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Shake it up: Inside the resurgence of craft cocktails

At Buffalo Proper, the bar is the epicenter of the action. Bottles of spirits fill the back wall, with shelves rising so high that bartenders frequently must stand on the bar to grab a bottle. Patrons on the second floor look down at the thirsty revelers below, who gather around while general manager Jon Karel mingles and mixes beverages with names like Killer Bee’s, Sunday Swizzle and Gun Slinger.

Drinks like this — riffs on classic libations made with fresh ingredients, quality spirits and time-tested techniques — would have been an anomaly in Buffalo just five years ago. But today, craft cocktails are back and enjoying a resurgence across the Queen City, as new bars and restaurants open and old standbys update their beverage programs.

“For me, [this trend] is a cool way to connect to history because these kind of cocktails go back so far,” said Kerry Quaile, a bartender at Proper and co-owner of Queen City Shaken & Stirred, the city’s first cocktail supply shop, along with Karel and Zack Mikida. “There was such a change in the ‘50s and ‘60s to stuff that was canned and bottled and tangy, and now we’re going back to the original stuff. It’s the same thing that food is doing right now, going back to slow food and actual ingredients.”

The cocktail movement in Buffalo began at Vera Pizzeria, which opened on Lexington Avenue in 2011 and quickly gained a loyal following. As Vera’s first bar manager, Karel — along with Quaile, Mikida and others behind the stick — helped Vera become synonymous with delicious pre-Prohibition cocktails made from smaller-batch spirits and homemade syrups and bitters.

“We don’t carry any of the bigger brands; we only carry smaller distilleries that interest us,” said Jason Wood, who came on as bar manager in April 2014. “Everyone has had Captain Morgan or Bacardi, so why not have 15 or 20 bourbons that no one has ever had? Each of those bourbons or ryes or vodkas or gins changes the flavor profile of that cocktail, so it’s cool to mess with it. There are endless possibilities.”

Over the past two years, the trend has gained traction all over town. Asked to name other great craft cocktail bars, Wood and Quaile each independently rattle off sizable lists that include Més Que, Lombardo Ristorante, The Black Sheep, Ballyhoo, Hutch’s and Bourbon and Butter.

Tony Rials, beverage director at Bourbon and Butter, spends at least an hour or two in the kitchen every day prepping for his drink menu, which includes ingredients like roasted chestnuts, tomato honey, cherry-steeped agave and fig bitters. That extra effort, he said, makes all the difference.

“I would watch the chefs — the way they prepare delicacies and the attention to detail they have with everything they use,” Rials said of his years in the restaurant industry. “That always seemed really important, and rubbed off on me, so I try to be the same way.”

Rials has been elevating standards since 2012 when he joined Mike A @ the Hotel Lafayette (since rebranded as Bourbon and Butter), and customers have noticed.

“When we first started, we weren’t known as a cocktail bar,” he said. “Now, it’s a pretty awesome evolution to see so many people coming in specifically for what the bar is doing. If you don’t hand them a cocktail list, they get annoyed because that’s what they want to see.”

Karel has noticed a similar shift in his clientele. After leaving Vera, he moved to Rochester for a year to establish the bar program at the Revelry. Last August, he came back to open Buffalo Proper on Franklin Street with his “dream chef,” Edward Forster. When Karel created Proper’s first cocktail menu, he chose ten approachable classics; by the second menu, the increasingly sophisticated tastes of his patrons demanded that Proper expand to 20 more complex cocktails.

“People used to walk into [Vera] and say, ‘I like whiskey. What should I get?’ and I might recommend something like a Sazerac cocktail,” he recalled. “Now, the dialogue goes like this: ‘Good evening. Can I show you a cocktail menu?’ And they might say, ‘How good is your Sazerac?’ They know their drinks now, and they don’t want to know if you know how to make it; they want to know if you make a good one.”

So, what makes a good cocktail? These mixologists all agree that it comes down to balance.

“It’s about balancing those flavors so it’s not too tart or sweet or boozy,” said Wood. “You also want that glass to look amazing with that cocktail in it and the right garnish. You want the aroma of that cocktail to come through. You want it to feel good in their hands. All these different things play a part in the end result of a cocktail.”

If there’s a clear sign of Buffalo’s growing cocktail culture, it has to be Queen City Shaken & Stirred, which opened last August at 1455 Hertel Avenue. The shop caters to bartending novices and seasoned mixologists alike, and stocks everything (except alcohol) one needs to serve a perfect Old Fashioned or Manhattan, including glassware, books, bitters and dozens of tools.

“For people who are starting at home, I always try to steer them toward one package — a typical Boston shaker set, strainer, mixing spoon and the three typical bitters you would need in many drinks,” said Quaile.

“The reception has been fantastic, and I can’t say enough about Hertel Avenue in general. I have never seen such a community of stores.”

In an effort to educate customers, the shop offers free classes on preparing cocktails. Vera also offers monthly classes for $40; each focuses on a particular spirit or cocktail, teaches the history and properties of those drinks and invites participants behind the bar to learn how to make them.

“What’s happening now is that there’s no doubt that if you’re opening up a restaurant or bar, you have to have a cocktail list,” said Rials. “Everybody is moving toward using better ingredients and fresher products, and that will definitely continue. Our guests are too well-informed and well-exposed. They expect a lot out of us — and they deserve to get it.”

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