With its large variety of restaurants, delis and pubs to choose from, one thing is for sure: Ithaca knows how to eat. But with any good meal, one needs a good drink, and it’s hard to beat a well-crafted cocktail. However, choosing which liquor elixir to sip on can be tough, so The Ithacan has taken the guesswork out of the cocktail game and asked bartenders at some of the most creative joints around town to dish out their menu’s heavy hitters.
The Wax Poetic — Argos Inn, 408 East State Street
Dusky, sensual and markedly intimate, the space at Bar Argos, located on the first floor of the Argos Inn, is a handsome fusion of speakeasy and mixology bar. With a menu boasting everything from single malt scotch to absinthe, the quiet barroom offers up a dizzying, seasonally changing array of choices. It’s no surprise then that Bar Manager Melody Faraday struggles to choose one drink to call the bar’s “signature.” However, visitors can be sure that any time they park themselves at the Inn’s lengthy bar, the Wax Poetic will be at the top of their cocktail list. It’s a mix of gin, house-made limoncello, Cynar — a bitter, artichoke-based Italian liqueur — and house-made herbs de Provence tincture. The result is a floral yet bittersweet drink, bursting with herbal flavors including lavender and almond. Faraday attributes this herbal palate to Argos’ herb tinctures.
“The herbs de Provence tincture is really quite herbaceous, and very high alcohol,” Faraday said.
As the globular hunk of ice shrinks, the Wax Poetic opens up, its bitter notes calming its herbal notes to stand out more. There’s plenty to taste in the Wax Poetic, though it all feels quite balanced, something Faraday said she appreciates.
“It’s a very culinary drink. … It’s full in the mouth,” Faraday said. “It has sugar, but it doesn’t confuse the palate, or the dryness of the gin, or the tincture.”
The Gem — Mercato Bar & Kitchen, 108 North Aurora Street
With its bar lined with shimmering shakers, it’s not hard to tell that Mercato serves its fair share of cocktails. Pair that with the many liqueurs, scotches, gins and other spirits that line the bar’s far wall, and it becomes clear: Drinkers have plenty to enjoy once they take a seat at the restaurant’s lengthy wood bar. Ask bartender Manny Flores where to start on the menu, however, and he’ll whip up the Gem, a bourbon-spiked take on the classic sour. Mixing smoky Woodford Reserve Bourbon with the honey-flavored Barenjager, the drink is a tangy and smooth cocktail that grows as its single ice cube melts. The bourbon takes center stage, giving drinkers a mouthful of warm whisky flavor. Flores said while every cocktail has its moment, the Gem is perfect for winter drinkers who have a taste for bourbon.
“Sometimes it’s the perfect moment for a negroni, and sometimes it’s the perfect moment for a Bee’s Knees,” Flores said. “The Gem is for when you just walked in, in the middle of the winter and you kind of wish it wasn’t. You want something refreshing, and you want bourbon.”
The London — Felicia’s Atomic Lounge, 508 West State Street
If bars were laboratories, Felicia’s Atomic Lounge could be the home of a mad scientist. Known for both its cocktails and its cupcakes, Felicia’s has taken some more unorthodox approaches to the mixology realm, departing from branded alcohols to infuse their own spirits with anything from figs to cucumber. As a result, the bar may feature some of the more zany libations in the Ithaca area. With over 15 to try, drinkers may be scratching their heads over exactly where to begin. Bartender Katie Stone’s preference is the London, which pairs Earl Grey–infused gin with lemon juice and simple syrup. Garnished with a thick slice of lemon, the resulting cocktail is an airy, pink concoction that proudly boasts its tea infusion while maintaining the gin’s strong floral flavor. Stone said the London stands out for its originality.
“I haven’t tasted anything else like it in town, and I really like the Earl Grey tea,” Stone said. “I think it’s a nice blend.”
Oaxaca Old Fashioned — Madeline’s Restaurant, 215 East State Street
If visitors were to count each of the bottles that fill the towering shelves of Madeline’s Restaurant’s bar, they’d likely be counting until last call. Underneath the eatery’s yellow awning is a wide-spanning collection of single malt scotch, tequila and more. While the bartenders at Madeline’s may be able to whip up any newfangled cocktail with this high-proof arsenal, barman Andrew Kerr prefers the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, a modern take on the classic Old Fashioned cocktail, borrowed from New York City’s famous Death & Company. Pairing smoky mezcal with tequila, agave syrup and angostura bitters, this copper-colored drink is a clean and hearty delight to sip on. To top it off, the drink is garnished with a flamed orange zest, which Kerr said adds to its overall flavor.
“What is actually happening with the match and fire there is that the oil that squeezed out of the peel is caramelized,” Kerr said. “It adds a little bit of extra flavor to it.”