Bordering Kentucky and Indiana, Cincinnati is Ohio’s third most populated city — after Columbus, then Cleveland — with a population of roughly 300,000. Cincy, as it’s often referred to, recalls the brick-and-steel-lined industrial scrappiness of Northeast cities, combined with a Southern gentility akin to neighboring Kentucky, just across the Ohio River. With a heavy history of German immigrants and river trade, Cincy is a hard-working town peppered with refreshing hints of beauty found in its 1870s Genius of Water/Tyler Davidson fountain or striking Cincinnati Music Hall.
Pre-pandemic, distilleries have been sprouting up across the region in recent years, in keeping with much of the US and globe. But just a short 30-minute drive away in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, legendary MGP (www.mgpingredients.com) dominates the region’s distilling history. Its distillery complex dates back to 1847, famously purchased by Seagram in 1933, owned by Pernod Ricard for a period, then eventually, in 2011, becoming MGP Ingredients. Diageo is the distillery’s biggest customer and MGP is known for distilling roughly 50 different brands, including Angel’s Envy, Bulleit Rye, George Dickel Rye, High West, James E. Pepper, Redemption and Smooth Ambler. Although renowned for their rye and bourbon, they also distill neutral spirits and in recent years, released their own products: Till Vodka, George Remus Bourbon, Eight & Sand Bourbon, Tanner’s Creek Bourbon and Rossville Union Straight Rye Whiskey.
New Riff in Newport, KY [https://newriffdistilling.com; our featured distiller interview this issue], has been an immediate local standout for their bourbon, rye and “wild gin.” Second Sight (www.secondsightspirits.com) produces bourbon and a range of rums just across the river from Cincy in Ludlow, KY. In Independence, KY, Boone County Distilling (https://boonedistilling.com) produces whiskey and gin. Another Kentucky distiller a further drive out is Neeley Family Distillery (www.neeleyfamilydistillery.com) in Sparta, distilling bourbon, flavored moonshines and other whiskeys.
In Cincinnati proper, you’ll find Karrikin (https://karrikinspirits.com), Northside Distilling (www.northsidedistilling.com), slated-to-open at press time OTR Still House (www.otrstillhouse.com), Woodstone Creek Winery and Distillery (www.woodstonecreek.com) and Robert James Distillery (https://robertjamesdistillery.com). Consistent with the region, most distill whiskeys, gin, some vodka and even American agave (at Northside).
Our bar manager interview this issue, Molly Wellmann (p. 166), has been a Cincy cocktail pioneer the past decade, bringing the city up to speed with classic cocktails and current trends. She paved a way before there were many bars of note for the cocktail geek in Cincy. Though years behind some mid-sized cities in terms of the cocktail renaissance, the region has especially rushed into the game the past year or so with a good portion of our 10 standout bars opening in 2019. In my on-the-ground research in late 2019, there were some bars where a strong whiskey selection, such as at the four locations of Wise Guys, couldn’t make up for too-sweet cocktails, or the inconsistent cocktails in bars like Sundry & Vice didn’t keep step with atmospheric space.
In these brutal times of pandemic, we know a good majority of our beloved bars have had to close nationally and many won’t be able to reopen. We are hoping in a region like this, that was really beginning to hit its stride in terms of a burgeoning cocktail scene, that all will survive and continue the forward trend of quality spirits, balanced cocktails and inviting spaces. In the spirit of hope, we tribute some bar standouts — and a couple historic gems — in the Greater Cincinnati area. Along with all the local distillers, we pray all will survive as we push through the pandemic. Please refer to individual websites for ways to support during this time, whether via gift certificates, delivery/takeout or GoFundMe pages.
Longfellow and Longfellow’s The Other Room, Cincinnati
D.C. native Mike Stankovich moved to Cincy in 2015 after years at bars in NYC and Boston with plans to open his own bar/restaurant. In 2017, he opened Longfellow with its striking green, horseshoe-shaped bar flanked by brick walls. A thoughtful wine and beer selection is matched by dishes like yellow curry and rice or PB&H sandwiches (tahini, peanut butter, spicy honey, cherry jam on sourdough), and straightforward, balanced cocktails, such as a shiso variation of a classic Tiki Painkiller.
