Walking down the streets of downtown Cincinnati with native daughter Molly Wellmann (www.mollywellmann.com), it’s easy to see she’s the Queen of Cincy. Locals know and adore her, constantly stopping her in the street, waving as she passes by or greeting her warmly in restaurants, bars and even the historic Mercantile Library.
Wellmann put the city on the national bar map, winning numerous awards personally and with her bar Japp’s, named one of the top 18 cocktail bars in the country by David Wondrich in Esquire Magazine in 2016. Wellmann restored Japp’s — Originally a wig shop in 1879 — as a bar in 2011, honoring the history and name (last name of the original owner) of the striking storefront, recently renovating the space’s color and design in fall 2019.
Living 12 years in San Francisco from the 1990s into the aughts, Molly returned to Cincy to be closer to her family. She became a self-taught bartender and eventually a leader in pushing her city’s bars into the modern-day cocktail renaissance. Her passion for history and her city immediately resonated with classic cocktails and drink history. She is obsessed with spirits, visiting distilleries around her region, and is a huge bourbon, whiskey and craft spirits supporter with an extensive selection at Japp’s. Her vintage-and-tattoo style is likewise a signature, her colorful design aesthetic part of her vibrant, knowledgeable charm.
She is the mixology contributor for Bourbon+ Magazine and a regular speaker at Moonshine University in Louisville. In 2019, she was awarded the Best Bartender/Owner in the Nation accolade by Nightclub and Bar Media. In 2013, she published her book, Handcrafted Cocktails. Here, in her own words, the Queen of Cincinnati talks of her favorite places to eat and drink around the area, how she educates her bar staff and customers on spirits and what advice she’d give to distilleries looking to be represented in bars like hers.
What led you into the cocktail and bar world?
I was led into the cocktail world when I moved home from living in San Francisco. I first got a job at a restaurant that was looking for someone who knew how to make classic and craft cocktails. I really didn’t know how to make classic and craft cocktails as I did not do that in San Francisco, but I told them I did and went home and started researching and fell down the rabbit hole.
I loved everything about cocktails and especially the stories behind the cocktails. I loved that when you made a cocktail, it was like painting with flavors. I began making cocktails for people, then telling the stories behind them. I loved that people got an experience and not just a drink. The rest is history.
How does living in Cincy influence your bar’s style and operations?
Cincinnati is my home. I am a seventh-generation Cincinnatian and I’m so proud to be. When I opened Japp’s, I made sure to find out the background of the space and I used that history in making up the atmosphere of the bar. I also do a lot of research into the history of Cincinnati and I try to weave that history into cocktails as well. I did this with all of my bars — and with my events outside of the bar. Cincinnati is a magical place. You won’t feel it or know it until you actually come and experience it.
What is your philosophy on deciding what brands to stock?
My philosophy in deciding on what brands to stock and invest in at my bar depends on the quality of the brand and the story behind it. I need to know how to sell that brand and if there is no story behind it or maybe that brand’s story doesn’t fit mine — or the quality is low — it’s not for me or my brand.
How do you educate customers on new and quality spirits?
[At] Japp’s I make sure that my bartenders know at least a little something about every bottle on the back of the bar. We make sure we know exactly what we’re selling and how to use it. We go to great lengths to educate our guests on what they’re drinking. I believe that we are not just order takers: We are salespeople and we are selling what’s in the bottles on the back of the bar.
What advice would you give to distilleries looking to be represented in bars like yours?
The best advice I could give distilleries who would like to have their product represented in my bar is to know what kind of bar we are. Before presenting your product to us, make sure you visit first and experience what we’re about. Don’t just come in and cold call. Make sure your product fits our brand.
Also make sure you have a story that teaches us how to sell your product. We are not a bar that needs a cocktail list from you. Let us play around with your product to see what cocktails we can make ourselves. The best way for us to get to know you is for you to get to know us.
What are some microdistillers that are exciting you right now?
Oh, this is going to be a long list! Some of the small craft distillers that are exciting me right now are a lot of the local ones around here. I’m a huge fan of New Riff in Newport, Kentucky [our featured distiller interview this issue]. Also Second Sight’s (www.secondsightspirits.com) rums in Ludlow, KY.
I’m a big fan of Karrikin (https://karrikinspirits.com) and Northside Distilling (www.northsidedistilling.com), both here in Cincinnati. I’m looking forward to OTR Still House (www.otrstillhouse.com) and their gin coming on the market. I’m loving Boone County Distilling (https://boonedistilling.com): their whiskey and their gin.
I also am a huge fan of the Neeley Family Distillery (www.neeleyfamilydistillery.com) down in Sparta, KY. I love what they’re doing out at Spirits of French Lick (www.spiritsoffrenchlick.com), although I can’t get their product in Ohio yet. I do have their stuff at home and you can get it in Kentucky. Oh, we can’t forget what they’re doing up at The Staley Mill Farm and Indian Creek Distillery (www.staleymillfarmanddistillery.com) in New Carlisle, Ohio. Their Staley Rye is one of my favorites.
What are some of your top recommendations for food and drink in your city?
Oh, my goodness: This is going to be another long list! For drinks, besides Japp’s, of course, I highly recommend Longfellow, HomeMakers Bar, Lost and Found, Night Drop, Comfort Station, Bourbon Haus 1841, Hotel Covington, Braxton Brewing Company and Rich’s Proper Food and Drink.
For food, I recommend Ruby’s, Sacred Beast, Sotto, Goose & Elder, Salazar, Restaurant L, The Table, Libby’s Southern Comfort, Otto’s, Bouquet Restaurant, Red Feather. There’s this hole-in-the-wall in Covington, Kentucky, called Herb and Thelma’s Tavern that I just love. These are just skimming the surface of the amazing places to eat and drink in Cincinnati.