I recently spent a lovely weekend in the greater Cincinnati area, which of course included sampling the local bourbon offerings. Ask any Cincinnatian where to drink bourbon and you’re likely to get at least two recommendations: Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar and Japp’s Since 1879, both co-owned by mixologist, author and delightful personality Molly Wellmann. As the name would imply, OKBB is located across the river from Cincinnati, in Covington’s Mainstrasse Village. Look for the Kentucky flag out front.
The place is fairly small but we arrived early enough to belly up to the copper-topped bar, where we had a good view of the many, many bottles of whiskey. OKBB focuses on Kentucky bourbon but stocks the stuff from other states as well. I sampled some Breckenridge Bourbon distilled in Colorado; watch for tasting notes soon. The bar also serves up some fine bourbon cocktails - try a Tombstone.
The following night, we headed to Cincinnati’s up-and-coming Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where Japp’s is located in a former wig and hat shop. From the pressed-tin ceiling to the “WIGS” sign, Molly has done an masterful job of retaining the historic building’s charm while adding a gorgeous bar - and perhaps as important, NOT adding any TVs. The blare of televisions is so omnipresent in most bars that you don’t even question it, but it was so refreshing to see absolutely everyone in the bar engaged in actual conversations. Well done, Molly.
Japp’s specializes in classic cocktails from the 1700s to the 1950s. There is no drink menu; you can order something by name, but it’s much more fun to give the bartenders either an ingredient to use or a general description of what you’re hoping for and let them work their magic.
Above, for example, in response to my request for a cocktail using rye, the bartender mixed a classic Sazerac, setting the absinthe ablaze before pouring it into the glass. A drink AND a show.
My husband requested a cocktail that would include an intriguing cherry liqueur he had noticed on the shelf behind the bar, and was presented with a Blood and Sand, which is one of the few cocktails mixed with Scotch whisky. We are not Scotch drinkers, but the cocktail was precisely what my husband had envisioned. To finish the evening, I asked for a cocktail that could serve as dessert, and the resulting Bourbon Flip, with egg white, cream and a sprinkling of nutmeg, could not have been any more spot-on. I will definitely be back.
I wrote earlier about my visit to New Riff Distillery in Newport, Ky., on the campus of The Party Source. While we were in the neighborhood, we checked out the Party Source’s Spirits Library, where you can buy samples from a wide variety of spirits, some quite rare - including the elusive Pappy 23-Year-Old. It had been several years since I’d sipped the 23, so I sprang for the pricey pour ($14 for half an ounce). Guys, I know people are paying through the nose for this stuff, and I’m certainly not saying that it’s not good, but for my palate it’s just too oaky. I still prefer the 15 or the 20. (If you were planning to buy me a bottle of 23, though, you go right ahead; I won’t be offended.)
A couple of notable cocktails at other fine restaurants in Over-the-Rhine:
The Bruce Banner at Salazar. Bruce is the alter-ego of The Hulk, and just as he undergoes a metamorphosis, so does this drink, although sort of in reverse. The bartender puts a frozen block of blackberries, basil and bitters into a glass, then pours Four Roses over it. As the cube melts, the drink gets progressively sweeter and mellower. (I drank it with a steak and potatoes, whereupon my husband observed I was “eating like a man.” Whatever.)
The Sting Ray at The Anchor. I went with the nautical theme and ordered this refreshing mix of Buffalo Trace bourbon, Carpano Antica, lime juice and ginger syrup, which I sipped while enjoying a view of Washington Park.
And to prove that I didn’t just drink on this trip, here are The Anchor’s wonderful sea scallops with miso corn salad and bacon.