Especially memorable is their cozy back bar, The Other Room, behind a back door in Longfellow’s and with its own separate street entrance. Inspired by “grandparents’ basements,” the vintage art and vinyl-lined space offers Ohio’s largest rum selection and proper absinthe service. Cocktails are deliciously fun, like Backward’s Walk: mezcal, Plantation Xaymaca rum, Campari, Giffard banana liqueur, coffee bitters, absinthe and citric acid. longfellowbar.com; longfellowbar.com/other-room
Molly Wellmann [our bar manager interview this issue] was instrumental in putting Cincinnati on the national bar map, helping launch numerous bars over the years that raised standards across the city with her historic study of cocktails. Wellmann opened Japp’s in 2011 in a colorful, high-ceiling space that was a wig shop by the same name of the original owner back in 1879. Making David Wondrich’s Esquire Magazine top national bars list in 2016, Japp’s numerous awards continue as Wellman was awarded Best Bartender/Owner in the Nation by Nightclub and Bar Media. Expect a well-informed staff who know their spirits (from the extensive collection behind the bar) and shake up easy-drinking cocktails listed on a board, sometimes themed, as with series of Orson Welles’ films cocktails, like Lady of Shanghai Spritz (gin, Aperol, pear, orange blossom, sparkling water, Asian pear garnish). wellmannsbrands.com/japps1879
Open mid-2019, HomeMakers Bar is an overall standout in Cincy, in part due to its chill, friendly staff, in part due to its bright peaches, yellows and blues evoking a 1980s retro vibe with an almost Caribbean-like sense of cheer. On the drink side, they are the bar in town for well-crafted low-proof/ABV drinks and aperitifs, like Hires to You, with its light touch of rum, root beer-infused Cocchi Americano aperitif wine, marmalade, lemon and absinthe, fizzy with seltzer. homemakersbar.com
Lost & Found OTR, Cincinnati
Camilo Otalora and Steven Clement opened Lost & Found OTR mid-2019, easily one of the most playful spaces in town. Vivid tropical wallpaper and teal walls enhance a lively mural (painted by local artist Cody Gunningham) of jazz, soul and R&B legends like Whitney Houston. Drinks walk that fine line of simple (3–5 ingredients) but interesting. Case in point: Betelguese (named from the movie) combines gin, beets, dill, lemon and Dijon mustard. Mother’s Milk, with its base of gin, Green Chartreuse and Luxardo Maraschino, gains texture and herbaceousness from whey and basil. lostandfoundotr.com
The Bar at Palm Court, Cincinnati
I’ll be honest: You don’t head to the Bar at Palm Court in the Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel for the drinks. The lofty, massive dining room and bar is an art deco masterpiece from a hotel that opened in 1931, a movie-worthy setting that is incentive enough. Two-story murals, dramatic art deco wall lighting and live jazz most nights and during Sunday brunch make it a historic treasure and a bar worth preserving, though one wishes for higher cocktail standards and a menu revamp. orchidsatpalmcourt.com/about-us
Comfort Station, Cincinnati
Another mid-2019 newcomer, Comfort Station sits in a historic Cincy building entered via two doors, marked “Men” and “Women” (it was formerly a public restroom). The back patio is a draw all its own, centered amid brick-walled buildings and dotted with brightly-colored vintage lawn furniture. Inside is just as appealing with a skylight, greenery and a lush blue banquette. In addition to bottled, draft and seasonal cocktails, they do right by whiskey and rum. A Mai Tai twist, Oh My, My, Mai Tai, was a recent standout. The common tiki combo of rum, grapefruit, lime and orgeat was given intriguing nuance from a kick of balsamic vinegar. publiccomfortstation.com
Though a restaurant (not a bar), Fausto at the CAC is one of the most notable Cincy restaurants and does feature cocktails. Cincy natives, the Ferrari brothers lived for many years in San Francisco — and are still involved in their coffee shop and restaurant there. Returning to Cincy in 2019, they opened both Fausto and idyllic wine bar/coffee shop (in an old house) Mom ’N ’Em. Fausto’s all-day space in the Contemporary Arts Center is artful, modern and inviting, as is Tony Ferrari’s California-influenced food, reflecting CAC’s diversity and abundance of farm-fresh, seasonal ingredients (try his gourmet-yet-comforting “potato & eggs” with crème fraîche, trout roe and chives). Brother Austin is behind a thoughtful wine list, which includes their own Santa Maria (California) Pinot Noir. Cocktails during my visit were uneven but ambitious, like Queen of the Curve (vodka, kaffir lime, honey, oat milk, turmeric). A tighter hand could make this as much a cocktail destination as it is for food and wine.
Wodka Bar, Cincinnati
Ask hardcore spirits geeks to go to a vodka bar and you’ve lost them. But Wodka Bar, opened in May 2019, is not “just” a vodka bar. In the heart of Cincy’s Over-the-Rhine district, this is a chic space (vintage wood bar, yellow banquette, stained glass) tributing Russian food and vodka traditions with a mixture of Russian grandma coziness via vintage plateware and urban elegance. A key draw is the house pierogi (especially 4-Way, a Cincy tribute of dumplings filled with vegetarian Cincinnati chili, topped with cheddar cheese, sour cream, onions and Cincy staple Frank’s RedHot). Pair Eastern European/Russian bites with more savory drinks like Borschtini: beet and horseradish-infused vódka, olive brine, pickle juice and celery bitters. wodkabarotr.com
Commonwealth Bistro, Covington, KY
A short walk across the Ohio River to the Kentucky side, Commonwealth Bistro is a charming, historic house in Covington’s Mainstrasse neighborhood, and one of the town’s standout restaurants since 2016. Opened by Chris and Tess Burns, the farm-to-table menu complements a small bar downstairs — flanked by Tess’s family jukebox — with an upstairs deck gazing over the town. In my recent visit, they created a refreshing Till Vodka cocktail enhanced by sarsaparilla syrup, lemon, orange blossom water and absinthe. Another Covington bar standout? Hotel Covington’s (https://hotelcovington.com) sprawling, whiskey-centric lobby bar. commonwealthbistro.com
Housed in two 1830s buildings with a covered patio, Arnold’s Bar and Grill is a quirky, incomparable Cincy treasure. Simon Arnold opened this saloon in 1861, where the bar feels in the company of the nation’s historic dive bars packed with longtime locals. This is the “real” Cincinnati, especially when larger-than-life former owner, city council member and Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell breezes through and fills you in on Arnold’s storied history, from a bathtub gin tub upstairs to hand-carved wooden doors of a naked older couple sitting atop fruit with goblets in hand. As with many legendary dives, this is no cocktail haven, though they do barrel-aged cocktails (an on-menu “caramel apple cosmo” tells you all you need to know). But they do house a deep bourbon/American whiskey collection and craft beers, worthwhile sips in a place of this character. www.arnoldsbarandgrill.com