“Bagpipe Mariachi — $9” reads the crisp, watermarked paper atop the long, L-shaped zinc bar.
Espolón Silver, apple-fennel shrub, lemon, sugar, celery bitters, Laphroaig.
The Mariachi starts out almost like a mild margarita and finishes with a smoky taste of Scotland. Two ice cubes lightly bounce, floating at the surface of the tawny drink.
Behind the bar, the brick wall opens to large pane glass windows that looks down to The Commons. No more than two blocks away, college students are just beginning to descend downtown for Thursday drink specials at their regular dives. But here, neon fishbowls and $2 draughts in plastic cups are nowhere in sight.
At Bar Argos, collared shirts are accompanied by ties. On stage, a three-man band plays fusion blues and world music; driving, but mellow. The area between the stage and the bar is crowded, but not uncomfortably so.
The front of the menu, printed in ornate typeface, is divided into two columns: “Historic Preservation” on the left and “The Local Talent” on the right. Next to each drink name is a small circle — open, half-filled or completely shaded in — explained at the bottom of the page by “Mel’s Scale of Weirdness,” ranging from “Colloquial” to “Delightfully Unusual” to “What?!” A footnote at the bottom of the menu reads: “B.A. (bē-ā) adj. Bar Argos. Denotes in-house ingredient. One of a kind, top-notch delicious.”
The “Historic Preservation” section mainly features bar manager Melody’s twists on traditional Prohibition Era cocktails. “The Local Talent,” however, includes the “delightfully unusual” Vespertine, (Tito’s vodka, cucumber-firecracker pepper shrub, Kina L’Avion D’Or), which Mel notes often takes new cocktail drinkers simply looking for a vodka drink off guard, or the simpler, yet still eclectic, Sloop John B (Mt. Gay Eclipse rum, B.A. pear-chai shrub).
At the far corner of the bar, two male Cornell University graduate students, dressed smart casual, with aspirations toward semi-formal, examine the menu, musing about the potential price of two glasses of whisky.
“At least $20.”
The two settle on a particular Japanese whisky, which Mel remarks has been popular tonight, ordering “two doubles on the rocks,” and one hands over his credit card before Mel even finishes saying the price. Cards, not cash, are the generally preferred method of payment.
After pouring the drinks, Melody places the whisky bottle on the shelf mounted behind the bar, rejoining the extensive assortment of other eclectic bottles: Ramazzotti, Bulleit, Old Raj. Below the top shelf are rows of mason jars filled with craft ingredients: bitters, shrubs and tinctures, all homemade with seasonal fruits and local produce.
There is no bottom shelf.
“Does it make you want to have a second sip?”
“I… yeah, I guess.”
“Well, good!” replies Autumn, as she, Mel and Max experiment with new drink recipes one early afternoon. As the newest entrant into their craft cocktail culture, I provide whatever unsophisticated feedback I can to any samples that slide my way.
“It’s like having an hors d’oeuvre,” Autumn continues. “In French cooking, an hors d’oeuvre is one and a half bites. You can eat it while you’re standing, and you don’t need a napkin. You have one bite and it makes you want to have just another. And then you have that second, last bite and your palate experience is over, for that part.
“It’s about savoring each sip, rather than, like, getting wasted.”
Any reference to “drunkenness” carries with it almost a half-glance downtown, which garners the most — intoxicated — volume during late nights.
Daylight streams inward through the windows, splashing across the bar and the editions of The New Yorker and Architectural Digest on the lobby coffee table, as the barstools slowly fill with an after-work crowd.
Sitting at the center of the counter, a woman with reading glasses and short, gray hair holds the bar menu with an older friend quietly sitting next to her. They’ve been looking at the menu for some time. Mel notices and transforms from drink maker to drink consultant.
“How can I help you two? Is there anything you’re looking for in particular?”
The woman with the menu looks up and smiles, blissfully perplexed, a bit beleaguered by the menu’s eccentrics.
“Ummm, well, something not sweet, but, I think, citrus oriented. The Vespertine looks interesting. You make it with cucumber-firecracker pepper shrub? Is that an infusion?”
“Are you familiar with shrubbing?” Mel asks, diving into a history of the process of shrubbing, used before refrigeration by fermenting fruit with vinegar, sugar and often alcohol into a syrupy, acidulated beverage, preserving fruits long past their shelf life. With a sweet and tart taste, usually mixed with cool water, shrubs, which date back to colonial times, were said to stimulate appetite, an original American aperitif.
