The bartender: You respect her because she stands between you and your drink, whether it be that first sip of cold beer at Friday Happy Hour or a nightcap at the watering hole down the street. If she’s busy, you wait. When she’s ready, you’re served.
But there‘s often more to tending bar than banging out a dozen Kamikaze shots at once. Inventive bartenders, inspired by century-old classics and the methods by which they were made, craft their own recipes and execute with precision and care. Mixology, as the field is known, seems to have skipped over the era of sugary sweet Fuzzy Navels and looks further back in time for inspiration. Today, Omaha abounds with bars that feature the work of dedicated mixologists, a creative force waiting to be drunk.
Whether shaken or stirred, a good cocktail begins with good ice. At House of Loom in Little Italy, distilled water is frozen into blocks and then fashioned into two-inch cubes or hand-cut balls with an ice pick. Since they melt much slower than ice from an industrial machine, your “whisky on the rocks” won’t become “whisky with water” too quickly.
Syrups are another key component, and those involved with crafting the cocktail recipes also have great fun fiddling with syrups to get them just right. The strawberry basil shrub, a type of cold pressed syrup with a hint of red wine vinegar, adds a punch of sweet and sour to the Margarita at House of Loom. The same shrub is also used in the Anne Boleyn, a bourbon cocktail not nearly as controversial as its namesake, though it does include an emulsified egg white, giving it a deliciously rich and smooth texture.
Juices for craft cocktails are almost always freshly squeezed. Some bars even make their own bitters: At the Side Door Lounge in Midtown, the current collection includes vanilla, coffee bean, and lavender rose. When added to the cocktail during preparation or as a garnish, bitters add yet another dimension of flavor.
And then there are the sodas. House of Loom brews a mean root beer. At the Boiler Room in the Old Market, the small-batch ginger beer is carbonated with champagne yeast. They also expertly infuse spirits with botanicals such as saffron, all in a matter of seconds using a nitrogen whipper. It’s chemistry meets booze, and the results are incredible.
The average maraschino cherry loses its luster after experiencing a craft cocktail, as garnishes are much more than just an afterthought. If you order an Old Fashioned at the Side Door, a slice of orange peel will adorn it, but only once it’s been lit on fire, and the orange’s essential oils are released into the drink. It’s Don Draper’s favorite with a pyro twist.
The average age of the craft cocktail bar in Omaha is about three years; LIV Lounge in Aksarben Village will embark on its fourth year of business this month. Their menu offers over one hundred classic and original craft cocktails made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients — and they’ve even got a bacon-infused vodka.
Just like a fine wine, a craft cocktail shouldn’t be overly sweet, bitter or sour, but a well-balanced mix of flavors. It should look snazzy and smell appealing. Don’t let the price tag deter you. With most craft drinks running from $7-12, it’s worth the extra few dollars to experience what are virtually drinkable works of art, creative expressions of the mixologists who created them.
In addition to the aforementioned, the Grey Plume in Midtown Crossing and the newer J. Coco on Leavenworth Street both feature intriguing craft cocktail lists, among others. But Ethan Bondelid of House of Loom assures us that even with so many budding craft cocktail bars, it’s “less about competition and building regulars, and more about educating the community.” Bar Manager Sam Bloomer describes his lounge the Side Door as a “laid back place where we’d love to teach you about liquors and preparations that you might not normally see in Omaha.” Thus, fear not if you’ve never heard of Crème de Violette and other rarities, for the mixologist behind the bar will be happy to describe them for you. Who says you can’t learn anything from sitting around at the bar?