In the final installment of The Reader craft cocktail series, we take a look at the future of craft cocktails in Omaha.
We can’t predict the future, but we can see how the image of the bartender – slinging mixed drinks with both hands – might expand to also include more of a craft sensibility, the way the work of a renowned chef might garner attention. The thought of young ones telling their parents they want to be craft bartenders when they grow up comes to mind.
Chris Wray, general manager and cocktail expert at Pitch Pizzeria, will tell you there’s nothing wrong with that. An integral force behind Pitch’s beverage program since they opened in 2009, Wray introduced an array of classics (think Negroni and The Last Word), while also focusing on originals (Allman Brothers Lemonade and Cucumber Basil Sparkler).
A neighborhood away in Benson, the team at Jake’s Cigars and Spirits, including co-owner John Larkin and general manager Alex Diimig, are busy brainstorming with Lincoln-based cocktail veteran Diana Gutsche. With the help of Larkin, Diimig, and co-owner Alex Roskelley, she will be the head of Bitters, a craft cocktail bar and small plates restaurant set to open next summer in the current Beercade spot. (Beercade will move one door down on Maple Street.)
The key to the future may well lie in the hands of those who are most willing to push the boundaries. Here’s what some of the movers-and-shakers have to say.
There’s a whole world of boutique and small-batch liquors out there just waiting to be discovered. Wray prefers hard-to-find to tried-and-true when it comes to liquor selection. If you’re unsure of what Ransom Old Tom Gin is like, just ask.
The Bitters crew plans to dabble in the science behind the cocktails. “With technology changing the bar scene so much, there’s so many things you can do now that you couldn’t do in the past,” Gutsche tells us. As for the details, well, we’ll just have to wait. “The science is quite limitless,” she says.
It’s not good to dwell on the past. Classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan will always have a place in our hearts, but both crews are intent on highlighting their own creativity.
“We played with the idea of doing a prohibition-style bar, but in the end we wanted to claim something new,” Diimig explains.
The bartenders at Pitch would agree. The Beetdown – a recurring daily special – is made with vodka, lemon and beet juices squeezed to order, shaken with a slice of jalapeno. The savory, earthy, spicy drink is surprisingly balanced.
Wray’s one-time attempt to garnish a drink with a popsicle on a hot day wasn’t as successful, but it’s good to learn from your mistakes.
“Made from scratch” is the name of the game.
Pitch has crafted their cocktails with freshly squeezed juices from the start. Wray waxes poetic over the black diamond watermelons and Bing cherries from the Cream of the Crop farm stand near 77th and Cass Streets. This appreciation for fresh, local produce is why the sangria – called “The New Water” on the Pitch menu – rotates ingredients often.
Larkin and Co. have a chef lined up to develop small plates that will compliment the cocktails. As a bar with sharable appetizers, Bitters plans to keep their kitchen stocked with garden-fresh ingredients. “It’s a new world of foodies meets what they’re now calling ‘drinkies’,” Gutsche explains.
And as the number of “drinkies” is clearly on the rise, the question remains: will craft cocktails of the 2010s go the way of the Fuzzy Navel of the ‘80s, or even the Cosmopolitan of the ‘90s? Only time will tell. For now, let’s enjoy the moment, preferably with a Shirley Templeton in hand.