“Wow, I feel so uninformed,” the woman responds, chuckling.
“No, no, no please don’t!”
Almost over-concerned about not projecting Argos as a stereotypically pretentious cocktail lounge, Mel moves back to the menu to find these women a drink.
“I’m gonna ask you about one more…”
Mel’s cocktail lessons have sparked the woman’s curiosity, and rather than making a decision, she continues querying the menu. Mel enthusiastically obliges.
“I think I’m going to go with the one that most pops out, which I think is The Vespertine, just because it is totally different.”
“It is totally different!” Mel says about their recreation of the vodka, gin and aperitif wine cocktail The Vesper. The Vespertine, however, combines the aforementioned cucumber-firecracker pepper shrub. “But not in a bad way!”
“Well I don’t think that you can make a bad drink. You guys are doing some really interesting things.”
Lounge chairs replace the area where the live band performs Thursday nights. Two young mothers sit in the corner, accompanied by their two toddlers and two “Springtime in Vienna” drinks resting on the shared end table. Served in a champagne glass, the tangerine-colored drink contains Old Raj, Aperol, Ginger liqueur, B.A. cranberry bitters, grapefruit, prosecco.
Just as important as the blend of drink ingredients is the mix of individuals behind the bar. Central to imparting the atmosphere was the deliberate and specific assembly of the bar staff. Autumn developed a close familiarity with the local tastes working in Ithaca for 14 years, and Max, also born and raised locally, provides the bar with a close acquaintance to local drink ingredients, wines and ciders. Mel, whose official title is Bar Manager, offers her experience working eight years within Portland’s vibrant and experimental cocktail–lounge culture.
This crew worked together from August up to the bar’s opening in January, crafting a balanced menu that would engage yet challenge local tastes. For Mel, pushing forward the cocktail culture in Ithaca had been a years-long ambition.
“I was spoiled in Portland,” she said. “There was a clear divide between your dive bars and your cocktail lounges. Here there are restaurants that appear upscale, but there may not be that level of knowledge.” It wasn’t until more than a year ago that she found what she was looking for.
It was another dreary February night in Ithaca, and Mel was tired. Tired from a night working for the past few months at The Height’s Cafe and Grill on the outskirts of town. Tired of another draining, Siberian upstate New York winter, having recently moved from Portland with her boyfriend. And tired of looking for a real cocktail in this small town. She needed a drink.
If there was anyone who had caught a “case of the Mondays,” it was Mel, and doubt had spread through all parts of her mind. She wondered if she would ever enjoy living in Ithaca. It seemed so far behind Portland, in terms of culture and cuisine. The food was OK. The local beers and wineries were “decent.” But the cocktails were lacking.
Her job at The Heights had reinforced this notion, as well as her uncertainty over her decision to come back to the East, after growing up in Buffalo. She had spent several months trying to redo their cocktail menu, which had featured gems like “The Key Lime Martini” and “The Purple Haze.” With drinks like these, who needs dessert? More confounding was the volume of people that consumed these heavily sugared, calorie-laden “vodka nightmares.”
She remembered the craft drinks of Portland and, a favorite, the Vieux Carre. The French Quarter inspired whiskey and cognac concoction was perhaps the only remedy for her malaise.
“So smooth, so potent, yet I couldn’t find a spot in Ithaca housing both the know-how and the ingredients.”
Her roommate and old friend from Portland, who had recently moved back from Europe, had begun working as a chef at a restaurant called Mercato. He had sung the praises of its bartender, Manny, and his cocktail prowess. Mel, again, was doubtful.
She found a piece of paper and wrote down the Vieux Carre recipe: ¾ ounces Rye whiskey, ¾ ounces Cognac, ¾ ounces sweet vermouth, one teaspoon Benedictine, 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters, 2 dashes angostura bitters. She folded up the recipe, put it in her pocket and began down the hill. Mercato was the “last port in the storm;” Mel, a struggling ship.
Arriving at Mercato — a narrow Italian restaurant nestled between two larger, older American bar and grilles on The Commons — Mel hung her coat on the hooks just inside the door and took a seat on one of the stools lining the intimate bar counter.
Settling into the scene, Mel’s gaze fell upon a well-appointed bar, stocked with varieties of amaros, dark viscous spirits, fresh fruit juices and more than just one type of bitters.
