Redbud Brewing Company|
| Anthem Brewing Company|
| Black Mesa Brewing Company|
These are restaurants with onsite breweries. In Oklahoma, these establishments may not make beer in excess of 3.2% alcohol by weight.
| Bricktown Brewery|
| Royal Bavaria|
| Belle Isle Restaurant & Brewing Company|
| Coach’s Brewhouse|