The craft cocktail food prowl marked a lot of firsts.
It was the first time a team was still deliberating the finer merits of amaro at 2:12 a.m.
It was the first time that the most accomplished sommelier in the state of Nebraska found himself sipping a hot chocolate cocktail topped with whipped cream.
It was the first time we had to meet in the bright light of morning, over coffee, to hash out our winner after imbibing at 15 bars all over town.
And it also marks the first time in Omaha’s recent history that a cocktail enthusiast can find enough bars and restaurants that have adopted craft programs to make a prowl like this one possible. Omaha has some seriously talented bartenders who are willing to give you an experience, if you want it.
Like any prowl, the team — me; World-Herald columnist and professional dining partner Matthew Hansen; advanced-level sommelier and manager of V. Mertz Matt Brown; and scotch and whiskey expert Dan Crowell — found mixed results among the stops. But the best of the best, the ones I’ll detail for you now, are serving cocktails wonderfully prepared that also happen to be creative and often eye-opening in atmospheres both casual and high-end.
One judge called our winner “a laboratory for drinking.” If that’s your thing, keep reading.
We decided at the outset of the prowl that we’d stick to menu cocktails, with one exception: We wanted to give bartenders at each stop the chance to shine. Dan suggested we come up with a “dealer’s choice” wherein we’d suggest a spirit and let the rest of the decisions come from behind the bar. The moments we put our fates in the hands of bartenders around Omaha delivered some of the best drinks we sipped.
Take, for instance, the sherry cocktail I asked for at Lot 2. Bartender Terrence Dougherty brought out a super smooth drink with Oloroso sherry, rye, averna amaro and coffee liquor. Called the Tropic of Sherry, the drink is balanced but nutty, smooth and warm.
“Dangerously smooth,” Dan said.
At Midtown Crossing’s Grane, Matt chatted first with the server and then directly with the bartender, who came out to ask him more questions about the amaro-based drink he’d asked for. Once it arrived, it was perfectly in tune with the bitter booziness he sought.
“She went to the intense area,” he said of bartender Joan Percival.
The drink, made with gin, amaro dell’erborista, rye and Bitterman’s tiki bitters with an orange twist, lacked acidity or sweetness — but that’s just what Matt wanted.
“It’s as digestif as it gets,” he said.
At Trio, a newly opened west Omaha cocktail spot, Dan had a lovely variation on the herbaceous, Chartreuse-forward Last Word cocktail. And at Herbe Sainte in Aksarben, Matt got a lesser-known New Orleans classic, the La Louisiane, made with absinthe, rye, Benedictine, sweet vermouth and bitters — a fun choice considering the spot’s Nola focus. Both times, bartenders described the drinks tableside.
Things got even more creative once we hit downtown Omaha. For better or worse, depending on where you live, the city’s craft scene has an east-of-16th-Street focus.
The drink menu at Mercury is no-holds-barred creative, a contrast to its comfortable, casual-chic atmosphere created by owners Clark Ross, Sara Mellor and Colin Breen. (Worth noting: Ross also won another food prowl, for the city’s best Old Fashioned cocktail.)
“There’s a chance that you will get a drink at Mercury that you don’t like,” Dan said. “But there’s also a better chance that you will get something that makes you think differently about drinking.”
We like its focus on challenging, sometimes out-there cocktails loaded with whimsy, including the Zombie Mountain, a blend of Campari, grapefruit, lime and demerara simple syrup. A line after the description reads, “This is your god now.” Fun. Not too serious.
“At this moment, is this the best place? Debatable,” Matt said. “Will it be the best in a few years? Most likely.”
Matthew, in the end, leveled his vote for Mercury.
“There are just so many high-end, creative, cool drinks that you wouldn’t find anywhere else,” he said.
We found another young, talented bartender in Alec Candelaria, who gave us a one-of-a-kind experience at the Boiler Room’s bar. He said he was in the process of transitioning the drink menu to a new list, so instead of letting us choose from an old list, he started, off the cuff, mixing us drinks. They were all original. The highlight might have been Dan’s dealer’s choice drink, a Stingray made with peaty scotch and Branca Menta, a minty fernet variation.
“Oh, my Lord,” Dan said after a sip. “I love that.”
Detail for detail, the Boiler Room ticked boxes: Each drink came served in a different cut vintage glass. We saw one of the prettiest garnishes anywhere in town, a long twirl of orange peel strung horizontally over the top of a coupe glass, a curled citrus clothesline. And each drink that Candelaria confidently pushed toward us had excellent balance.
“Each aspect enhances the other,” Dan said. “It’s getting better and better.”
The personalized experience at the Boiler Room, along with the opportunity to chat with the bartender about his craft, earned it my vote. Through the years, the Boiler Room’s bar has been the spot where I’ve learned the most about cocktails; if the prowl experience was any indication, it will remain that way.
Still, there is one big difference between the Boiler Room and our last stop, and our winner, The Berry and Rye.
The former is a restaurant with a great bar nestled inside. The latter is devoted solely to the creation of drinks; it’s the cocktail lab that dreams are made of. Its menu is much larger, and it has room to be both traditional at moments and off-the-charts experimental at others. We saw it fill both roles in one night.
Bartender Luke Edson created another favorite dealer’s choice, Matthew’s earthy-smoky-spicy cocktail with house ginger syrup, ginger liquor, mezcal and lemon juice prettily garnished with a sharp fan of fresh ginger stuck through with a metal pick. Of the mezcal dealer’s choice drinks he ordered, it easily was the best.
Matt’s Ghost Story, made with marshmallow cream, cacao caramel and graham cracker-infused oat whiskey played with the flavors of childhood; Dan’s pear-forward, perfect-for-fall Heir Apparent was made with Chardonnay pear syrup, brandy and malic acid; and my sour but balanced Peaches en Regalia had Oloroso sherry, spiced honey, bourbon and a sour peach reduction.
“They are operating at an exceptionally high level,” Dan said. Matt agreed, and both voted for the bar.
“The Berry and Rye gives you the most opportunity for a great experience,” Matt said. “You can lose yourself in the menu.”
The Berry & Rye, 1105 Howard St., 402-613-1331
Blackstone Social, 3910 Farnam St., 402-260-7900
The Boiler Room, 1110 Jones St., 402-916-9274
Grane, 120 S. 31st Ave., 402-934-5727
The Grey Plume, 220 S. 31st Ave., 402-763-4447
Herbe Sainte, 1934 S. 67th St., 402-913-2396
Jake’s Cigars & Spirits, 6206 Maple St., 402-934-9633
Krug Park, 6205 Maple St., 402-932-0038
Laka Lono Rum Club, 1204 Howard St.
Lot 2, 6207 Maple St., 402-504-4200
Wicked Rabbit, 1508 Harney St.
Mercury, 329 S. 16th St., 402-922-4222
Nite Owl, 3902 Farnam St., 402-991-6767
Pageturners Lounge, 5004 Dodge St., 402-933-3973
Trio Cocktails and Company, 1150 Sterling Ridge Dr., 402-991-6444
Matthew Hansen, World-Herald columnist