“I began to swoon.”
Soon after, Manny approached her while hand polishing a glass with a microfiber towel — a sign of true care and consideration among professionals. Subtly fashioning a black, long-sleeve shirt, black pants, black apron and black short, curly hair that descended into a full beard, Manny poured Mel a glass of water and slid her a menu. Mel gently slid it back toward him.
“Seems you know what you’d like already.”
Gripping the handwritten recipe inside her pocket, Mel asked coyly, “Can you make me a Vieux Carre?”
Without hesitation Manny grabbed a glass.
“You know what it is?”
“Of course, it’s on the menu. I better know what it is.”
In her haste, expecting to be disappointed, Mel had overlooked the off-white menu. Relieved and amused, Mel relaxed, having finally found her spot. Her drink arrived. Mel “took it in like medicine.”
Like Mel, Manny also imported his craft from outside of Ithaca. While growing up in New York City, Manny’s father worked at the Windows on the World restaurant atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center. After studying history at Cornell and working at local Ithaca restaurants, Manny moved back to the city after college to work in the hospitality business — including the Gramercy Tavern, arguably the most acclaimed venue in Manhattan.
Two years ago, after returning to Ithaca, he began working at Mercato, contributing to the restaurant’s cultured reputation and developing a devoted following of regular Monday night customers of his own.
“We’re just gonna focus on the one thing and do it really, really well every day. You’ll notice at Mercato, the pastas are made by hand, fresh, every day,” says Manny nodding toward the kitchen, which is viewable from my barstool, as well as from most angles within the restaurants. The chefs have nothing to hide.
“All too often, you go into a restaurant and they’re trying to please everyone,” he continues. “If you do a little bit of everything, you’re not going to master each of these things. Instead, just bring an integrity to a few things to make your specialty.”
“We’re using the old principles and building on them,” says Manny, while pulling out a mixing glass from the wooden bar, after I asked what drink would be most representative of Mercato’s craft.
“So you start with sugar cubes,” Manny speaks softly but with energy, dropping the cubes into the Yarai mixing glass. “And this is an older way of making the Old Fashioned.”
Manny reaches back and lifts a burgundy bottle off the shelf behind the bar.
“We’re using Trinidadian bitters — though angostura bitters are the most common — and orange bitters.”
He first pours a few dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, a gentian-based liquid from New Orleans, over the sugar cubes. And then, a few dashes of the orange bitters — made by Fee Brothers, a 150-year-old company based in Rochester, N.Y. Manny begins lightly mashing the bitters and sugar in the bottom of the glass with a muddler using the handle end to mush together the ingredients.
At this moment, Manny measures out about two ounces of Rittenhouse rye whiskey in a silver, metal jigger, adding the 100-proof spirit to the sugar and bitters combination. Alternatively, bourbon or Canadian whiskey can be used in an Old Fashioned. But Manny favors using the rich, woody Rittenhouse taste.
“I got into a little debate a while back with a professor here who came into the bar and was like, ‘So how did this European idea get spread around?’” he goes on.
“And I was like, ‘I don’t understand what you mean.’ And he was like, ‘Well cocktails, they’re very European. Surely they got started in Paris or London or something.’ I was like, ‘I have to correct you there. If you go to Europe, whether it’s in France or Italy, most of these places would be horrified that you’re mixing and blending their product. To them, it’s very important that vermouth or Benedictine is just kept pure.’”
The affinity for history that originally brought Manny to Ithaca clearly lives on inside of him.
With that, Manny strains the drink into an Old Fashioned glass — a short tumbler with a wide brim and thick base — places a single extra large ice cube into the middle, filling the entire center of the glass. Manny then takes an orange peel, bending, twisting and massaging it with his hands delicately above the drink to get the zest out and then does the same with a lemon peel, rimming them both on the glass and laying them crosswise over the ice.
Manny then, in a humble finale, places the drink on a coaster and slides it over to me. The Old Fashioned. The most simple, model cocktail. But also a delicate, 10 minute process; an engaging conversation; and a history lesson.
A few weeks after just my second visit to Mercato, I was walking through The Commons on a Saturday afternoon and passed Manny.
“Nik?! How are things going, man?”
For more narrative pieces like this, read Lit, The Ithacan’s narrative non-fiction magazine.