Some will argue that Cleveland is a beer town, and it's hard to disagree. Yet when Lorenzo Carter, your city's first permanent settler, puts down stakes (along with a trading post and tavern) in a place destined to become Whiskey Island, your lineage with rye runs deep.
While we often raise a glass to Great Lakes Brewing Co. for starting our craft beer craze in 1988, not enough is made of a little bar called the Velvet Tango Room that opened its doors in 1996 in a tucked-away corner of Duck Island, about a mile from Carter's original spot.
A cocktail lounge with old-school drinks, it became the place to go for high-end classics in the kind of atmosphere that would make Don Draper feel at home. "All the other bars were doing flavored martinis, and we're doing French 75s," says owner Paulius Nasvytis. "It was already ahead of the curve in a lot of ways."
Just as chefs and developers transformed East Fourth Street from a dingy block of mostly abandoned warehouses to the food and drink hub it is now, our food fetish has evolved. The same care that was appearing on the plate began to be poured into the glass. Craft mattered. Ingredients mattered. Creativity mattered.
"There are things you cannot rush, and a good cocktail is one of them," says Nasvytis, who is cautiously optimistic about the future of high-quality cocktails in Cleveland.
Maybe that's why it's taken so long for others to catch on. But if the rising tide of serious offerings — Portside Distillery rum, bygone bartending at the Spotted Owl or freshly made mixers such as Old City Soda — is any indication, the time to drink in style has finally arrived.
"Quality stands on its own," Nasvytis says.