The first of three installments on cocktails in Omaha calls for one part experience, one part skill, and one part passion as we chat with some of the Old Market’s best craft bartenders.
The New Kids on the Block
Brock Miller was general manager at the venerable Bourbon Theater in Lincoln before he met Ethan Bondelid, co-owner at House of Loom, last year.
Bondelid was looking to open a new craft cocktail bar. Brock had a passion for cocktails. A match was made.
Together with Luke Edson, who also worked at the Bourbon, he moved to Omaha last year with the goal of helping to develop the extensive original cocktail list at Bondelid’s newest endeavor, The Berry and Rye, in the Old Market.
Miller was quick to point out his favorites on the bar’s new spring and summer menu.
The first, Trinidad Smoke, is a Miller original. It involves Zaya rum and house-made cinnamon clove bitters. The syrup is made with tobacco from S.G. Roi Tobacconist down the street, and the final ingredient comes from Miller’s hand smoker, infusing the drink with a layer of earthy smoke.
Served tableside, patrons can roll the smoke around in the carafe, until they decide it’s time to pour over a crystal-clear ice sphere. While a Trinidad Smoke might not be the best choice for those trying to get off the nicotine, it’s great for a sophisticated night on the town. “I had been trying to use Zaya in a cocktail forever, and this one really draws out the natural smoky component of the rum,” said Miller.
Another drink, Lily’s Dinner Party, was Edson’s original concept. The inspiration was a friend named Lily, and the wasabi and cucumber on crackers she served at a dinner party. This one begins with Broker’s gin, muddled cucumber, a little freshly squeezed lime juice, and simple syrup. He then adds wasabi paste with a cooking syringe, for accuracy. An egg white, for texture, rounds out the recipe. The result is a frothy, slightly spicy, fresh-tasting drink, garnished with a gorgeous ribbon of cucumber.
The Berry and Rye, located in the former space of Myth, a martini bar, will hold a grand opening at the end of May. They didn’t close when the bar changed hands in January; rather, the transition has been gradual as they welcome new furnishings, including an industrial reverse osmosis water filter.
Patrons are now able to see through the ice spheres fashioned with a Japanese press. It is this attention to detail that drew Miller away from managing the 1000-set concert venue in Lincoln, and into the world of locally sourced craft cocktails in the Old Market.
The Secret is Out
In comparison, Binoy Fernandez essentially grew up on Howard Street: his mother is the proprietor of the area’s premiere Indian restaurant, Indian Oven, which opened in 1984.
Three years ago he left a career in finance to manage the restaurant. Soon after, his talent for concocting craft cocktails began to flourish.
He started by serving his specialty drinks in a speakeasy-style bar below the restaurant, IO Speak. As word got out, he constructed a full bar in the main dining room, and rebranded the entire space as IO Street, a concept that embraces both the speakeasy and the Indian restaurant components. While his popular drinks might not be a secret, the speakeasy vibe is going strong.
Fernandez is particularly interested in the history of cocktails, and that’s one of the reasons he chose a drink with some history behind it – the Bombay Black – as his favorite.
Some say the name is a nod to the Indian city and the main ingredient – Johnnie Walker Black. Others know it as a type of hashish sold in Bombay. “I’ve gotten a few dirty looks and raised eyebrows from those who know what’s going on with the name,” Fernandez explains, laughing. A cocktail needs a little mischief behind it.
After the Johnnie Walker, he adds Marie Brizard raspberry liqueur, a French product regarded by Fernandez as the gold standard. He then pours in house-made black cardamom syrup, which not only matches the Indian spices, it also lends its woodsy characteristics to play against the peaty flavor of the Scotch. Lemon juice – squeezed to order – finishes the recipe, before it’s shaken vigorously with ice and strained.
Many bartenders talk about their “shake.” Fernandez explains: “I actually take a stance, and I’m violent with my shake, over my shoulder right by my ear.”
It’s not just his cocktail shaking he’s serious about. “When I take an interest in something, it’s not a mild interest. It’s intense. Fortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of good food and good drink, so I think I’m in the right business for that.”
You can find Brock Miller and Luke Edson behind the bar at The Berry and Rye, 1105 Howard Street, open daily from 5p.m. – 2a.m. Call 402.613.1331 or visit theberryandrye.com for details. Binoy Fernandez is at IO Street most evenings at 1010 Howard Street. The restaurant is open Mondays – Saturdays, 11:30a.m. – 2p.m. and 5p.m.- 10p.m. Call 402.342.4856 or visit indianovenomaha.com for details.
Next month, we’ll investigate the top 13 cocktail hours in Omaha.