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It’s a little past 1 a.m. I find myself at the Harbor Inn, one of Cleveland’s oldest bars. This ancient dive is one of the grimiest tap rooms in the city, in all the right ways.
The floors creak as you walk in and there are liquor bottles on the back bar that have been open since the Reagan administration. Bottles of cheap beer and shot glasses sullied with Fireball and Jameson clutter up the gouged plank of wood between us and the staff; “us” being the remnants from the United States Bartender’s Guild Cleveland chapter meeting from earlier in the night. Among us is one Charles Joly, acclaimed Chicago-bred bartender, who recently became the first American to win the Diageo International World Class competition. After beating out the other 48 esteemed drink-slingers, he was named 2014’s best bartender in the world. He’s got a High Life in his hand, a laid back demeanor, and seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself.
About six hours earlier, I’m waiting in the back of the Velvet Tango Room, one of the swankiest bars in the city. I’m a half hour early and slightly anxious, being a new bartender. As I watch, Joly sets up his personal bag of bartender’s tools—shakers, jiggers, bar spoons, mixing glasses and the like, which he meticulously arranges on the bar. These tools won’t leave his side for the rest of the night.
The number of suits in the room is startling, and the highfalutin atmosphere in the back room makes me regret wearing flannel, even if it was my nicest one. Thankfully, as the crowd grows, diversity visibly manifests in the form of t-shirts, Hawaiian button ups, bow ties, and more flannel. As Joly’s handmade punch begins to set in, the conversations in the room become just as eclectic as the people having them. Discussions range from the value of making your own ginger beer to whether glass on tin shakers are better than tin on tin shakers, and the most heated—which characters from the Star Wars expanded universe are their favorites. Wedge Antilles is a front-runner.
Regardless of the conversation, excitement permeates every word—excitement to see a master craftsman perform, to discover what makes him the best of the best. Tonight, Joly is tending bar for the harshest critics in the city, a jury of his peers, and he’s killing it. He’s got the hands of a dexterous gorilla, stirring two cocktails in one hand while shaking a third with the other. And he’s exactly the right amount of jerk. In an offhand response to a question about his punch, he replies, “there’s nothing sweet about me, and that shows up in the drinks.” Charmingly gruff.
After an hour or two of mixing drinks and rubbing shoulders with Cleveland’s craft cocktail crowd, Joly gives us a brief pitch on his signature product, Crafthouse, a line of pre-made cocktails which only recently became available in Cleveland and Columbus. Current Crafthouse offerings include the vodka-based classic Moscow Mule, the Paloma, inspired by the most popular tequila-based cocktail in Mexico, and Southside, a gin mix with a citrus twist. These flavors are designed for both seasoned cocktail lovers and newcomers to the scene. After the pitch Joly finally escapes from behind the stick and joins the crowd that was clamoring for his drinks just moments earlier. It’s not long before he wants to abandon the high-class atmosphere of VTR and find a new place to enjoy himself.
The dwindling crowd finds its way a few blocks over to Porco, a tiki lounge on West 25th. It quickly becomes clear that those of us left have stopped considering this a business function, as the first order of business at the new locale is consuming a scorpion bowl. If you aren’t familiar, this particular order entails a vat of boozy cocktail with a flaming shot in the middle. The challenge: everyone grab a straw and race with your cohorts to finish the bowl as quickly as possible. Joly performs like the seasoned veteran he is.
The crew at Porco serves up nachos and sliders and their infamous tiki cocktails. They cater with grace and ease as we ravenously consume it all. As the stress of the evening’s performance wanes, Joly and the surrounding company let loose. All pretense of “world’s top bartender” fades into that of a grateful guest. After being introduced to Joly as “a writer for Pressure Magazine” he quickly remarks, “no quotes after 10 p.m.,” which is a sentiment I can appreciate. After a stressful night of bartending and a couple drinks, it’s hard to disagree.
After an hour or so at the lounge, the decision is made: time for another change of venue. Which is how we end up at our final stop, the Harbor Inn. So there we are, a group of solely bartenders, some of the best in Cleveland—and the best in the world—drinking swill, playing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on the jukebox, hollering and bitching, and developing a sense of camaraderie.
The common thread among these Barchitects, Master Mixologists, and Cocktail Chemists, and the reason for their success, is passion. They love to drink, mix, and share their craft with others, and this night was a shining, filthy example. These are some of the most studied purveyors of alcohol, combining bizarre ingredients to create unique drinks that few people could ever conceive. They blur the line between your favorite inebriating pastime and finely tuned drinkable art. But for most of us, I’ve discovered it started small, with cheap liquor and even cheaper beer. And like Joly, who’s been honing his skills for twenty years, these mixers’ palates have grown and expanded, but I haven’t met one yet who would turn down a Budweiser or a shot of Powers. And why would they? In order to mix incredible drinks you have to be willing to drink everything—and god damn it, we’re working on it.